“Okay, but are you mixed?”

Here in the states I’ve never once been asked that question. I believe this is because the answer upon taking a casual glance at me is rather, well, black and white.

I’ve got brown skin and natural hair. I mean, hell, even my last name starts with Black. I have never not checked the African American box when filling out demographic data.

However, while visiting Lagos people frequently asked about the coily texture of my hair. When I explained to them that this is simply it’s natural texture, not a coiling technique or starting of locs their response would be, wide eyed with an air of suspicion:

“Your hair just grows like that!!?? Okay, but are you mixed?”

My response was at first always a solid “no.” I mean, I’ve got two black parents, black grandparents, black great-grandparents; I am definitely 100% black. Always have been, no question about it how I’ve identified.

Me and the great-grandparents (top)  & the grandparents on the bottom.

Me and the great-grandparents (top) & the grandparents (bottom)

However, after being asked by several people, I started to wonder where this was all coming from, if there was something to that question. This was truly a first for me and I took some time to reflect.

I would never say that I’m mixed, but the truth is that in my family we’re not quite sure where exactly we come from. There’s rumblings of Irish ancestry somewhere back in the day. Rumors of Native American heritage somewhere in there. We see a looser curl pattern here and a touch of light skinnededededness there. But in general, when it comes to skin color, the main link between we the Blackwells is that we loooooooove to be tan. The deeper, the browner the darker the better. With all those winters in Minnesota that suck the color right out of us, once summer hits, we are out there setting our tan lines to show our hard work. My mom calls it “searing” and even my grandfather finishes the summer looking like Golden Teddy Graham. But again, the last name – Blackwell – there has never been any question of who we are and how we identify.

Back to Lagos.
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The Hair Culture of Lagos

Years ago, I always imagined Africa as the home of all things natural hair, the place where I could go find those magical juices, berries and maybe some sort of indigenous nut oil that would allow my hair to thrive. When we think about Africa as the place to “go back to our roots”, it would only make logical sense that the root of the natural hair movement is also found on the continent. It wasn’t until I saw this photo oh-so-long-ago that made me start to think I had it all wrong:

Young women performing in Umhlanga (The Reed Dance), an eight-day event in which thousands of unmarried and childless Swazi women travel from all over the country to perform for the royal family. (Photo by Elton Anderson)

Young women performing in Umhlanga (The Reed Dance), an eight-day event in which thousands of unmarried and childless Swazi women travel from all over the country to perform for the royal family. (Photo by Elton Anderson)

As these women perform their native tribe dance, there is nary a natural curl in sight. Not a single one.

A similar observation began even before I hit the ground in Nigeria. On my plane, I observed ZERO other natural women, only relaxers, weaves and braids. Sure, beneath those weaves and braids the hair might be natural, but the inherent impression is that of a preference for straight, long hair. If the hair is worn short, it’s done so in a way that’s much more Halle Berry-pixie than Solange-TWA.

For days, this parade of weaves and relaxers continued through our adventures in Lagos. One would think that with such a cultural prominence, the hair would at least be healthy looking and well-styled. Unfortunately the opposite: I’ve never seen so many edges ripped out, broken ends and damage. Even young girls had patches missing from over applied relaxer.

We in the west set the global trends of black culture; it’s particularly hard to stomach that this is our beauty contribution to Africa. Just like we in the States had to conform to this a Eurocentric-standard of beauty, I wonder if the pressure to straighten was even stronger living under the influence of a colonial power.

Nevertheless, we were there to provide natural hair education and to empower women to wear their own hair. As a tribe of natural hair wearers rolling through Lagos, we certainly caused a stir because it was a rare sight to see.

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On Finish Lines, Fears & Faith

Like the rest of the world, I was stunned to hear about the Boston Bombings.

Why, why, why? I asked myself.

Only after checking in with all of my friends and their families to ensure that they were safe and sound  did I start letting it all settle in and reading the coverage.

I was struck by the fact that these bombs were intentionally placed to hurt not only civilians, but specifically those crossing the finish line of the marathon and their supporters.

The finish line.

The finish line is place upon which these athletes had had their eyes and hearts focused for the months–and maybe even years–preceding that moment. Finish lines are a place for celebration, smiles, unity and tears of joy.

My friend Rose and I about to cross the finish line of a 570-mile bike ride.  Words cannot express the positive energy and happiness of this day...

My friend Rose and I about to cross the finish line of a 570-mile bike ride. Words cannot express the positive energy and happiness of this day…

Instead, the finish line of the Boston Marathon had become a place of chaos, fear and even death.

