Embracing the hair I always wanted took confronting society’s rigid expectations for Black men.
The clippers jolted to life, buzzing like a swarm of bees, waiting to shred through my short afro. “Hey, P, it’s time to cut them naps,” my brother yelled from the bathroom. Crying profusely, I sauntered to the bathroom, staggering, reluctant to get my hair cut. I plopped onto the chair and peered through salty rivulets of tears as black sheep wool fell from my head. “Why do I always have to get my hair cut?” I asked my brother. “Grandma said,” he replied militantly.
“Because you don’t take care of your hair,” my grandmother interjected, fully aware of her condescending tone. “You just let it grow and do nothin’ with it. It looks terrible, like a bird’s nest.”
“But I want long hair,” I said to her, unable to clear the tears from my eyes or the crack in my voice.
“You ain’t supposed to have long hair,” she coolly replied. “You’re a boy, Jeremy, boys ain’t never had long hair.”
For years, this was the common refrain from my family and from society: Boys — Black boys especially — aren’t supposed to have long hair, because long hair is for girls.‘You’re a boy, Jeremy, boys ain’t never had long hair.’ Click To Tweet
Part of this messaging is rooted in rigid, and damaging, assumptions surrounding gender in general. But White Supremacist culture also plays a significant role, with the White majority dictating what is and is not appropriate for Blacks to do, say, and wear. As a part of this culture, Black men are typically categorized as hyper-masculine and overly aggressive, with media depictions focusing on athleticism, criminality, and little else. As a Black man, you are to be physically adroit, rugged, tall, thuggish, and stoic; anything outside these strict parameters makes you less Black. Because society continues to insist on associating long hair with femininity, this leads to a crude calculation: the longer the hair, the less acceptably Black the man.
Years after my brother and grandma first insisted I get my hair cut, I now wear my hair freely — but it took years to get to that point. And the reason is rooted in some ugly truths about White supremacist culture.
Genetically, most Blacks — men and women alike — have nappy (or kinky) hair that, for the most part, grows upward instead of downward. Because of the “women equal long hair” equation, it’s more acceptable and conventional for Black women to modify their hair in ways that defy genetics, by way of flat irons, perms, weaves, and the like. At the same time, there are significant societal pressures wrapped up in this; under the auspices of White beauty standards, it is considered ugly or unprofessional for a Black woman to wear her natural hair. As such, Black women, while having more options than Black men, typically choose to adopt more White-approved hairstyles — bouncy curls, straight locks, wavy hair, etc. — in order to avoid disparaging and hurtful descriptors.
In August 2016, the Perception Institute did a study on “good hair” and bias toward hair textures. The study showed that “white women show explicit bias toward black women’s textured hair” and that “[white women] rate it less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.” If you walk into any beauty supply store, ethnic hair products — hair products geared toward non-White hair types — are sectioned off, exacerbating the idea that non-White hair is “other” and should be treated as such by being segregated.
As for Black men, if they want to grow their hair long, they only have the option of an afro, with any other alteration or modification either deemed distasteful or looked down upon by both the Black population and the White majority. Because the White majority has an almost Darwinistic approach to what is and is not acceptable in popular culture, Black men, similar to Black women, adhere to the common adage of majority rules.A Perception Institute study found that ‘white women show explicit bias toward black women’s textured hair.’ Click To Tweet
Many expectations surrounding hair and masculinity can be traced back to Black cultural icons. Though disco brought about a style of dress unseen in Black culture, the hairstyles for Black men remained the same: large, neatly picked-out, and very circular afros. The evolution of hip-hop from the Bronx, New York to Los Angeles, California (East Coast vs. West Coast), and the introduction of Gangsta Rap in the mid-1980s, brought about new styles — but these styles were mostly short.
Lesane Parish Crooks (Tupac Shakur) is iconically known for a shaved head. Christopher George Latore Wallace (Biggie Smalls) is iconically known for a low afro. Todd Anthony Shaw (Too Short) is iconically known for a Caesar cut. And so, if you were at all associated with hip-hop and/or were Black during the ’80s and ’90s, you would primarily see afros, low cuts, or shaved heads.
