Is it just a trend? Is it just something that people want to do? Or does it actually mean something? Seniors Laruen McHenry, Jasmine Watkins, Alundra Dickson and freshman Nugget Settles asked these questions when they came up with the idea for their recent Odyssey project, Pardon My Fro, during which they spent time in New York and then Paris, studying the Natural Hair Movement, or Mouvement Nappy as it is called in France, that began during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s.
For many people, hair defines a part of who they are; it’s how they express themselves. The Natural Hair Movement, something these four Hendrix students learned is more than just a trend, began when African American women felt that European beauty standards of straight hair robbed them of their identity.
“Hair can be so much more than hair,” McHenry said. “It can be an attitude change. It can be a spiritual thing. It can be so many things.”
Dickson, McHenry, Settles and Watkins decided to go beyond Hendrix to discover a new perspective of natural hair beyond their local and personal one. They wanted to discover what natural hair means to people in a different country.
“I hoped to learn how it affected other people with natural hair in their day-to-day life and what it personally meant for them to be natural,” Settles said.
“We also wanted to see how natural hair is perceived by other people in those communities,” McHenry said.
Rather than stay at school and only study the movement in the library or classroom, the four learned about the movement through the personal experiences of real people with natural hair.
“What we learned was it is not as big of an issue [in Paris] as you would think,” McHenry said. “Paris is ‘Little Africa.’ You wouldn’t imagine the different hairstyles and the things that are deemed acceptable in Paris.”
For McHenry, Paris provided a more accepting atmosphere in terms of natural hair. In her words, she felt “liberated.” When she returned from Paris, she cut her hair short and has let it grow naturally since. “You shouldn’t be worried about others or how they perceive you,” she said. “It’s all about how you feel. I felt a little self-conscious at first after chopping all my hair off, but I find a freedom in who I am now.”
The Natural Hair Movement became a worldwide phenomenon when it was inspired by the Civil Rights era. “When the Movement first began back in the 60s, it was started as an act of defiance against the Eurocentric idea of beauty,” Watkins said. “It was all about being educated about Black culture and defying what society said we were supposed to be. It was to refuse weaves and relaxers and express that you were educated and knew where you came from. It was all about defining oneself against an oppressive culture.”
Natural hair for Civil Rights leaders stood for more than just fashion.
“A lot of the Civil Rights leaders, they probably wouldn’t call it ‘natural,’ but that’s how they rocked their hair,” McHenry said. “I feel like then, it was a symbol. A symbol of ‘We are black. We are proud.’”
In December, the group traveled to New York to have an United States-oriented view of the movement, which they could then compare to their experience in Paris. They spent time in Brooklyn, Harlem and Manhattan, as well as other areas, to find multiple perspectives and ideas on the diversity of New York. The women were able to see and photograph Angela Davis’ hair in a museum. Even their mode of transportation became another opportunity to learn and gain a new perspective.
“We were sitting on the subway a lot. And people were staring at you. Or sitting really close to your face. Or standing really close to your face,” McHenry said. “It was just interesting to see how people would look at your hair or how you were perceived.”
In New York, the diversity-rich zip codes did not seem to translate into diverse hairstyles. While at first this seemed disappointing, the experience allowed the students to view New York differently than Paris.
“New York was more about perception and how we, wearing our natural hair, would be perceived,” McHenry said.
In Paris, the girls visited a salon and met with stylist Necole Pembrook, owner of Polished Hair Care, who is well-known for her support of natural hair.
“Necole embodied a natural essence that was breathtaking,” Watkins said.
Originally raised in Richmond, California, Pembrook traveled to Paris as an adult and started her salon as a second-generation beautician. Since then, she has encouraged women to express their beauty through their hair. She offered the women plenty of insight on the Movement, from what she was told happened in the 60s, to what she experienced in the 90s as a young adult, to now, as the Movement has shifted and manifested across time.
“Necole has definitely played a big part in my natural hair experience and the way I think of my authenticity,” Watkins said.
In the end, the meaning of natural hair and the depth of that meaning depends on each person’s experience.
“The importance of natural hair is tethered to the individual,” Watkins said. “Natural hair is not only about the expression of one’s identity, but to some it may be about fashion and the latest trends, and to others it may be an issue with the healthiness of their hair. I cannot place natural hair in a box when it is a circular concept. It relates to the individual and their idea of what natural hair is.”