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As gal who is just two weeks away from crossing her first triathlon finish line, my heart and deepest empathies went out to those injured in the bombings, especially those who had just finished their race.

My Team in Training Coach Douglas Li wrote our team an email that moved me to tears shortly afterwards:

What unfolded in Boston is something we will never forget. For those of us who have crossed many finish lines, we all remember our first and we hold the significant ones like that first marathon/triathlon in a very special place. Personally, I can recall more vivid details about my first marathon in Chicago in 2006, than I can from my college graduation. And that’s true for most people I’ve come across: finish lines are right up there with “My first kid being born” or “our wedding day”. Finish lines mean different things to different people, but they are all associated with some of the happiest moments in our lives.

 

 

For those of you that are just a few weeks or a couple months away from your first finish line, I urge you to think of everything you’ve done to get yourself to this point. Think of all the friends you’ve made along the way, acknowledge the sacrifices made by friends and family who haven’t seen you. and most importantly, reflect on how much you’ve grown. The finish line is a mixed bag of emotions; you might smile, you might cry (do this long enough and I promise you’ll do both). What I hope you realize in crossing that finish line is that sport mimics life. It was never about the finish line in the first place. What it IS about is facing your fears, befriending people that you may not have otherwise, and experiencing something pure. A finish line is one of the rare things you can’t just go pick up at your convenience on Sunday afternoon. It must be earned.

 

Coach Doug opened the email with an amazing quote from Kathrine Switzer, the First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon:

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

While we caught a glimpse of the darkest side of humanity, the days since have shown us some of the best: community, love and support. Next week I’ll be participating in a 3-mile “To Boston With Love” run along the San Francisco Embarcadero in an effort to keep the stream of positivity flowing. If you’re interested, shoot me and email and I’ll send you the deets. Or you can simply join us at AT&T Park at the Willie Mays statue at 6:30pm.

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Sending my continues thoughts, prayers and sympathies to Boston…

The toll it took on me.

If you know me, you know that I love to travel.  Flying to new places away from home and immersing myself in new cultures has been a wonderfully enriching experience, one that has given me perspective, growth and inspired not just creativity, but understanding, patience and flexibility as I engage with people across geographic boundaries.   For the last year, I found myself not home, but ELSEWHERE almost 2 weeks out of every month.  Looking back, that was a lot of time, but  I was blessed with the opportunity to return to Europe for the first time since studying abroad seven years ago, take my first trip to Africa, make extended stays at home in Minneapolis with my family.  I also sprinkled in visits to New Orleans(thrice), Chicago (twice), Los Angeles (thrice), Florida, New York (twice), Las Vegas, DC, the Virgin Islands and Honolulu in there as well.

However, after I returned home from Dakar last December, I was just tired.  Tired of security lines, red eyes, hotel rooms, delays, airport food and schlepping 75-pounds of luggage for two weeks at a time.  And more than tired, I felt unrooted, disconnected and out of balance.  Turns out when I made my home an airplane, my REAL home–the one in San Francisco where I sleep in my big pink bed, host my beloved dinner parties, eat with roommates and shoot the shit with neighbors on my stoop–had become as foreign as the places to which I was jetting.  Coming home to hibernate away from the world only to leave six days later is no way to maintain a home, friendships or personal sense of equilibrium.

I haven’t been on a plane since December 4th, 2012 and that’s the longest span of time I’ve been on the ground in the past two years!  Don’t get me wrong, I know that I am very fortunate to be able to travel so much.  But now that I’ve been home, I’ve realized the the toll it took on the things I truly value that make me a whole person. In a way, it became easier to be away than home; now that I’ve nestled back into my routines, committed to community (hell-O Team In Training!) and re-established focus on my work, I very much appreciate the stability that a non-flying routine affords.  In a word, I just feel mentally and spiritually healthier and it shows: my skin is clear and I’ve lost 20 pounds!  

Aside from a trip to Chicago in early March, I’m going to be keeping my wheels on the ground for the next few months and I’m looking forward to rebalancing, refocusing and recharging.  What it means in terms of NaturalSelectionBlog is that I HAVE A LOT OF EXCITING STUFF ON THE HORIZON!!!!  All of the travel time (read: no WiFi and just a journal) have left me with a lot of ideas that are starting to sprout and come to life!  So trust, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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Now that said, you can take the girl off the plane, but you can’t take the plane off the girl.  No really, you can’t because I’ve got one tattooed on my arm.
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I definitely still have my eyes set on those distant far off horizons.  But for now, I’m going to zip my desires to experience the rhythms of Brasil, flavors of India and  vibrant metropolises of Morocco safely into my suitcase and pack them away until later.

