By Sukari Jones, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend?/
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?/
I am expressing my creativity...
These are lyrics in a song called "I Am Not My Hair” by American soul and R&B singer–songwriter India Arie. In a nutshell, Arie describes a coming-of-age journey she’s lived through with how she styles her hair. What the song brings up for me and the part I most strongly resonate with is that, as a black woman, I am pre-judged simply based on how I choose to wear my hair. Now I do want to be clear, because I know hair is a big deal for all women, and people make assumptions about all women because of their appearance (hair, outfit, makeup, etc.) as a whole. It’s a thing I believe women unfairly have to deal with more than men. But, I will argue with you that versus every other race of women, when black women pick a hairstyle, we’re not just wearing our hair a certain way, we’re making a political statement. Or so people believe. I further argue that, based on the political statement people assume we’re making, we get treated differently and viewed differently by mainstream America and downtowners alike. In this article, I’m going to talk about my various hairdos and how I feel I’ve been regarded based on my hair.
Speaking for myself, I was not born with corn silk straight hair. Nope, not I. Rather, if my hair were a can in a grocery store of life, it would be squarely stocked in the--dare I say it--mischievously nappy section. It wasn’t just curly. That would be one thing. It was labyrinthine and snaking, it scoffed at detangling shampoos, and the last time I tried to run a wide-tooth comb through it, it slapped my hand away and flipped me the bird. Now, for the first chunk of my life, my answer to my mystifyingly kinky hair was to relax it and go to any Dominican salon so they could blow dry it within an inch of its life. I had attended pretty straight laced schools and I felt my hair helped me “hide” amongst everyone. As the only non-white kid in school from kindergarten through twelfth grade, all I wanted to be was invisible. Styling my hair so straight it could make your back bleed did made me disappear. I felt the perception people had of me was that I was this tame, known quantity; I didn’t scare anyone. It was all I wanted.
Then in college I discovered braids. Being in the little secluded campus of Vassar made wanting a no-fuss hairstyle a must, and that’s all I considered braids to be. However, what I noticed is that people looked at me differently. No longer a preppy, innocuous goody two-shoes, now I was something “exotic.” “Nubian princess” got thrown around a lot by men trying to holla and I got asked a lot where I was from. I feel like braids for me were totally normal, but to others they were decidedly outside of the norm. They made me foreign and peculiar. And suddenly when I walked around in stores, I’d notice I was being watched by salespeople; when I’d go to checkout, people would tell me the price of stuff first, I guess to make sure I could afford it. So all in all, I feel like braids got me treated alternately like a princess or a thief.
A couple years ago, when I got into the Emerging Writers Group and was surrounded by all these cool people, I got the brilliant idea to have my best friend buzz cut my hair bald. The only new reaction I got that was different from having braids is getting asked often if I was a lesbian or from Ghana (specifically Ghana). I decided I’d just grow my hair out and see how it went, and the answer I have is: intriguingly. Turns out, processing my hair all those years, I never knew the real texture of it. It’s actually pretty cool--twists and turns of spiral curls--I kinda like it. But I don’t have time for it, so it’s back in braids, for now.
Where I’m going with this is that not only do I feel like I’m regarded differently as a person based on my hair texture, but I also feel like I’m prejudged as an artist. As a musical theatre writer, at conferences for instance, many times, people have looked at my braids and gone “so are you the reggae musical?” or when I was bald I got a lot of “so how do you navigate doing a hip hop show when it takes so long in the industry to get produced and how do you keep it live” blah blah. People literally just looked me up and down, decided my specialty was such and such, and proceeded to ask me questions about my work based on their own assumptions.
Sukari Jones is an award-winning lyricist, an emerging playwright, and a member of The Public Theater's EWG 2011. Upcoming projects: “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!!!”, Toy Box, and [Zombie Play].
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.