Young black women are using hair to define their identity

By Sharon “Shay” Tyler

Science Leadership

Syreeta Scott had a hard time growing up in a household where her mother did not know how to maintain natural hair. 

As a result, Scott ended up leaving her corporate America job to become an entrepreneur and her own boss. She found that this new sense of independence was much more exhilarating. 

“I wanted a Jheri curl because I thought it would relieve the pain of all the negative things that I heard,” Scott said in a recent interview. “So I snuck out and got it; my aunt paid for it and when I got home and my mother said, ‘I’m not paying for any activator. So it all falls on you.’ ” 

Syreeta Scott opened Duafe, a black beauty salon in N. Philly a few years ago.

Perhaps Madam CJ Walker, a 19th century African American entrepreneur and philanthropist, was on to something when she successfully developed and marketed cosmetics and hair products for Black women. 

From straightening combs and chemical relaxers to today’s natural hairstyles, generations of Black women have expressed their ethnic identity and beauty. They are embracing styles such as twists, braids, and locs. 

Scott used her upbringing as motivation to become a natural hair expert and opened, Duafe, a beauty salon in North Philadelphia. Every customer who enters the establishment gets personal attention. Scott wants each client to feel comfortable with their kinky curls and see the beauty of their heritage. 

“When people talk about the natural hair care movement, it came out by way of biracial women,” Scott said. “So it was still that same stigma of if you are wearing a certain texture, you aren’t beautiful, you’re not capable.” 

Once deemed unprofessional in the workplace by some, natural hair has become popular among celebrities such as Beyonce and Taraji P. Henson among others.

State laws known as the CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair, make hair discrimination a violation of the law. These laws have helped ease the stigma that has caused some Black girls to experience bullying or harassment in school because of their hairstyles.

And on March 18, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make it a violation of federal civil rights law to discriminate against Black people who wear hairstyles such as locs, twists, cornrows and the likes.

“There are folks in this society who think because your hair is kinky, it is braided, it is in knots or it is not straightened blonde and light brown, that you somehow are not worthy of access,” Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, the lead sponsor of the bill, said during debate on the House floor. “Well, that’s discrimination.”

“People have micro aggressed my hair a lot,” said Skylah Blackwell a 15-year-old freshman at Girls High School. “Mainly, when I wear my Afro, they often say it looks nappy or just not done.”

Many people refuse to use the term “dreadlocks” to refer to the hair style. They say “locs” are nowhere near dreadful.

Several years ago, when Blackwell was in sixth grade, she got her hair styled with an undercut and that boosted her confidence. She believes society has become more inclusive and that has helped her. 

Dreadlocks, or “locs,” have been around for centuries, dating back to Egyptians who first pushed the style around 500 B.C.

Kaya Armstrong an 18- year-old senior at Science Leadership Academy began growing her locs at a young age and was taught to love and embrace her hair.

Kaya Armstrong says she feels confident wearing braids after taking out her “locs.”

“Because I had locs, people would always think that my hair was dirty or not neat because of the miseducation on locs and the way that I maintained them,” said Armstrong. “Locs are a protective hairstyle that assists in hair growth and retention.”

The term “Dreadlocks” was first coined by the British during Colonial times. The British saw Kenyan warriors with the style and thought they were “dreadful” giving them the term.

Many people, such as Armstrong refuse to use the term “dreadlocks” to refer to the hair style. They say locs are nowhere near dreadful.

Armstrong eventually ended up taking out her locs to try a new style, showing the versatility of black hair. “Sometimes I do regret my choice to take my hair out. However, I don’t feel any more or less beautiful, just ordinary, and that’s okay.” 

Scott has a message for young women who may be struggling to find the right way to express themselves through natural hair.

“What I will say to younger women is what I will say to my younger self: Be kind to yourself and say it’s okay to question things. …We are brown, we are beautiful. We are power and we are capable. We know we can do things for ourselves.”

One comment

  1. Nicely done, Sharon! Be sure to apply for the Acel Moore Scholarship for Community Journalism through NABJ when you head to college.

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