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Left to right Aliah Cotman, Ashley White, Shakiyla McPherson and Lucia Boursiquot attend The Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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Left to right Aliah Cotman, Ashley White, Shakiyla McPherson and Lucia Boursiquot attend The Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

Dee Dwyer for NPR

It’s a story about the joy of dark hair!

I want to stress this early on, because like almost every other part of the Black experience, black hair has been weighed down by white supremacy.

And there are serious implications when a company doesn’t accept the hair that grows out of your head. Discrimination is insidious, it can mean lose your job, or black swimmers banned from wearing caps that would cover their long braids or locs, or black actresses forced to do their own hair because Hollywood failed to see the value of their tightly coiled braids.

But black hair means a lot more than that. It’s personal and beautiful and, yes, it’s joyful!

Jacquelyn Patterson attends the Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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Jacquelyn Patterson attends the Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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So when I heard about it The black hair experience – a pop-up art exhibit celebrating black hair in all its forms – I immediately jumped into my group chat and said to my daughters, “We have to go! Since I am a journalist, I also decided to cover the exhibition for NPR It’s been a minute Podcast.

Left to Right: Sakile Glasper, Drea Luke and Ebony Williams re-enact moments spent at the barber shop during an exhibit at The Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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Left to Right: Sakile Glasper, Drea Luke and Ebony Williams re-enact moments spent at the barber shop during an exhibit at The Black Hair Experience at National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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The experience itself

The two times I’ve been there – one for fun, the other for work – I got to feel the joy of visitors as they walked through the 20,000 square foot exhibit. The Instagram-friendly space is divided into various scenes that represent key elements of the dark hair culture, from the kitchen to the living room to the beauty store. I saw black women light up at the sight of a wall covered in magazine covers, full of images of dark hair styled in sleek updos, slicked back ponytails with bangs across the forehead, multi-layered locks and more.

Alisha Brooks, a visual artist, co-founded the show with her friend, photographer Elizabeth Austin-Davis. Brooks said the goal was to provide space for community and conversation.

“It was really trying to create a place where we can share our experiences,” Brooks told me outside the exhibit location in Fort Washington, Md. Earlier this month.

Left to right Nay Mills, Jazmin Butler, Kristen Goodwin and Alasia Clowe pose for a photo in a display cover in Black magazine covers back at The Black Hair Experience in the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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Left to right Nay Mills, Jazmin Butler, Kristen Goodwin and Alasia Clowe pose for a photo in a display cover in Black magazine covers back at The Black Hair Experience in the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Maryland on Saturday July 17, 2021.

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Brooks says she’s also set out to make a deliberate political statement. You can see this message at work in a space designed to look like a desk. The words “my hair is unprofessional” are displayed above a desk.

“It’s important that we continue to have the conversation because it needs to be normalized,” Brooks said. “Once we can normalize it, we can stop having all the issues and debates around our hair. We should be able to wear it freely.”

My own hair evolution

My journey to kissing the hair that grows out of my head probably mirrors a lot of black women in my age group. Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, straightened or chemically straightened hair seemed to be the norm for black women.

Ayesha Rascoe, pictured here in her early teens, remembers straightening her hair when she was 9 or 10 years old.

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Ayesha Rascoe, pictured here in her early teens, remembers straightening her hair when she was 9 or 10 years old.

Ayesha Rascoe / NPR

I started to relax my hair around the age of 9 or 10. Part of the reason is that I really didn’t like washing my hair in the kitchen sink, with water running through my ears and eyes. My family and peers also told me that I didn’t have “good” hair quality because my hair was tightly, tightly wrapped around my scalp.

Getting a straightener meant going to the salon, which could be tedious, but nothing compares to a new hairstyle. My mom, younger sister and I had our hair done every two weeks and our hair relaxed every 6-8 weeks. We’ve been there so many times that I’ve had a bunch of styles over the years: finger waves, French buns, roller sets with curls all over the place. I loved having my hair done, although at times I probably looked like a 15 year old church lady.

Free my hair

As an adult I continued to relax my hair because it was easy and that’s what I knew. But more and more black women were abandoning the so-called “creamy crack” of hair straighteners and rejecting the notion of “good” hair as being closer to European hair. I started to feel like the last of a dying race.

Then, a few years ago, in front of a NPR policy live show in Atlanta I got my hair done and the stylist was shocked. “Are you still loosening your hair ?!” she exclaimed. “I had to throw out all my relaxants, no one has them anymore.” Soon my friends went natural with great results so I decided to give it a try. I haven’t straightened my hair for about two years.

Ayesha Rascoe and her friends at The Black Hair Experience.

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Ayesha Rascoe and her friends at The Black Hair Experience.

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My goal now is to wear my hair the way I feel it right now, whether in braids, sewn-in hair extensions, curly, straight – whatever suits me.

At The Black Hair Experience, I felt like freedom was in the spotlight. And that’s what touched me deeply. “We really want to create the message that it doesn’t matter if you choose to wear a relaxer or your natural hair or if you have locs, if you’re bald, however you choose to wear it, it’s beautiful” Brooks said. “It should be celebrated.”

The audio for this episode of “It’s Been a Minute” was produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry, Andrea Gutierrez and Liam McBain. Our intern is Manuela López Restrepo. Jordana Hochman edited the audio and text. Amna Ijaz edited photos. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at [email protected]


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