In the late-’80s and through much of the ’90s, the perm became the mainstream hairstyle for Blacks, with the Jheri curl inspiring a shift in styles. The perm was around during the early ’80s as well — sported by Edmund Theodore Sylvers (known for being the lead vocalist in the disco/soul band, The Sylvers) on his 1980 solo record, Have You Heard, and by Michael Jackson on his 1982 record, Thriller — but it took a few years for it to really catch on. By the late ’80s, Black artists from all genres had begun chemically modifying their hair, from DJ Quik and Ice Cube to Ice-T and Snoop Dogg.
The late Eazy-E, former member of N.W.A. who died in 1995 from complications of AIDS, is iconically known for his Compton hat and Jheri curls. And Prince Rogers Nelson (simply Prince) mixed his permed hair styles with an innovative fashion sense that injected a more effeminate taste into the pulse of Black culture.
The hi-top fade — very short hair on the sides and very long hair on top — also became popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s, sported by the likes of Bobby Brown, Vanilla Ice, and Will Smith (any Fresh Prince of Bel Air fans?). This look, though long, played into the “up, not down” parameters of acceptable Black hair. And as Gangsta rap began to fade into obscurity during the late-’90s and early ’00s, so, too, did fluffy, blown-out, chemically modified hair, reverting back to a lot of afros, Cesar cuts, and shaved heads.
As a ’90s baby and a ’00s adolescent incessantly harassed by the short hair propaganda put forth by hair companies like Just For Men and Shea Moisture, I did not accept any of this. Most of the commercials these companies propagated consisted of muscular Black men grinning at the camera, running their hands through their just-washed low cut — something I fervently detested and never coveted. And so, after years of getting my hair cut every two to three weeks, I went behind my Grandmother’s back, like the defiant 13-year-old I was, and asked my sister what I had to do to get her hair. “I have a perm,” she replied, disappointed in my decision.
Just two years earlier, while on a Christmas trip to San Diego to visit family, I was introduced to rock music. While sitting on my uncle’s coffee brown couch, watching hip-hop/rap and R&B music videos on MTV (when MTV, you know, actually played music), my cousin changed the channel to MTV2; blaring, distorted guitar cut through the TV’s speaker and I became enveloped in the noise of Switchfoot’s “Meant To Live.”
That song, those lyrics, penetrated my very soul and rebirthed me, connecting me to emotions I always knew I had but never felt I could display because of the pressures put forth by White supremacist culture. Watching these guys rock out as their hair wisped through the air, I longed for that sense of freedom from cultural and societal pressures. It was at this moment I felt comfortable expressing myself in my most natural way — and the first step to true authenticity was to get long hair.
After appealing to my sister, she ended up putting a relaxer in my hair. It burned after a while, but once the solution was rinsed out, my naps straightened, providing me the luscious locks I always longed for.
My joy, though, was short-lived.
When the upkeep of this hair became too burdensome, I gave up, resigning myself to hair I could barely care about, let alone love. I grew my hair out and deliberately ignored it, refusing to brush it, pick it out, or shape it in any way. (Don’t worry, I still washed and conditioned it.) Dejected and miserable, I chose to hide my mini afro under beanies and hats, begrudgingly accepting my style destiny.
There was, however, another option available to get the long hair I coveted.
Though Jamaica-born reggae artist Bob Marley popularized dreadlocks — or, as they’re sometimes known, “locs” — in the ’70s, the hairstyle has been around for hundreds of years. According to Chimere Faulk, an Atlanta-based natural hair stylist and owner of Dr. Locs in Roswell, Georgia, “Dreadlocks can be traced to just about every civilization in history. No matter the race, you will find a connection to having dreadlocks for spiritual reasons.”
