Armstrong Park/Congo Square: Congo square hadn’t even crossed my mind when I was thinking of a place to do this shoot. It was originally going to happen in Armstrong park, but as I was doing research on the park itself, I stumbled upon Congo square. The background and scenery of it amazed me. To live in a city of such unique culture is super cool, but to live in a city that holds the birthplace of America’s oldest music genre, the genre that paved the way for modern music, “Jazz” is a blessing. Congo square was a space of freedom for our ancestors to let their culture shine; our ancestors were the soul of the square. It was all because of “Code Noir.” It gave our ancestors the right to congregate on Sundays in order to market their goods, dance to their music, tell their rituals, and overall gave them a chance to celebrate their African roots. The women would sell their latest clothing in the markets on Sundays, handmade from different fabrics. I can vividly imagine my ancestors strutting through Congo square flaunting their newest styles with the highest confidence. Mwende and Denisio just fit perfectly in the square and we had a good time, thanks for the opportunity.
Mwende: Someone once told me that white girls house their identity crisis in their bodies while Black girls hide them in their hair. I know, I know, its a gross oversimplification and doesn’t make sense at all when you pick it apart, but at the same time, I knew immediately what they meant. My whole life, I’ve been in conflict with my hair. Growing up both Black and girl meant having to constantly negotiate cultural pride with societal expectations of beauty, and too often, the weight of society was too heavy for my hair to bear.
When I first came to this country, I had to shave my head. I kept having allergic reactions to certain foods (cheese, sausage, eggs and other dairy/farm products) which the doctors couldn’t quite figure out. I developed these sores on my head that they had to shave all my hair off to observe, and I was devastated. I remember sobbing to my father and mother that I looked like my brother (who is actually quite handsome). As a girl who was already struggling with femininity and girlhood, having short hair felt like the end of the world even though my own mother had an afro or short braids my entire life. When I got to be an older girl, I insisted that my mom relax my hair so it could be “beautiful”. In my tomboyish-ness, I had taken the time to analyze and study girlhood like a science, and I knew that long hair was my key to being pretty and accepted as a girl. Unfortunately for me, my hair follicles didn’t get the memo (probably because of all the relaxer I insisted on putting in) and my hair never really grew that long or was that healthy. Sometimes my mom would put long braids in as a protective style which I loved because I could flip them over my shoulder, but I knew that it wasn’t MY hair, and I longed to have “beautiful” (read: white) hair that I didn’t realize then was never going to grow out of my head.
As I got older and started to be more in charge of dressing myself and styling my hair, my natural masculinity started to take away. I wore cornrows all the time and was delighted when people mistook me for a boy which happened often enough.
Despite my apparent commitment to masculinity though, I was struggling internally with knowing I was a girl and not being read as one. Around the time I went through puberty, my family also moved to another part of town, and with the encouragement of some of my friends I fell deep into a toxic femininity based almost entirely on adherence to white beauty standards. But man, middle school was hard! I had white girls grabbing my little poof ball ponytail and calling it a cheeto-puff and laughing and I just got so tired of not ever being pretty enough in my Blackness. More than anything, I wanted a ponytail like those white girls that would flip when they walked and bounce on my shoulders. Somehow, the way Pecola Breedlove had attached all her problems to not having blue eyes in The Bluest Eye, on a far lesser scale I had attached all my problems with femininity to not having long, blonde hair. Once, I even had these braids I insisted my mom put in that weren’t even blonde as much as they were Lion’s Mane Yellow/Gold because I truly thought that the closer I got to that hair, the closer I got to beauty.
Side note: My whole hair journey fucked with my white classmates. Once I came in with my braids off and a white boy asked me what happened to my hair and I told him I got a haircut because I was too embarrassed to admit it wasn’t my hair. When I got braids again two weeks later, I convinced him that some Black people’s hair just be growing super fast and in braids sometimes 😀
Sometime in middle school something happened. I relaxed my hair one day and was SO excited because it hadn’t been relaxed in so long so I hadn’t worn it out, but when I stepped outside, less than10 minutes later, my hair was in a poof ball. I don’t know what it was about that moment and the frustration I felt at trying so hard only to have it not last that kind of made me give up on my dreams of being “beautiful”. I didn’t stop relaxing it just then, but I think I stopped believing the lye (get it LOL!). My expectations of relaxers and other beauty modification tools just went so far down to the point where I stopped using them because I realized they couldn’t change the things about me I was the most insecure about, my Black features.
