In the cut

Black boys find comfort and community around their hair


Brooklyn jimeno

Clockwise from top right, Calvin Law Jr., King Nisby, Isaiah Banks, Avery Brown, Sincere Harris and Jordan Cannon are caught off guard during their photo shoot on May 9. The boys have all spent years combatting stereotypes surrounding their hair.

Taylor Moe and Ellie Works

Perform an Internet search for “headlines about Black male hair,” and you will find an endless stream of police mug shots. The results would indicate that African American men who wear their hair in dreadlocks, braids or even low-cut styles are nothing more than criminals. Not only are Black men faced with the pressure of being stereotyped by the media, they must also navigate the intricacies of cultural expectations. Although Black women’s hair has long been a hot button in both the media and in the workplace, Black men are finding it just as difficult to get ahead because of their locks. On the outside, people see a head full of waves, dreads or braids. But what lies beneath – the unseen – is the history and the struggle that comes with it.

We all have some sort of relationship with our hair, whether good or bad. But when it takes hours, months, or even years to accomplish a certain hairstyle, it becomes a significant part of who you are. For hundreds of years, hair has been a gateway for African American men to embrace themselves, their heritage and the culture of their people.
Sophomore King Nisby has been growing his dreadlocks for the past five years. And even though it has become a constant time consumer, it is his favorite feature. His dreads are a huge part of how he self-identifies and how he wants others to see him.
“If I ever cut my hair, I don’t know what I would do,” Nisby said. “I would feel like a whole different type of person; it just wouldn’t be me.”
He said hair plays a big part in first impressions, especially in a Black man’s life.
“Just by looking at someone’s hair, you can tell if they care or not,” Nisby said. “And if they don’t care about something as personal as their hair, they probably don’t care about much else.”
Like Nisby, freshman Isaiah Banks also has dreads. The two individuals share a common interest: taking care and expressing themselves with their hair.
“I want [people] to know that I wash my hair like everyone else,” said Banks.
The care both boys put into their hair is evident. Nisby likes to wear his locks in different styles, everything from a ponytail to standing tall on his head. Banks tends to let his hair hang free.
Junior Maurice Fields agrees that a lot can be said about someone based on their hairstyle. He believes that the bigger the hair, the more attention one receives.
“If you aren’t that outgoing, you wouldn’t want really big hair that everyone would be looking at,” he said. “Hair is just an outlet for expression.”

Community circles
In most cultures, a family’s history gets passed down through story. For the Black community, many of those stories are told in hair salons and barbershops. On Saturdays, these shops become verbal libraries. What starts out as a simple trip to get a quick fade can easily turn into hours of laughing and talking. Not only are you greeted with music and a jovial atmosphere, men are given a safe place to just be themselves and get their hair done. According to Fields, you can be in a barbershop from anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, but the environment is what makes it all worthwhile.
“You’re just given this space to talk,” he said.
In a time when being a Black man can almost feel like a burden to some, having an outlet to speak without fear of repercussion is important. Senior Calvin Law Jr. believes barbers are staple male figures in many young men’s lives. He has experienced this community first hand, and it has even allowed him to reconnect with those from his past.
“One barber is my old football coach and my barber is somebody I went to middle school with,” said Law.
The connections provide Law with a sense of community and belonging.

I am not my hair
While hair can be seen as a positive way to express yourself, for Black men, there are plenty of negatives when it comes to their crowns. From being labeled thugs to suffering identity crises when a good cut goes wrong, choosing a style is every bit as important as the barber who gives it to you.
Many Black men with hair that is deemed too natural or unprofessional must face the stereotypes and judgments that come with exploring different hairstyles. Whether it is dreadlocks, braids or waves, most Black men must deal with some sort of stigma that comes with their chosen style. Junior Duke Peterson sees how these styles can be portrayed negatively in the media and what kind of message they tend to portray.
“I’ve heard too many songs talking about people shooting people with dreads; the stereotype is there,” said Peterson.
Avery Brown agrees. For much of his life, the junior has also seen how people can be labeled based on their hair.
“There are stereotypes around different types of hair,” Brown explained. “Like … the ‘Black nerd’ would have an Afro. The real hard, hood dude would have waves or a durag on.”
Brown started growing his hair out a couple of years ago – without a plan for the twists he has now.
“[My hair] went through the ugly hair phase where it’s not short, but it’s not long, but I just kept growing it,” Brown said.
Brown said he eventually asked his mom to braid his hair. She blow dried it out, then carefully braided it. Brown didn’t like the outcome so he took his hair back down. It produced a wavy texture that he then used as the starting point for the current twists he has now.
“I took those and twisted it from there. I didn’t go to a loctician,” he said.
A loctician is a stylist who specializes in dreadlocks and twists.
For Black men, it’s easy to get accustomed to a particular style, especially if it has taken years to get the desired look. Peterson learned the hard way how tying your identity to your hair can create an inner struggle when that hair changes. After wearing a large Afro for several years, Peterson cut off almost half of his hair.
“When you thought of Duke you definitely thought of my hair, so cutting that off … it was kind of weird,” he said. “I’ve been seeing the same hair for three years, so seeing that gone is kinda crazy. I wasn’t me without my hair.”
In the 1960s, the Afro became a political symbol representing Black pride and was a common hairstyle seen by those in the Black Panther Party. This was a time in history where hair was used to make a statement while silently mounting a movement. The pride that goes into one’s hair has been passed down from generation to generation and continues to play a vital part in Black culture.

Look, but don’t touch
Jordan “JC” Cannon described his struggles from being at a majority white school before his transfer to Cleveland. From questions about his hair’s texture to the unwanted touches, his classmates weren’t respecting him or his hair.
“When I was at Roosevelt, where it’s a whole bunch of white people, they were always touching my hair,” Cannon said. “It takes me 20 to 30 minutes to pick my hair out and get it perfect. Please stop touching my head. I am not a dog. Stop petting me.”
His frustration didn’t only come from the hands of his classmates, but also by their ignorance in the form of frequently-asked questions.
“When I pick my hair out and have an Afro, they always ask ‘how do you get your hair like that?’ I’m like … genes?”

History lessons
The genes Cannon is referring to carry a sense of history. In some African cultures, braiding patterns were used to showcase social status. Alternatively, many enslaved Africans on plantations in South America braided escape maps on the heads of others to route their plans to freedom. These styles were used for survival and to develop ancient societies, and they are earned by the groups who created them.
“Speaking to the past, like the 1600s, Black people had nothing; white people had everything,” Cannon said. “Now we have something and white people want to take that something we have and make it their own. I feel like that isn’t right.”
This type of cultural appropriation has become prevalent today, especially in pop culture. There are several instances of non-Black celebrities getting away with hairstyles for which their Black counterparts were chastised. For some, seeing non-Black people wearing historically Black hairstyles and utilizing them for status can be seen as disrespectful.
“I just hate seeing white people wearing durags and stuff like that, getting cornrows or dreads,” said Cannon. “Our race was the one who came up with those hairstyles because we wanted something to be our own, but now since other people are doing the same thing as us — it’s wrong.”
Brown also gets frustrated seeing people trying to achieve these styles.
“They’re still just trying to chase after this persona,” he said. “‘I can do this to my hair I’m with you guys,’ but you’re not at all.”
For Blacks – and Black men in particular – it is about more than just hair. Their livelihoods depend on their hair, whether it comes in the form of employment or simply being able to walk safely down the street. But for Nisby, appropriation is not a threat.
“I can’t even be mad at them because we do it the best,” he said. “We started all that … We got it going on and they [are] just envious of that.”