 

“the reason black women have hair problems…..

…is because they don’t love their hair.”

Think about it.

I heard this powerful quote from a presentation by Dr. Phoenix at NINAF last weekend and have been pondering it since. Weaves, wigs, relaxers, missing edges, breakage…are these all caused by a lack of self love? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I also had a great conversation with her on ayurvedic regimens for natural hair and hair loss– check out the interview!

Please post in the comments your thoughts on “the reason black women have hair problems is because they don’t love their hair”.

The Olympics and Black Hair (Part 2)

I first started taking note of the black hair Olympics scene during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies when I noticed lots of relaxers, weaves and braids and very little natural hair.  I was disappointed to say the least because after Jasmine Breidburg’s gloriously curly debut, I was ready to come back to the blog and report back that YES! Natural hair had arrived on a global level!

But alas, that was just not the case.

As I watched The Games over the next two weeks I continued to see very little natural hair, not just from the US, but from all participating nations.  I saw many athletes show up to their games, races, matches and competitions wearing foundation, lashes, eyeliner and carefully applied glitter; I couldn’t imagine that their physical appearance wasn’t at least somewhat on their mind.  But why was it that so many of these athletes were opting to wear straight styles instead of natural hair?

 

US Women’s 4×400 relay team

 

I decided to call and get the opinion of the one person who would be qualified able to speak to this: my mom.  My dearest mother not only has a relaxer, but as a former All-American, Big 10, college basketball player, she also knows what it’s like to be a competitive athlete and deal with the unique challenge of maintaining her hair as a black woman.  She explains: “I think a lot of black women athletes succumb to weaves, braids, and relaxers because it’s easier to deal with.  It’s more of a default style than anything else because it allows them to focus on the sport and not their appearance.  I also think there’s a pressure to wear long hair because of the media and sponsorships. Long hair may be considered to be more ‘feminine’ and it takes the edge of their more athletic build.  If not, then they may run the risk of being ‘unfeminine’ and being labeled ‘butch’, which may jeopardize sponsorships.”

Team USA Basketball team…with one loc’er!

 

We’ve all heard the argument that natural hair is not fit for the workplace, so maybe same concept goes for professional athletes as well. The fact is that many world-class athletes have to compete against each other not only for their titles and medals, but they are also vying for competitive sponsorships and funding.  These Olympians are the faces that brands will place on multi-million dollar campaigns on television, websites, and social media.  Sponsoring brands have to make sure that their identity is being well-represented by their athletes and athletes need to make sure that they are alluring to brands.  In addition to their athletic performance, an athlete’s appearance and behaviour both on and off the playing field matters to these brands.  It’s why Michael Phelps lost his Kellogg’s sponsorship when he got busted for smoking pot.  Is it also why not seeing more natural hair, that it doesn’t align with a brand’s ideal identity?  Perhaps as we see natural hair becoming more widely accepted and its haircare practices understood, we will too start to see more and more top athletes with natural hair.

 

When relationship between black hair and athletes hits mass media, there always tends to be a lot of controversy. (Remember the time Venus Williams lost a break point in a match when some of her signature beads fell out of her braids at the Australian Open in 1999?  Thank heavens Twitter wasn’t around then or who knows what might have happened!)  Much of the ensuing discussion, however, fails to acknowledge why black hair is such a sensitive subject matter unfortunately.  I appreciated this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune titled “Why We Should Care About Gabby Douglas’ Hair“: it’s not the critique of her hair that matters at all.  It’s the years of institutional racism that made the critiques possible to begin with that we should be worrying about.

The bottom line is that for athletes, the ends justifies the means, meaning that what ever it takes to win (unless it’s performance enhancing drugs!) they should do!  If it means weaving, braiding or relaxing because that’s what their intense training lifestyle demands then that’s fine.  I just hope that more of them come to realize the benefits of natural hair!

Fine, let’s go there: The Olympics and Black Hair (pt. one)

BLACK HAIR has been all up in the media over the past couple days with the “controversy” about Gabby Douglass’ hair. First of all, I don’t even like calling this a “controversy”…it’s more like a social media snowballing of people’s over the top opinions about her hair. Let’s hope that all calms down because she just won gold! I mean, really…shhh. Just stop that.

