Good Hair: A conversation about black hair at the University of Portland
Living > Good Hair: A conversation about black hair at the University of Portland

Good Hair: A conversation about black hair at the University of Portland

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

When I was a kid, every Sunday my mother would drag our big wooden stool out of our kitchen in Oakland, Calif. and place it in front of the television for my little sister, Kendra, to sit on while she brushed out her freshly washed afro and braided it into tiny cornrows or two French braids. My mom would grease it up with hair crack and dig in. My hair was fine enough that I wasn’t subjected to the two hour braiding sessions that sometimes left Kendra in tears and whining loud enough for me to ask her to keep it down because I couldn’t hear what the cartoon characters were saying.

Kendra used to say, “Mika, you have the good hair.”

In the black community, “good hair” is sleeker, straighter and well-kept (and never nappy). According to CNET, black people purchased nine times more “ethnic beauty and grooming products” than other racial groups and in 2015, Mintel research firm estimated that $946 million was spent on “natural” black hair products.

So I took to asking black staff and students at the University of Portland about their likes, dislikes and treatments of black hair. 

Ashlee Baylis, Administrative Assistant St. Mary's

"I use lots of coconut oil to hydrate. Olive oil is good too. It is very difficult (to find someone to cut my hair). I have been doing my own hair for like ten years because I felt like when I moved to Portland there were no black hair salons. And the ones that are here don't specialize in mixed hair and so when my hair is wet it's curly but coarse. So, cutting it wet doesn't work. Cutting it dry doesn't work because it's always uneven so I started doing it myself. (I don't wear it curly) because I feel like people touch it more and in the office that I work in, I'm so visible people are like, 'Ah!' And reach for me. So it's just easier if I straighten it and pull it back."

Tisien Palacio, Freshman

"I love that I can do so much stuff with (my hair) and I can always make it look different no matter how I feel and it’s always really big and really fun so I feel like it can share my personality more,  especially if I’m not comfortable talking with people that I just met. I’ve only had one experience with someone trying to touch my hair and he just kind of reached over which was really awful. I was really glad that I was washing my hair that day. Other than that, it’s kind of hard to work with. Like, if my hair’s not wet, then I’m breaking a comb if I’m trying to comb it, so, there’s that. I think there are more things about my hair that I like than I don’t like. I used to straighten my hair and there are these things called hot combs—ugh, oh my God—they’re essentially just like metal combs that you stick on a stove and they’re supposed to get all the little hairs in front and it hurt so bad and whenever you tried to tell someone that it hurt they would just be like ‘it’s just steam, it’s not even bad!’ And it’s just always bad, always bad. When my mom would be doing my hair naturally, my hair has always been nappy so it’s hard to comb, she would have to sit me down and pull really hard and I would cry because my head hurt so bad."

Melissa Allen, Freshman

"Sometimes I don't do anything (to my hair). A lot of the times I'll just get in the shower, put conditioner in it, rinse it out and then put more conditioner in it. I've had to come into (my hair) as I've grown up and become comfortable with it. So I guess being proud of it is my favorite part."

Dakota Scruggs, Junior

"I brush it, moisturize and grease my hair. I go to the barbershop to get it lined up. I'm not as close to (my barber) here as my barber back home because I've known that guy much longer but this guy is alright. I have had my hair longer but I like it short for maintenance because it gets curly. I don't want it too wild."

Carolina Sanchez-Martinez, Sophomore

"I can do my hair in a lot of different ways, like some days I just want really soft curls like this so I just put in really heavy leave-in conditioner. Some days if I want it really big and really defined I'll use mousse, a different combination of gels and blow dry it. So my hair can do a lot of things, it just kind of depends on what my mood is and what kind of persona I want to live in that day. The best part is that I can wear it really curly or so straight that you'd never imagine that I have curly hair. And the hardest part is definitely, like if I'm going to an interview, sometimes my hair won't look as polished as I'd like it be if it were straight. When I say polished in the curly hair standard, it's like super gelled so that it is super-duper defined and clean. Cookie cutter super curly. It kind of has to do with the white (person) standards (of beauty) because when your hair is straight it's professional and sleek. With curly hair, it's really hard to achieve that."

