I first heard about Hair Love, the Oscar-Nominated animated short, in 2017, when it was a Kickstarter campaign from director Matthew Cherry. I saw the pitch for it on Twitter, thought the idea was cute, threw some money at it, and kept it moving, not really thinking about it until it was released late last year.
If you haven’t seen it, Hair Love is a short film (as well as a children’s book) that celebrates Black natural hair and hairstyles through the story of a young dad doing his daughter’s hair for the first time.
The movie is focused on Zuri, a little girl, about 6 or 7, attempting to do her own hair. She’s ambitious, and she tries to create a variety of styles for herself: afro puffs, intricate braids and twists. And her loc-wearing dad does his best to guide her through the process of styling her glorious cloud of hair, with the help of a YouTube tutorial, voiced by Issa Rae (from HBO’s Insecure)
There’s a heart-tugging plot twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you, but it’s charming, sweet- and the kind of representation I didn’t know I needed until I saw it.
Before I saw the film, I thought that Hair Love would be an important and affirming film for young kids, but not for me as an adult, necessarily. I’ve been wearing my hair chemical and straightener-free for the past 20 years. I grew up in a household that accepted and embraced black natural hairstyles. My mother didn’t allow me to chemically straighten or color my hair until well into high school – and I didn’t stick with chemically processed hair long after that, going back to natural hair and braids as soon as i entered college.
In the 1980s and 90s, however, while having natural hair wasn’t uncommon, it also wasn’t as normalized as it is now either. In the age of Jheri curls and Soft Sheen and Dark and Lovely, and all of the other popular chemical treatments for black hair at the time, to wear natural hair, the hair growing out of your own head, was seen as a conscious choice – often seen as political, even radical. And to do so came at risk. Risk of losing employment, risk of profiling in public spaces, risk of outright discrimination.
Even so, I didn’t grow up with stigma around my natural hair, at least not in my family. While I didn’t grow up with my father and YouTube as a guide, like Zuri did, my grandmother – and Sophisticate’s Black Hair Care magazine – did the work of teaching me to make magic out of my own hair, creating styles that made me feel elegant and mature: braids, up-dos, and the like. Growing up in a diverse high school also meant seeing all sorts of hair textures and styles that looked like mine and feeling affirmed that my own hair was beautiful as is. But I ]still related, very intimately, to Zuri’s frustration, to love your hair as it is but to not necessarily know what to do with it.
I’ll always be mindful of how important and affirming it is to have the presence of someone you love to help you guide you in the journey of embracing all of who you are.
Having support in that journey is still so important, especially for black kids and young adults. Today in 2020, wearing black natural hair is still stigmatized and sometimes even punished, in some areas, like the corporate world or private schools.
Even now, employers have – and do – threaten the careers of Black Americans who wear their hair in styles deemed unprofessional or unseemly, simply because they are not straightened, or white-appearing.
Just in the past few months, actress Gabrielle Union was critiqued by her employers, the producers of TV show America’s Got Talent, for her “too Black” hairstyles.
This year, a Texas student was told to cut his locs or risk suspension from school and being barred from his own graduation. It took until last year, with California’s CROWN ACT, for actual legislation to be passed at the state level to prohibit such discrimination of hair style and hair texture.
So it’s not “just hair” for us.
And even for me, what it means to love your own natural hair, as it is, without apology… but with joy and freedom and creativity, isn’t a simple journey in a culture that says your own hair isn’t good enough. It is still something that feels uncommon, tentative, fragile.
But Hair Love, in it’s slice of life simplicity, makes that journey real, tangible, normal, and filled with love. And whether or not it wins an Oscar this weekend, the message it sends will last a lifetime.