Now before getting into all that, I want to take a step back and talk about my Olympic hair highlight thus far: JASMINE BREIDBURG. No she is not an athlete competeting for a medal, but she was prominently featured in the Opening Ceremony during the “digital-love-story-celebrating-the-inventor-of-the-internet-with-an-#allbritisheverything rave” sort of thang that went on. I don’t know really what was happening because I was in AWE with this girl’s hair! To see the curls so front and center being broadcast around the world was a very positive way for me to open up the games. I was also a big fan to see that her parents in the performance were an interracial couple. It was a subtle, yet bold statement to make on a global scale about the true nature of families these days.

Jasmine Breinburg at the Opening Ceremonies. This girl and her curls are about to be capital F FAMOUS!

Gorgeous hair. Great casting. Plus one for the natural curlies and multi-ethnic and beautifully mixed folks of the world.

In the next installation of this series I’m going to be discussing the actual African American athletes and the pressures they face when it comes to their physical appearance. There are many people who think that we should focus on athletic performance and not an athlete’s hair, which I get—it’s about winning medals not a swimsuit pageant. But the bottom line is, HELLO!!!!! BLACK PEOPLE ARE ***ALWAYS*** THINKING ABOUT THEIR HAIR. That’s why the ethnic hair care market is an $8 billion dollar a year industry segment. That’s why people are [rightfully] investing in the natural hair movement. That’s why you’re reading this very blog at this very moment. As I always say, “it’s just hair, but it’s not just hair.” It can be dyed, cut, bleached and it will grow. But there are so many social and cultural implications and weight attached to our hair that gives it a much deeper meaning.

As much as I want to say that Gabby and the other athletes “should ignore their hair”, we all know darn well that’s not possible. As African American females, natural or relaxed, athletes or spectators, how our hair is presented is always a factor to be considered. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong, nor am I saying that their hair needs to be a primary focus or priority. When it comes to being an African-American athlete there is a double standard, pressures and unique challenges that exists when it comes to their hair.

I’m really looking forward to exploring and discussing (not criticizing or speaking negatively about) these issues with you next week!

Happy weekend, y’all!

The Big Foot Files: Working on Self Acceptance from Head-to-Toe

Along this whole natural hair journey, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned –and seen from others– is a heightened sense of self acceptance. Many of us start out afraid of, angry with, and confused by our hair in its natural texture. Hopefully, somewhere along the way you learn to accept this trait you were born with. You learn to wear it with pride. Eventually, you may even learn to love it.

While I have 100% absolutely learned to love my hair, it’s interesting that I have yet to be able to apply this sentiment to my entire being as a whole. Let’s talk a trip from the tips of my curls all the way down to my feet.

I have big feet. In fact, I have always had big feet. You know those cute footsie pajamas that little kids wear? Well, the feet on mine were just too small and had to be cut off. From the age of seven onward, my shoe size corresponded with my age. As an eight year old I wore a size 8. As a nine year old, a size 9. This was convenient and kind of fun until I reached the age of 10 and I noticed that the shoe departments were running out of sizes. Finally, this awful trend plateaued at age 11 and my feet thankfully haven’t grown since. I don’t just have any size 11 though, oh-ho-ho no. I’ve got a size 11 WIDE with no arch. Like zero arch. My foot print looks more like a slice of pizza than the continent of Africa.

So there you have it. I’ve got totally flat, totally wide, totally massive feet.

Suffice it to say, I’ve never really liked shoe shopping. It’s always a disappointing process and just like I’m a curly girl living in a straight-haired world. I’m a size 11 in a size 7 world. Just last week I was at this super fun event in Santa Monica called LuckyFABB, a fashion and beauty blogging conference hosted by Lucky Magazine. One of the vendor booths there was a brand called Jellypop Shoes. Their whole showcase was pretty neat: pick out a pair of their shoes and make a fun animated gif video of you having fun in their shoes. As the brand representatives urged me to try on their shoes and play in their booth, I just knew in my heart of hearts that this wasn’t going to work out.

Some of the cute JellyPop offerings

“Look, I really want to do this,” I explained, “but I’ve got really big feet. It’s not going to happen.”
“No of course you can! We go up to size 9!”, the rep cheerfully encouraged.
“Um, right. See, I’m an 11…there’s really no way for me to fit in a pair of these things.”

I started to walk away with all of the cute JellyPop shoes staring me down. But I am actually obsessed with animated gifs and the brand reps kept on trying to encourage me to participate, saying I didn’t have to actually wear the shoes. So I got inspired and did the damn thing…kind of:

Le sigh.