Trenelle Doyle, Student Employee Coordinator

"I like the versatility of it. I feel like I can do whatever I want to it and I feel like it's a direct expression of how I feel. If I'm feeling more reserved, I just pull it back. Other days, if I want to make a statement, I will wear my afro proudly which is my form of protesting sometimes if I can't actually be at a protest. I don't like the negative connotations that are associated with my hair as a black person. I don't like that depending on how I wear it, I can be judged by it. I just don't like the reputation that comes with it. But as far as my hair goes, I love my hair... Often times I go to bed overnight and I wake up and I have to unravel it and spruce it up and things like that. So, yeah, one fabulous hairstyle that you see can take like fifteen hours. That's the process. Because it does take a lot of maintenance to keep my hair up, I often will wear a crochet hairstyle (which is what this is) or a weave or I love wigs—I'm like a wig connoisseur. Sometimes that's easier to do, but even still my hair is cornrowed and it still has to be maintained under it. It is a process. For the most part I do it myself."

Yvonne Ayesiga, Hall Director of Shipstad

"This isn't my real hair. It's crocheted. So she took my actual hair and put it into corn rows and then she took these hair pieces and crocheted them into my actual hair. It took an hour and 15 minutes, maybe. (Trenelle Doyle) came to my apartment after work one evening and did it. Oh god, yeah (I am proud of my hair). My actual hair, yes. I wear my actual hair for the most part of the year and then (wear) this because it's cold and I want extra volume to make me warm. Like in the summer time I wear my actual hair, I don't really care. I love it! It's like, bumpy!"

Char Donahue, Junior

"Definitely people always ask me about my hair and want to touch it but most of the time it's when I have my natural hair out because they love the curls and stuff. This is a weave."

Andre Ferguson, Freshman

"I just put some water in it. Maybe put some leave in conditioner and brush the sides a little bit. (My hair) is pretty important because if I don't do it, it looks wild and crazy. Oh, (my relationship with my barber) is very, extremely important. Like I only trust one person, maybe two people to do my hair. And at first I have them do very little and then it builds trust like a relationship and then I start to have more trust in what they can do."

Autumn Clay, Freshman

"Essentially, I’m half black and half Filipino. My mom does not know how to do my hair. To this day, she still does not know how to do my hair. When I was a child, it would be my dad who would take care of my hair because he grew up with it and my mom didn’t because my mom was used to Filipino hair which has a softer, silkier texture. So essentially I grew up wearing a lot of braids and with barrettes in my hair. But there was this whole idea when I was younger that I had to be one thing so I wasn’t necessarily accepted by the Pacific Islander or Asian descent or I’ll just say it like this: I wasn’t black enough to hang out with the black people and I wasn’t Asian enough to hang out with the Asian people so it was hard to find a place to fit in. Especially with my hair. People always want to touch my hair and that’s an invasion of privacy and when people are like: 'Oh can I touch your hair?' to me, it magnifies the difference and it makes it seem like I’m even more out of the ordinary than I actually am. It’s different to compliment and say 'Oh, hey, your hair looks nice today' or 'I like your highlights' or whatever versus 'Can I touch it?' 'What is it like?' 'Can I feel it?' and it’s just like… 'What do you mean by that?' because we don’t know people’s intentions and stuff like that and their hidden agendas. So growing up I had a lot of braids and a lot of people looked at me weird for it because they were like 'What? Only black people wear braids' and little did they know, I’m half black. When you were younger, you didn’t want to be black. Even now, you see that they treat people of color differently so the lighter you were the better. So I would just wear my hair in a ponytail and it would be just so frizzy and so dry and all these things. Then I started getting older and I was like getting into who I am and I was like 'No, I’m black and I love being black. That’s who I am, I grew up like this.' I mean I grew up being in the Filipino culture, but definitely heavily submerged in the African culture. Now, it’s just a lot of coconut oil. I use Miss Jessie’s multicultural curls because even then they have a line where they know there’s a difference between solid African American hair and hair that’s mixed—the hair that has the textures and properties of African American hair, but also some qualities of different hair. It’s high maintenance, but low maintenance because I only have to do my hair like three, four times a week. But I love having my hair because it’s curly and I don’t really have to do anything with it, but if I wanted to there are endless possibilities—I could put a weave in, I could put braids in, I can dye it, I can make it straight, I can leave it curly, I could even change the curl pattern if I wanted to. It’s definitely a reflection of who I am and how I grew up and all the struggles I went through because this is still a struggle to this day."

