In Wakanda, the techno-brilliant African nation of the Marvel film “Black Panther,” black warrior women don’t wear wigs. Compelled to conceal her shaved head to carry off an undercover mission, General Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, calls her flowing wig “a disgrace” and discards it the instant she draws her spear to battle the bad guys.
The general and her royal guard of female combatants, the Dora Milaje warriors, are among a cast of characters graced with gorgeous natural hairstyles that imbue this film with the visual power of holistic black beauty. The movie weds a Black Nationalist aesthetic to an ethos of global kinship. It projects a resilience that captures the mood of our present moment.
Despite and perhaps because of a surge in white supremacist language in the United States, a wave of black cultural resistance is flooding the arts as well as the streets. And with it, black hair in its natural state of sublime uprightness has returned as a symbol of political consciousness and visionary imagining. The self-assured leading women of “Black Panther” wear their “Wakanda knots,” elaborately interwoven braids, regal snow-white dreadlocks and decorated bald scalps with ease. When I saw these actresses onscreen in the company of my awe-struck children, I felt an exhilarating sense of community pride.
I am a black woman who stopped chemically altering my hair after an inner battle that began in childhood. Like countless other black girls, I once donned a yellow bath towel as a makeshift wig as a child, luxuriously flipping it as if it were real blond hair.
I decided to go natural in 1991, during my junior year in college. It was a difficult choice, and it was possible only in a context of black female friendships and the shared epiphanies of a feminist collective called The Rag. The women on The Rag (yes, we thought we were quite clever) met on the Radcliffe campus to discuss our emerging understandings of feminism, and black feminism in particular. Paramount for us, as in the #MeToo movement now, was the emboldening recognition that we were not alone.
When I stopped straightening my hair — as a way of affirming my worth despite mainstream messages to the contrary — I had the support of an emotional, intellectual and political community. My college roommate, Keiko Morris, and I enacted this ritual together: cutting off tresses made foreign by chemical “beauty” products and choosing how we would relearn what our nappy hair could mean to us.
Keiko, who went on to become a journalist, and I wrote about the experience, as did Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Pearl Cleage, Bell Hooks and the many other black female writers before us who have made hair a recurring theme. Our essay, “The Straight and Narrow,” was published in the book “Testimony,” edited by our college classmate Natasha Tarpley, who would later publish the uplifting children’s picture book “I Love My Hair!” Keiko and I wrote that as young girls, “we saw white women, not ourselves, in the images that America chose to project — we heard family members comment that so and so’s baby had been born with good hair and they ‘hoped it would stay that way.’ ”
Our undergoing the “big chop” disappointed family members and lessened our value in the heterosexual dating market, but we were determined to endure recrimination and rejection, together.
The early 1990s was a long time ago. So much seems to have changed in the decades since I stopped straightening. There is a rich and varied digital discussion of black natural hair care, thanks in part to the early-aughts natural-hair movement, when digital innovators like Curly Nikki (Nikki Walton) and Afrobella (Patrice Yursik) recorded their transition from straightened to natural styles and offered hair care tips to thousands of followers. Chris Rock released the HBO documentary “Good Hair” (2009) and expressed the wish that his daughter would treasure what is inside her head instead of what grows on it.