By high school I had found a clique of bad ass women of color who didn’t really care for white beauty standards, though we weren’t really using the language of rejecting white supremacist beauty standards. We were more like, “fuck it, Ima wear this cuz I like it.And my hair? It’s on my head so why you worried?” I shaved my head and rocked an afro for a while (which made my mom be like I TOLD YOU SO SUCKAAAAA but not really because that’s not what my mom is like at all, but when I had an afro, I would sometimes look at her and see a hint of “Oh? That hairstyle looks mighty familiar” hiding in the crease of her smile
But here’s the thing about afros…I remember watching my mom take care of her afro growing up and not understanding why so little hair took so much effort, but YALL when I had that afro, I swear my biceps were swole because of how often I had to pick it out. Not to mention never being able to lay my head against a car seat or wall for mortal fear of flattening one side of my soft afro. I also had this idea that I would have a MASSIVE afro but in reality, I had what one of my students described to me the other day as a TWA…a Teeny Weeny Afro. This was a hard moment for me because I thought that when I started taking care of my hair it would grow to be big and full like the Angela Davis kind of afro, but I realized soon that not all Black hair was the same, and some of it wasn’t big or long. I realized that I hadn’t really rejected those social beauty norms, I was trying to find a way to trick my Blackness into still being accepted into it. At one point, I even relaxed my afro so it could be longer, but I ended up just looking like I’d stuck my finger in a socket.= (I have pictures. No I will not post them :D)
So, I shaved my head again. But here’s the thing about hair…it kept growing back! And, here’s the thing about Massachusetts (where I went to High School), its cold so being bald really only works for half the year. So one winter, as my hair was growing back, I absent mindedly started twisting my hair while watching a movie. I ended up twisting about a quarter of my head then wore it like that for a week just because. Eventually, I twisted the rest of my head and the next day I had started my loc journey. And even though its not accepted in some fields now, having locks back when I started them was an issue for anyone in any kind of professional setting which made my parents and other family members not exactly happy when I locd up. I remember a woman at my church once who had the most beautiful locs I’d ever seen in my life, very well maintained and done in a neat pattern. One day, she came to church with her head shaved, and I later found out that she had shaved her locs to get a new job. She started locing them again right after she got the job (because they couldn’t fire her for having them though they could not hire her for having them and say it was for a different reason), which was the first time I truly understood how appearance and Blackness intersected in the working world (and to be clear, my locs were at their Coolio stage so I really wasn’t getting hired anywhere lol).
When I was back home to Kenya in 2012/2013, I had an interesting time with my hair. People there seemed to have mixed feelings about my hair. On the one hand, some folks didn’t know I had locs, they thought they were small braids, but when they found out they were locks, especially older folks, there was some disdain in their voice and they would ask why I didn’t have braids/tell me I’d look better in braids, or ask flat out why I had locs. Once I was in a hair salon in Meru and the entire saloon ended up debating whether locs were beautiful or not and I was offered multiple times before I left (I went with my host sister) to get extensions put into my hair (they also thought I was from South Africa but I’ve never been there so I don’t know why….)
These days, I love my hair though as mentioned before it can get heavy and the beads are cute but sometimes threaten to increase the premium on my dental plan. I never used to wear it up because I had that awkward pineapple thing going for a long time with my hair, but now that it’s long, I finally understand the magic of the top bun (The weight of your hair just sits on your head!! MAGIC !!!). Really more than anything though I’m excited because my hair is at a point where I can hold it up using other locs which is ideal for me because I always forget hairties, which is what happened in this shoot…
And while this post has been dedicated to my childhood/teenage navigation of my Black girl hair, I would also like to point out how incredibly swaggalicious I was as a child and note how little my style has truly changed #OverallsAllDayAllDay
I think my adult love for suspenders is an adult attempt to reconcile my childhood love of overalls with this whole adulting thing (hence the name Mwenders in Suspenders which was given to me by my D.J. in high school when I was a rapper [yeah that’s another story, maybe one day you’ll hear it]…Matter of fact…I can’t believe I haven’t worn any on the blog yet…I’M A FRAUD!!).
Also yeah, we all saw it, I’m not wearing a bra. I don’t wear bras often. You’ll get over it.
