Dear YA: Where Oh Where Is The Love For Black Hair?

Saturday, 15 July 2017


Before you continue I'd like to clarify that I will be using Black and Indigenous interchangeably, because both terms are used to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So Dear YA,

Where oh where, is the love for Black hair? Two years ago, I poured my heart out on an article asking a similar question. It was titled "Where oh Where is the Love For Curly Hair?". I didn't even know if I had the willpower to publish it. To make it easier on my soul, I deleted majority of the article. I took out parts that hurt me as I typed them out and left parts that still stung but were things I had conquered as I'd grown up. It was hard remembering little me who's hair was constantly touched and pulled because it was thick and similar to my mother's kinky hair who inherited it from her own mother. I mean, to this day, this is a weekly occurrence, which I wish would stop. I wrote that article and published it, 2 weeks, 7 hot cocoa's and a whole iZombie season later, hoping it'd allow myself to start loving my hair. It was a way to push myself into beginning my journey of overcoming embarrassment and this self acceptance that my hair was ugly, that I was ugly. The article was my way of giving the bird to those who've hissed despicable words about my hair not knowing those words would linger on from my childhood and affect me now as a teenager. That those words, no matter how many times I'd wash my hair, would never stop clinging to my roots. I wanted those words to disappear, I didn't like how they welcomed themselves home to my body, slowly killing my self esteem. I didn't like how those words ate at my blackness, how they shaped the way that little me would want my hair to look. I hated the way they'd tell me I talked funny too, or how I had a big nose and big eyes. I wanted to change me so I could look like the other kids.

The header image for my first ever discussion post and the 'boneless' version of this article.

The original article, which sadly can't be found anymore ever since the remodelling of the website, received many replies, which I didn't expect. I mean, the article was basically just parts of what I really wanted to say. A "boneless" version of this article, as I would say on twitter. I didn't share the things that hurt the most because I didn't want my stories to scare people off, I wanted to fit in. I wanted these popular book bloggers to listen and also not get bored with my story. I mean, I didn't know any other Black or Indigenous person in the community at the time, so I didn't think anyone would understand. But apparently people could understand where I was coming from because I had replies from all over the world. It was unbelievable, I couldn't grasp at the thought that fellow teenagers could relate and were actually recommending me some books with curly haired main characters, after asking for them. But then the ground was swept from underneath my feet as I realised that each teenager was recommending books with white protagonists with curly hair, nothing close to what I was imagining whilst I was writing. I was thinking about my hair, black hair, and curly hair textures belonging to people of colour, especially to Black people. The responses I received were endless recommendations of white characters with curly and wavy hair and even then, they were very poor takes at 'curly hair' as the recommendations were mostly of characters with "loose curls". This wasn't even close to what I was thinking about whilst writing the article.

The responses to my article had a massive impact on me. Why was there an outpour of recommendations of books to read with only white characters with 'curly' hair? Why was it that white characters were thought of first and not black characters?

So now I'm here again, writing with no cares to give and making it very clear that this article is written for those who know what it's like to sit outside on the veranda whilst your mama sections your hair, braiding it as you complain. This article is for those who get told to sit at the back because their hair is 'too big'. It's for those who get told that they'd look prettier with straight hair. It's for those who have the constant stares and an endless amount of strangers hands in their hair. It's for those who were taught to hate themselves because their hair was never 'neat' or 'soft and silky' like the other kids. It's for those who's arms get tired whilst trying to brush their hair. It's for those who were taught that their blackness should never be something to be proud of and were taught to hide it. This is me making it very clear that this article is for you, us, because two years ago that focus was taken from us and now I'm here to make it crystal clear.

Black hair needs to be embraced in all forms of media and especially in YA Books. I'm tired of the white lens portraying black characters with straight loose hair. For the majority of black people, especially women who are greatly impacted by the westernised standard of how hair should look, this is not the case. Our relationship with our hair is complex and sometimes very tiring to explain. For most of my life and still to this very day, there is a sense of 'shame' attached to my hair. My hair was always hard to brush and maintain. I always went to school with it slicked back into a pony tail. For my high school graduation I even relaxed my hair so I could look like the other girls. But even then, 2 pots of the relaxing product didn't "perm" my hair properly (perm in this case when talking about the effects on kinky hair means to straighten). I've only recently begun embracing my hair but I must confess that there is still a sense of shame attached to it. My hair is still recovering from my perm but I can't wait for it to grow back and transform into my lovely mane again.

"A Reflection of an Island Girl" by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi - Digital Media Art Piece 2017
The world desperately needs books with Black people, especially Black girls, loving their hair and having pride in it. We need to encourage Black girls that there is nothing to be afraid of, that your hair is magic and holds stories from your ancestors. We need to emphasise that Black hair is beautiful in YA because damn, no one else is doing it.

Now I want to discuss descriptors for our hair. First of all stay away from descriptors that you don't know how to use. Some of you have no idea what 'Kinky Hair' even means, or "kitchen" or "baby hairs". Please do your research if you're going to write about kinky hair so you can avoid misusing words. Also don't use animalistic descriptors or descriptors with negative connotations for Black hair. I say this because when non-Black/non-Indigenous people tell me my hair is "X" which holds a negative connotation, it feels like a personal attack, something I should be ashamed of. But when it comes from my people, it has a sense of empowerment and pride behind it. When non-Black/non-Indigenous people use, for example, "mane" as a descriptor in real life, it feels like another contribution to the process of our dehumanisation. See Black people have and still are being compared to animals. I refuse to have my features be described with animalistic descriptors by people who don't have my permission or who have no idea how much weight these words carry. This example may vary for others but for me, I don't like strangers using this descriptor, it feels dehumanising.

