Experts discuss the politics of hair and identity in Harlem

From left to right: Brittany M. Walker, Diane Da Costa, Adeola Adejobi, Esq.; Derick Monroe, and Ayesha Faines

On Thursday, July 30th, ZNews Africa hosted its first hair and identity event, “We Are Our Hair,” at ImageNation’s Raw Space in Harlem, New York City. The series is a collection of community conversations about topics important to the global African diaspora using hair as the lens.

The panelists at the event included Brittany M. Walker, the editor-in-chief and founder of; Adeola Adejobi, Esq., the managing member of the Avant-Garde Network and co-founder of the Worldview Realty Group; Diane Da Costa, the creative director of the hair salon SimpleeBEAUTIFUL; and Derick Monroe, a freelance Hairstylist who has worked with prestigious magazines such as Essence. The moderator was ZNews Africa Contributor, television journalist and writer, Ayesha Faines.

The topics discussed by the panel ranged from personal hair to the complex nuances of navigating one’s hair in the black community and greater community at large. One of the first themes to emerge was the ability of the current natural hair movement to endure.

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ZNews Africa contributor Ayesha Faines

“It’s definitely not a fad or a trend. This is a movement that has been here since the sixties, the blackout movement started all of this,” said Da Costa. “Now this millennium movement, I call it the curly revolution, what we’re in right now, is only going to get bigger and expand more than anything. London, Paris, Japan, and Africa are all embracing natural hair and you’ll see more and more. It’s really moving fast.”

Da Costa also talked about necessity for education and research in caring for natural hair. Though she advocated for patronizing natural hair salons, she acknowledged that they are not accessible for everyone in every location.

“Of course in the major cities, there are so many stylists that specialize in natural hair; however, across the country there are not as many who specialize and can do natural hair, expertly,” Da Costa said. “You have to go on and google things to research it.”

Monroe also discussed the lack of education even within the general cosmetology community.

“When I look back on my cosmetology experience, you’re whole discussion in ethnic hair is the relaxation process. It’s never been that this type of hair texture needs moisture, or it needs this. Or that these type of hair products work well, etc.” he said.

“Do you see a problem in the way the media glorifies black female features including our hair as long as they’re not attached to a black female?”

Walker said that the media was at fault and referred to this problem as an “illness” in America.

“Serena Williams has been in the media for quite a bit, ever since she started her career. And the demonization of a beautiful black woman like Serena Williams is disgusting, and it comes from the media. These are the ways people continue to perpetuate these stereotypes discussed about black people,” Walker said. “But you go in the media and you see Kylie Jenner or whomever injecting their lips or the hair or whatever is the case to look like us. Of course I have a problem with that. That’s the illness in America.”

The discussion also touched on the perceptions of class and its relationship to hair texture or hair styling.

“Even though we have this natural hair explosion, we still haven’t been able to divorce it from colorism,” said Faines. “We still have to deal with good hair politics even though we are in a natural hair revolution.

Adejobi shared her own experience with good hair politics telling an anecdote in which a man on the subway told her that she had “good hair” meaning to pay her a compliment, even though she was offended.

“The hair that God gave me is the best hair,” said Adejobi. “People make assumptions and judgments within our own community about you just based on your hair, and it’s very superficial.”

Adejobi also spoke about her experience with hair politics in interviewing for jobs as a lawyer. Though her own hair was relaxed at that time, she said that many of her friends felt conflicted.

“People that had their hair natural, they were very concerned about how their appearance would affect their opportunities to get into a firm,” Adejobi said.

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Audience member eagerl to join the discussion

An audience member raised a question concerning segregation within the natural hair community, where some might consider those who wear a weave or have braids with natural hair underneath, to not be truly natural. Monroe jokingly referred to the more extreme natural hair advocates as “natural hair thugs.”

“When people come out of relaxing, when they come to the self-discovery that, ‘I kind of like my hair the way it is;’ it sort of bothers them to see other people don’t have that same outlook,” Monroe said. “That’s where that divide comes from. It becomes kind of militant and you end up turning people off or coming off as aggressive to people.

Walker emphasized that health is a very important aspect of hair care.

“At the end of the day it’s really about what’s going on with you, and it’s about your health,” Walker said. “You decided not to put chemicals in our hair because it’s unhealthy for us and unhealthy for our bodies.

“We Are Our Hair“ was held at RAW Space, via the ImageNation Cinema Foundation, a media arts group dedicated to highlighting progressive media by and for people color based in Harlem. The foundation bought RAW Space with the intention of converting it into a cinema cafe to provide Harlem with a venue for appreciating black independent films, music, and other culture. ImageNation is currently raising the funds to turn Raw Space into Soul Cinema through the #iLoveSoulCinema fundraiser.


Danielle Smith is a senior at Columbia University studying English and History. She is currently the head of the news department at WKCR 89.9 FM NY and a freelance contributor to various news organizations. You can reach her on Twitter at @daniellesmithny.

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