Denisio: Anyone who has known me longer than the span of three weeks will discover one definite thing: I change my hair A LOT. I’ve joked about having some rare form of ADD or OCD that involves the stuff (or lack of stuff) atop my dome but at times it truly feel like a compulsive manic behavior I have no control over. I’ll get bored with whatever my head is doing and want to change it drastically. Or I’ll be trying to channel some sort of look or mood for an outfit (Also something you’d know about me, my femme ass LIVES for a good outfit) and my hair doesn’t quite match so I’ll dye it. Or throw an afro wig on. Or add waist length braids. Or just shave it all off, which is what I did shortly after my shoot.
Surprisingly, I’m actually happy that I’m never satisfied with my hair. There is beauty in its impermanence. I am not tied to some antiquated belief that I am somehow less than a woman if I have none, or that no one will take me seriously if its hot pink or lavender or that because its a certain texture it should be long. Or conversely, I feel no qualms about throwing on a giant afro wig over the head I just shaved two months about because….grown ass woman. I have no allegiance to my hair. It can go with the soft buzz of my clippers and I feel no sorrow or remorse. In fact I feel free.
For fun I’d like to take you back in time and show you my Hairstory. Let’s gooooo!
Ages 0-4: Puffs and Barettes
I was born with a full head of hair, as reported by my mom. And in Liberia that means that [Insert Liberian Superstition Here]. Okay I can’t remember exactly what its supposed to mean but is a good thing. I think. My mom spent the first few years of my life dressing me up like a prized baby doll and invested in a large amount of barettes and ribbons for my hair.
Age 5-12 The Braided Years
My momma had plans for my hair. No relaxer. Like every good African mother now living in America she kept my hair braided up and thoroughly coated in sulfur 8 grease and Kemi Oil. My hair grew. Long. But I was never allowed to wear it out. It felt like a special kind of punishment. Most of my classmates had relaxers and wore their hair in “grown” styles. Meanwhile here I was in dookie braids wayyyyyy past the dookie era. I vowed then and there that when I was old enough I would do whatever I wanted to my hair.
Age 13-19 Crack Era
Remember that time when I was eleven years old and vowed to the heavens that when I was old enough, I would do whatever the fuck I wanted to my hair? Well, this is now. And I discovered a friend, packaged up in boxes with seductive looking brown women on their covers, their straight flowing tresses calling to me like a siren. Relaxer! Oh relaxer. With your rotten egg smell and your scalp burns and your promises of swinging hair that you never quite deliver. I chased the high for years as a teen. And as I religiously applied the creamy crack to my new growth and anything that looked like a kink, my old growth…the long mid-back hair my mother cultivated and loved with her two hands began to break off. Suddenly anything that brushed my shoulders was an accomplishment. My hair was a hot ass mess from high school well into college. Then, right before my junior year I got sick and the combination of the prescription drugs I was on (And probably my already singed follicles) cause my hair to fall out in clumps. This was the first time I cut all of my hair off. And it was the first time I realized I looked pretty cute with no hair!
Early 20’s: Locced up and Fro’ed Out
Somewhere in my early to mid 20’s I decided to loc my hair. It lasted maybe a little over a year. I actually loved styling them but as they solidified I regretted not making them chunkier and more free-formed. And to be completely honest I got bored. So I sat down for about 2 months with the pointed end of a rattail comb and ten bottles of conditioner and i picked all of them out. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
For the first time since the creamy crack days I had hair again! A lot of hair! It was amazing…. I begand to experiment with different styles:
And I even learned how to straighten my hair without relaxer.
But eventually it became too much work. And I began to feel very attached to my hair. As if it were some prized possession that proved I was beautiful. Or worthy. Or enough. And it honestly scared me. So I what felt necessary and cut it all off again.
Late 20′ – 30’s- Current I do what I want!
So here we are, back in the present. Since taking the photos for this post I’ve shaved my head, shaved it balder, dyed it gray then blonde then pink then blonde again. I’m probably going to by a wig soon. I do what feels right. Hair for me is another way in which I express my very fluid identity, much like my ever changing wardrobe. It is fun, light, and not to be taken seriously. In a time where is SO much that MUST be taken seriously, so much that breaks me down to tears and rage, it is nice to have that escape into carefree blackness.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora