Earlier this week both celebrity stylist June Ambrose and actress Tracee Ellis Ross posted this clip:
This video is an excerpt from a longer feature from Channel 4 News in 2016.
Although two years have elapsed since this piece was composed, much of the rhetoric remains. We are still talking about natural hair, many still feel that their natural hair continues to be politicised. The comments under June and Tracee’s posts demonstrate how real and raw conversations about natural hair are. Most concerning is the impact our conversations about hair have on our young minds. How are we educating these young ones?
In the past few years, there has been an increase in the amount of us who are replacing relaxers with natural curls and protective styles. Our hair is versatile. Our hair is beautiful. Our hair is enough. We now have a day dedicated to celebrating the glory of our hair. September 15th marks World Afro Day. “World Afro Day is a global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair, culture and identity.” The ethos of this day transcends throughout the year. I spoke with founder Michelle De Leon to find out more about why this day is so important for us and our young naturalists.
AB: What is the message behind World Afro Day?
MLD: The concept is of Afro excellence. The awards establish this. Out hair and excellence can go hand in hand. Our hair is not often considered glamorous or professional. It is seen as the most difficult type of hair to work with. But we want to show that our hair is great! We do not have second-class hair. Our hair deserves celebrating.
AB: How did the day come about and what has been the response so far?
MDL: In September 15th 2016 a law was passed in America which stated that an employer could choose not to employ someone with dreadlocks. I was really angry about it. I thought, in 2016 how dare they pass a law to stop black people from having jobs because of their hair! That really galvanised me. I wanted to have a day the following year to celebrate our hair and to hold significance for everyone around the world. Passing a law that prevents black people from having a job is terrible but I wanted that day to be recognised for something positive. Some may not understand why we need a day to celebrate our hair. Well, it’s because we’re the only ones where laws are created against our hair, that’s how serious it is to us.
Then it was such a process of starting to talk to others. I wanted to have a child-based aspect to this day and an aspect of speaking to the world. Black people have been doing hair events for so long but I also wanted to speak to non-black people about our hair. I have a television background in mainstream media and so to make real change, global change, others had to be a part of it too. It is not just an event for us, it is an event to speak to the world about us. We are not living on the planet by ourselves, the way they think about and feel about our hair impacts us too. It’s also an opportunity for them to learn what is wrong, right, appropriate and inappropriate regarding our hair. I started speaking to those in my media network, including ITV and Good Morning Britain about my ideas. What was interesting about doing this is that I spoke to a lot of people about it. There was no one view, hair is different for everyone. From those conversations some get it, others don’t, some are not interested, that’s the same across race. I also wanted to get schools to involve to cater for lessons. Schools don’t always get it. They “have more important things to talk about than hair”. I had other setbacks. In the first six months, many others didn’t get the concept of World Afro Day. We went ahead anyway. Guinness World Record wouldn’t document it so we went to another world record company who thought it was a great idea and helped us do it. So in the early days, many didn’t see the need for it. But then it only takes a few in the early days, you just need a few people, organisations and schools to get it and then keep going.
People eventually started getting the vision. The mayor’s office started supporting World Afro Day. The University of Bradford, a hair specialist university, started supporting it, as did other organisations. It started gaining momentum as we gathered our supporters. I wanted professors involved because it’s about educating the wider public about our hair and why it was so important. I got three afro-hair specialists from America to come over and give a presentation about the discrimination faced around the world because of our hair. Celebrity hairstylist, Vernon Francois attended the awards that year, as did Deshauna Barber, Miss USA 2016 who had recently worn her natural hair during the competition’s final walk. Different people in various social circles came over to celebrate the first World Afro Day Awards last year.
AB: How did you get the UN involved?
MDL: I saw a small article in the Voice about the UN was declaring an International Decade for People of African Descent. I thought it was interesting. I had the UN in mind and approached them because our hair had to be part of this. And they did, they endorsed it. When they did, I was able to go back to TV companies let them know. It gave us that extra stamp of approval. We got more press and social media coverage. This year I had a special invitation from the UN. I gave a presentation about World Afro Day, what it is and its importance. Many were really responsive. World Afro Day started in Britain but many other countries want to get involved too. Our international guest this year was Benny Harlem and he’s a massive hair icon. The UN was a really good stepping stone into getting that international recognition.
AB: The awards were held in the heart of London. Why did you choose Westminster to host the event both last year and this year?
MDL: I wanted a venue in central London to put that stamp on the day. That’s why I went for a venue in Westminster: because of its history, the laws that are passed there, to evoke a sense of importance and remind those joining us at this prestigious venue that our hair is important. It was important that we celebrated it together that night.
AB: What do you want children to get from this day?
MDL: It was important to me that children had a record for their hair on World Afro Day and empower them to feel good about their hair. We learn our hair is not the same as everyone else, that it doesn’t do the same thing as everyone else. We then start to internalise all the things that are wrong about out hair instead of what’s right about it. I wanted to give them a record, to demonstrate our hair is world class.
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