In Judges 16:13 of The Old Testament, Samson, the last of the judges of ancient Israelites, said to Delilah, “If you weave the seven locks of my head with the web and fasten it tight with the pin, then I shall become weak and be like any other man,” evidently purporting that the seven locks he has grants him strength and by stripping these locks, his strength would be stripped, too.
Dreadlocks have a deep association with the Rastafari movement, but it was Marley who brought the hairstyle over to the United States and made swinging locs look alluring. Into the ’80s and ’90s, cultural icons like Alice Walker, Lauryn Hill, Lenny Kravitz, Toni Morrison, and Whoopi Goldberg helped bring the iconically Black hairstyle to the mainstream.
The hyphy movement has since further assisted in cementing the style in pop culture (“shake them dreads,” the E-40 hit “Tell Me When To Go” directs), with many artists in recent years adopting the look. These include Earl Stevens (E-40 himself), Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. (Lil Wayne), Faheem Rashad Najim (T-Pain), and Olubowale Victor Akintimehin (Wale).
Still, like so many aspects of Black culture, the hairstyle has also faced appropriation, derision, and stigmatization over the years. For a long time, I personally couldn’t understand the appeal of having “black worms” grow out of someone’s head. (That’s what I thought they were. I was 12 or 13 years old, leave me alone.) But in my senior year of high school, circa 2011, I did more research into dreadlocks as a way to give me the long hair I’ve always wanted — and, lingering stigma be damned, I realized this was the look for me.
I’ve had dreads ever since, and six years later, they’re frequently worn in a bun because they too often obscure my vision. (Dreadlocks and glasses is a terrible combination, in case you didn’t know.)
Embracing the hair I’ve always wanted has forced me to confront our society’s rigid gender roles. Because of the length of my hair (and my style of dress, consisting of button-ups, polos, skinny jeans, and Vans), I’m often confused for a woman, and I’ve been taunted for daring to defy gender and heteronormative standards. From “f*****” to “gay” to “queer” and everything in between, I’ve been harassed incessantly because of my decision for longer hair.Embracing the hair I’ve always wanted has forced me to confront our society’s rigid gender roles. Click To Tweet
But more and more, I feel a part of something bigger: a push to challenge the roles that have limited Black people for too long. Out of Los Angeles in 2009, Jerkin’ became a dance craze that helped challenge stereotypical Black dress: Associated artists such as Audio Push, the New Boyz, and The Rej3ctz all sported tight-fitting shirts and even tighter-fitting pants. And into the current mainstream, artists continue to confront gender roles by wearing typically effeminate accoutrements: leggings, nail polish, skirts, and the like.
You needn’t look far to see Black people slowly tearing down restrictive gender roles: Jeffery Lamar Williams (Young Thing), on his 2016 mixtape, Jeffery (originally titled No, My Name Is Jeffery), is seen in a light blue faux-dress replete with ruffles and a sun hat. In 2011, Kanye West was seen on stage in a black silk blouse at Coachella. In 2010, Sean John Combs (Diddy) was seen in a black and white kilt while on stage in Glasgow.
In an interview with Nylon magazine back in July 2016, Jaden Smith said, “So, you know, in five years when a kid goes to school wearing a skirt, he won’t get beat up and kids won’t get mad at him. It just doesn’t matter. I’m taking the brunt of it so that later on, my kids and the next generations of kids will all think that certain things are normal that weren’t expected before my time.” And if you remember The Boondocks, the episode titled “The Story of Gangstalicious Part 2,” which aired in 2008, has Riley sporting a skirt to promote his favorite rapper’s new clothing line.
Over time, I’ve learned not to give a damn about gender roles or the insults. There is no doctor dictating that all Black men must keep their hair short. Michael Jackson and Prince and others more newly on the scene are shining examples of challenging the status quo, the accepted normal; they have helped pave the way for Black men to tap into their feminine side. It’s because of them that Black men are more willing to wear their hair as they damn well please — a sentiment I’m happy to embrace.
What’s that saying again? Oh, yeah: long hair, don’t care.