Another thing for non-Black and non-Indigenous writers, is that you should never allow characters to randomly touch your characters hair without their permission. See, Black/Indigenous women already have a history of being told that their bodies are not their own. That people are welcome to do whatever they want whenever they please to them. I cringe when people just reach out to touch my hair. I am not a pet for you to touch. Do not treat me as this magical "other" who can be dragged through the dirt. I am magical but I don't deserve to mistreated. Black women don't deserve to be mistreated. I am not some exotic being who will fulfil your wildest dreams. Get your head out the gutter and stop touching my hair. I've had multiple encounters with strangers reaching into my hair and touching it without my permission. Someone once put things in my hair to see if I noticed. How disgusting and disrespectful can you be to amuse yourself by making fun of a Black woman by testing if she can feel what you're doing to her hair? Do you see how invasive it is to place your hands in a strangers' hair? Do you see how disgusting it is to test if it's their real hair? Establish consent for touching one's hair in your book and even allow characters to say no, because they have every damn right to!

My black hair is not for you. You cannot touch it. You cannot cut some off so you can have it. You cannot come to me and mock my hair and expect me to be nice. I will not tolerate it. Black women with kinky hair constantly get remarks about their hair. We get the occasional "Did something surprise/scare you" in reference to our big hair. We also get 'rat's nest' and 'Have you ever lost anything in there?'. There's always the occasional, "How do you ever wash it?" and hisses at "That's if you ever wash it". When I was a kid, someone called me a murderer, because I looked like a character in The Simpsons who had big hair. The character was Side Show Bob; I was 6. I didn't know English that well and I had no Black mentors or friends at this time to explain or protect me. What I took from this experience is that I was bad. To me being bad was the most terrible thing on earth and was a synonym to very evil. I also thought I didn't deserve to have friends and that the only way I could have friends is to have hair like the other girls. I asked my mother to buy those skinny hairbands with the plastic balls at the end that all the other kids were wearing. She said no. Of course she would. To her they were silly hairbands that would definitely break if she tried to tie my hair with them. But to me, they were my tickets into friendships with the other kids... But then I met kids who were like me, Black and Polynesian, and it was them who I depended on in my early schooling years. They didn't know it, but they made me love my roots even more. So allow characters to support one another and stand up for each other when talking about black hair in your books. Let us have a support system when dealing with discrimination and racism against our hair, features and complexion.

There was another incident where a boy took a bite of my ponytail as I lined up to "see what bushy hair tasted like". I was 10; I was confused; I was disgusted. It felt like my body didn't belong to me. Not even my hair. It was as if I had to accept the fact that there was now saliva in my hair and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even push him because there were girls behind him giggling. Imagine being black and always being the butt of a joke. To have your features talked about by kids and being compared to animals. Imagine being called a Gorilla because you "have the nose and hair for it". Now imagine all my Black siblings around the world who are darker than me. Imagine those who aren't fortunate to have fellow Black mentors, teachers, liaison officers or friends in school to tell them and reassure them that they are beautiful. That their hair is beautiful. That their features are beautiful. That their complexion is beautiful. YA books need to express and nurture this self-love for Black girls. We need to be reading books that have Black girls loving themselves, it's so damn important. We desperately want and need that representation in YA! Please provide it!

Also, Black people can also have straight hair, Blonde hair, and different coloured eyes, it's a thing! I have family members with dark skin and blonde hair and others who are brown, green eyed with straight hair. However, when non-Black and non-Indigenous writers depict all their Black characters with straight hair and "light eyes", it becomes this standard for other Black kids to meet. We already live in a colonised country where we're rapidly dying in, being forced to assimilate into a society that was never built for us. Then you let your Black readers know that your beauty standards for them is very Eurocentric. You make it impossible for dark skin teens with 4C hair to ever see themselves as beautiful in your books. Let these teens have the representation they deserve! Allow Black girls to rule the world, let them show you how our ancestors looked after the land and thus looked after us. Or let Black girls be assassins with Afros and killer looks being able to take you out like a fly. Or even better Black girls in space showing you how their magic works! Include us in YA and let us be ourselves and love it.

Our so called 'exotic' features will always be beautiful. I'm tired of living up to a standard that was never meant for me, that never included me and sure a hell doesn't love me. Black beauty is one I admire and adore. Black beauty is something I will always and forever cherish. I love my blackness and yours.

Authors, let your Black characters hair free. Let them be proud of their hair. Let them own their hair and celebrate it. Allow black readers to feel empowered by your characters love of their Black hair. I hope to one day read a book where the black character talks about their hair lovingly. I hope to one day never feel ashamed of my hair. Till then, include more Black women with kinky hair in your books and book covers! We need this representation now more than ever.

So Dear YA, please let Black girls love themselves. Let us love our complexions, our hair, our features, our tongues, our lands and for the love of Beyonce, let us own it.

Sincerely and With Kindness,

2 comments on "Dear YA: Where Oh Where Is The Love For Black Hair?"
  1. I don't normally comment with links to my work without a specific invitation, but since it sounds like this is something you're passionate about, please permit me to point you toward my novel "Inspired", due to re-release this spring = http://deshipley.weebly.com/inspired.html The girl on the cover, Annabelle, is basically me -- (the big hair I had before I started looking for shorter styles and all) -- and I hope that you'll be able to find in her some of the Black hair positivity you crave. :)

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  2. I'm so sorry for all the bullshit :(

    L.L. McKinney on twitter (@ElleOnWords) has been really great on this subject, particularly against white women getting black women with relaxed hair/extensions on covers like She Ignites.
    It's not fair and not right and such a great moment was stolen from black women and turned into a celebration of continuing colorism.

    *hugs* if you want them.

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