Lydia Heye

"It sucks man, because I feel like I've never really met anyone with my specific curl pattern. It really drives me nuts because I go on YouTube and I watch all these YouTube videos about how to do your hair and I haven't found a Youtuber with the same texture or curl pattern (as me) yet. My sisters have completely different hair. I have a sister who has like really wavy hair and so I'm like, 'how?' It really annoyed me in high school when people would (ask to touch my hair) but now I find it funny that people find it so amusing. It's also weird because my hair has a weird tint of red in it and I don't know where that came from. Maybe it's my mom's side coming out. I never used to cut my hair because I have a white mom and she had no idea what to do with my hair and my dad he would just like brush it and you don't do that. If I ever wanted to brush my hair it has to be in the shower when I have at least five pounds of conditioner in it. If I ever tried to brush it dry, my hair would defy gravity. So I wore my hair in a ponytail until high school and then I was like, 'I want to do the big chop.' So I cut it, my mom cut it, and that was the first time I ever cut my hair. It was bad. But I think that helped my hair be more healthy."

Jazz Johnson, Sophomore

"Basically they just take my hair and divide it in different sections and twist it. Initially, it took five hours and now I have to get it re-twisted every month and it takes like 30 minutes but the drying and washing takes awhile. Really, you can tell good hair just by the texture and how healthy it looks. You can tell when someone has heat damage like when they straighten their hair a lot. My sister doesn't straighten her hair a whole lot, she takes very good care of it by keeping it moisturized and washed. I used to have nappy hair."

Jazmyne De Witz, Junior

"(I wear my hair naturally) because it's just easier and for health reasons. I used to have relaxers or it would be chemically straightened and two years ago I was looking up stuff (about relaxers) and I was like, 'Well this is scary.' And I literally the next week cut my hair off to an inch long and I've been natural since. When I do wear it straight, I get a lot more compliments on my hair or like people will say, 'Oh, I like your hair so much better when it's straight' or 'This is my favorite way you wear your hair.' But I don't get any negativeness towards my natural hair but I definitely get more positive compliments when it is not natural."

Malika Andrews, senior and editor-in-chief of The Beacon

And then there is me. "My hair is much thinner than it looks but just as bouncy (nah, don't ask to touch it). I have hair that is much more like my white mother's thick curls than my African-American dad's tight corkscrews. From wash to blow dry, it takes me 35 minutes and three hair products to do my hair when I am leaving it down. When I was in middle school and learning how to do my own hair I would put so much spray and gel in my hair that it would get "crunchy" and I would be embarrassed when people would touch it – usually without asking – and make comments about it being "so hard." I've relaxed and let my hair go much more now. My curls are a pretty big part of who I am and even though sometimes I will change them (make them bigger with a curling iron), I like my hair curly better than straight even though some people tell me I am "prettier" with straight hair. It's taken me years but I have grown to love my hair."

Many of the staff and students interviewed for this article said that the best part about Black or African American hair is its versatility. The most difficult part is trying to hold curly, quirky black hair to sleek, straight hair standards. Malcolm X once asked a crowd, “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?" And some of that negativity towards natural hair lives on today. Children are still sent home from elementary school for sporting black hairstyles. And just this last September, a judge ruled that a woman's job offer could be rescinded because her employer disliked her dreadlocks. But black hair is a big part of black culture, and this month (and every month) we should celebrate it.