When sophomore fashion merchandising major Kennedi Stinnette walked the halls of her high school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she saw a sea of hair that looked nothing like hers.
“I went to a predominantly white school,” Stinnette said. “So, I was looking at my friends, and they would all be able to wear their hair down and straight. I was like, ‘Why doesn’t mine look like that?’ I think that's where I really struggled.”
If you are not a part of the Black community, you may not understand how a lack of representation affects Black women. An exhibition that opened Sept. 10 at the Kent State Museum is meant to introduce a larger audience to issues such as the way many Black women, starting in their youth, are persuaded to straighten or chemically relax their hair. This pressure comes from several sources: society, employers or even their mothers.
When Stinnette was young, her mother always had straight hair, but over five years ago she decided to wear her hair natural. Seeing her mom embrace natural hair gave Stinnette the encouragement she needed to start her own natural hair journey.
“It took me a long time to learn to love it,” Stinnette said. “Now that I've learned to style it, I've really gained a new appreciation for my hair.”
Freshman mathematics major Saunti Tolliver has found a source of empowerment in the history her hair carries. As someone with 4C hair, a tightly coiled hair texture, who attended a predominantly white school in Cincinnati, Tolliver struggled to find peers with a similar hair texture.
In the Black community, the owners of hair with tighter, curlier patterns, such as 4C hair, are at times subjected to texturism – the idea that smooth, less coiled hair is more desirable. For Tolliver, seeing prominent Black women such as Serena Williams and Viola Davis helped to combat the bias.
“In seeing other people in media who have the same hair as I do, I was more accepting of my own hair,” Tolliver said.
Outside the Black community, Black hair is seldom the topic of conversation. “TEXTURES: The History and Art of Black Hair”, the latest exhibition at the Kent State Museum, is meant to engage a larger audience in this dialogue.
As a member of the exhibition team, senior studio art major Anders Ove was able to confront the works up close, which offered exposure to a side of history they were not aware of as a white person.
“This culture is not one that I have had in the forefront of my life growing up,” Ove said. “I was unaware largely to the extent that hair played a role within culture.”
The exhibition is split into three sections – Community and Memory, Hair Politics and Black Joy – and most of the pieces are quite different from those of previous fashion-focused exhibitions.
“It’s interesting to see the real depth of that as something that I was so largely ignorant to,” Ove said. “I think it redefined how I look at fashion, you know, beyond clothing. It’s truly about how you present yourself.”
Reegan Saunders is a reporter. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.