The point is, that I am resolved to learn to love my feet. After all, why shouldn’t I? Like my hair, they’re a quirky part of me that I was born with and aren’t going anywhere. I know there are others out there like me, if not with big feet then perhaps with some other part of your body that you aren’t totally enamored with. The Big Foot Files is going to be a new series over here on Natural Selection as I finally, proactively learn to embrace my stompers!

EuroTrip Epilogue: European Black Identity and the #naturalhair Movement

I’m finally back in San Francisco, and after a three week odyssey to Europe and back it feels delightful to write this post from my bed.  I had a fanfreakingtastic trip traveling in the name of natural hair.  Well,  let’s be more specific there- I travel frequently in the name of natural hair, but the ABROAD part was truly eye opening.

The process of going natural and the experience of being natural is very much linked to the idea of black identity.  In Europe, black identity is much more closely linked to African identity as many of the persons there are first or second generation immigrants from Africa.  In the US, we call ourselves African American, but the terms “African French” and “African British” don’t exist.  Ask a black person in Paris where they are from, and they will likely answer “I was born in France, but I’m from the Ivory Coast” or “I’m from the Antilles” and when prompted, “and I was born here in France.”  Despite being born in France and 100% a French citizen, many persons of African descent in Europe have yet to embrace their European nationality.  At the same time, European countries do not necessarily acknowledge these people as their nationals.  In essence, there is a stronger link between African origins in Europe than here in the states.

The UK and French natural hair communities that I had the honor of connecting with are impressively international and with such diversity, there is also a unique cultural richness.  The ladies I met on this trip were from Ghana, Algeria, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Guyana, Congo, Martinique, Guadaloupe, Reunion, Switzerland, Haiti, and Senegal and it was beautiful to see all of these different countries represented, respected, and coming together to further the same cause.

The natural hair movement in London and Paris is in its infancy, but I see potential for it to spread as quickly and as rapidly here in the states.  I would assume that the prevalence of skin bleaching spas and weaves that I saw “Black Paris” are very much a result of attempts to assimilate to the dominant French culture.  But in a culture where African origins are held onto tightly, I see great potential for the celebration and growth of the natural hair, a piece of tangible evidence of African origin.

I made many friends on this trip and I’m looking forward to watching the growth and development of the natural hair movement across the pond.  It was an honor to unite the American and European natural hair communities, and to share our collective stories.  One thing is for certain, that despite the thousands of miles that separate us from our natural sisters across the pond, we’ve got more in common than differences.  Oh and that it certainly won’t be another seven years before I return to Europe for a visit!

 

now my only question is…where to next?

 

My Natural Hair Identity Crisis! Help Me!

Most often when we refer to “natural” we’re talking about relaxer-free, naturally-textured hair.  That’s what this movement is all about, right?  Giving up chemicals in order to set our kinky, coily, curly heads free.  But there are certain hair practice techniques that call my own personal definition of “natural” into question.  In particular: COLOR.

I’ve never colored my  hair.  Ever.  Sure, I’ve added in streaks of vibrant color for fun, but nothing permanent that I couldn’t remove with scissors and a little unbraiding.  I’ve always been a fan of my own natural hue, a deep, reddish brown with with lighter brown highlights that pop in the sun.  While I appreciate platinums, reds, golds, and event purples on other people, color has never been something that interested me.

That is until last week at America’s Beauty Show.

On the second day of the show, we had Avlon’s Keracare models do a demonstration on our stage, and I quickly became obsessed with one of the model’s cinnamon-copper color with golden highlights.  I thought it looked amazing with her skintone and even better with her texture.  I immediately texted the images to my stylists and set away to snapping a bunch myself.  I loved her color.  And I wanted it for myself.

 

I’m the type of person that once an idea gets planted there’s no turning back.  That’s how I wound up with things like a hot pink bed or my newest tattoo or The Damn Fade to name a few—the concept takes hold and WILL NOT RELINQUISH IT’S DEATH GRIP ON MY SOUL UNTIL I HAVE IT.

That’s where I’m at with this gorgeous color.  I want it.  In fact, I already have an appointment to get it.  (My stylist Marie is more than totally on board with this!)  My issue is that color is a chemical process and as a natural hair blogger, I’ve been preaching the virtues of a chemical-free existence.  While color will not necessarily alter my curl pattern, it certainly will compromise the natural integrity of my hair.  Once colored, I will no longer be wearing my hair just as it grows out of my scalp.

I know that lots of naturals out there color, but holy bajeeze am I conflicted on this one!

What are your thoughts on color as a chemical process?  Is it natural or not?  We’ve got a week before my appointment, so let’s discuss!

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