The second-floor hallways in the University Center (UC) are getting a temporary makeover for the remainder of Black History Month. The halls are decorated with a black and white photo exhibit celebrating black students’ natural hair.
Junior Guerdiana Thelomar, a visual journalism major, developed a photo collection to tell the stories of black students and their natural hair. She will continue to take photos throughout the semester.
The exhibition was first featured in a recent poetry slam by the Africana Studies Program, both which specifically revolved around ideas about black students’ hair.
Natural hair refers to textures of black hair that are not chemically manipulated. Thelomar opened the poetry event by speaking about personal struggles with her hair.
“I used to always wonder how come my hair doesn’t look like my friends’,” she said. “They would always ask me ‘how come your hair always stands up? My hair can’t do that.’”
Monica Webb-Hooper, a multicultural psychology professor, said that what Thelomar described is consistent with an early stage of black identity development, in which she internalized typical ideals of beauty.
According to Webb-Hooper, in this phase, black children question why their appearance deviates from dominant standards of normalcy.
In fourth grade, Thelomar’s mother began to chemically straighten her hair with a product called perm, also referred to as a relaxer. The effects of perms are irreversible. Perms are reapplied to maintain straight hair for a black person.
For young Thelomar, it meant she would avoid further speculation of her hair.
“I was kind of excited, because then my hair would look like the girls in my classroom,” Thelomar said.
But Webb-Hooper said social incidents involving black hair are psychological matchups that occur between different groups.
“When you think about White identity development, at that point White kids don’t understand Blackness,” she said. “They don’t even really understand Whiteness, either.”
Thelomar cut off her straightened hair when she came to the University of Miami.
Now, she generally wears her hair in the kinky state that grows naturally from her scalp. Thelomar notices well-intentioned comments when she wears styles with straight store-bought hair called weave.
“Everyone would come up to me like ‘oh my gosh, I like your hair.’ And I’m like ‘you never said that before when I had my natural hair or braids,’” said Thelomar, who was hurt by the insensitivity.
Thelomar’s experience is one that is relatable to many black women, said Patti Rose, an Africana Studies professor.
“It happens to all of us,” said Asia Davis, a UM alumna and feature poet at the poetry contest. “The praise is kind of showing you the comparison of what they thought before.”
The rejection of natural hair has been perpetuated throughout history, Rose said. Today, people are accustomed to the look of weaves and straight hair.
“You could argue [it’s] because that’s more similar to what they are used to and what they view as beautiful in terms of their own hair,” Webb-Hooper said.
Webb-Hooper said black women can internalize ideals about what’s attractive; those ideals “typically are not black,” but conjure unrealistic images of thin, white, blonde-haired women.
“In reality there shouldn’t be a standard of beauty because we’re all from different cultures and backgrounds. We’re not all going to look the same,” Thelomar said.
Rose introduced the poetry slam. She said struggles and stories involving hair connect all black women because they share similar experiences.
For others, it’s easy to overlook the significance of black hair because they aren’t forced to immerse in minority culture.
Overlooked by some, hair plays a huge role in black identity.
“You can’t discredit our hair as being unimportant because the history of our hair in society has been too impactful,” Rose said. “Hair has always been a part of how black women and men present themselves. It’s a part of our reality.”
Prominent themes at the poetry slam were emotional, romantic relationships with natural hair, painful histories of denigration and a pair of male perspectives.
One of the viewpoints came from contest winner Jamil Mann.
Mann spoke affectionately about black women who confidently embrace their roots, a term used literally to mean hair roots and figuratively to refer to black heritage.
His poem brought the audience to their feet in applause.
“I feel like I should be more accepting of Black women because I came from a black woman,” Mann said. “I’m big on [natural hair] because I like to embrace the purities of who we are.”