In college I didn’t know what my real hair looked like. That’s because it spent 90% of the time in braid extensions. I kept them in for months at a time and had developed a strategic timetable for when to take them down.

It had to be a weekend — preferably a long weekend. Beauty shops were closed on Sundays, so I’d have to start taking the braids down on Friday, right after class was up, and work through the night in time for a Saturday appointment, which typically lasted 6 to 7 hours. This left little to no window of time when my college classmates could see my hair. I sent my roommates to the dining hall with my meal card for food, and hungrily at the apples, yogurt and granola they returned with as I dexterously pulled out my braids, flecks of dirt and dandruff flying everywhere.

By my junior year I had this routine down pat, but during my freshman year I was still getting adjusted. One Fall weekend I miscalculated my “braid takedown time” and found myself on a Sunday — with no beauty shop in town open and Monday classes around the corner, panicking in my dorm room with my dirty 4-inch afro.

My friends Liz and Kristin, both black, huddled around my bewildered head. They washed the fro — which seemed to make it even more intractable. Then, taking ginger stabs with the comb, tried to style it into submission. It was too short for a pony. Too wild-looking with a headband. Too unkempt for a shake-and-go.

Finally Kristin ran her hands through the angry knots on my head “Ceeelieee,” she called out in her best Oprah-Winfrey-as-Harpo voice, then fell back onto the dorm bed laughing hysterically.

I didn’t think it was funny.

Kristin spent the next few days apologizing. But that incident stayed with me.

Recently, one of my blog readers sent an email.

“It’s been fun/frustrating figuring out my hair texture and what it likes. The problem is my mother has berated me everyday since (which has only been for 2-3 weeks). Yesterday she said the following “What’s wrong with your hair?” “You look like a slave””

Slave, field hand, buckwheat, Celie. It sounds so familiar. Many people still associate natural hair with these things. They hear the word “natural” and their minds trail off to black-and-white photos of slave/sharecropping families, standing smilelessly against barn walls, hair more knotted than their tired brows.

Instinctually, this association makes me angry. But I also understand why people make it.

As a disclaimer, I fully understand that there are people who — no matter how gorgeous the head of hair — will affiliate being natural with poverty and blight.

But it is also true that we as natural women aren’t quite there yet. Of course there are plenty success stories of women who go natural and proceed to grow out luscious, full heads of kinky, coily, curly hair.

But there are also plenty stories of natural women whose hair is dry, won’t grow, won’t even budge. Like natural hair of the early 1900s — a time of poor scalp health and virtually no education.

Did my poorly-cared-for freshman fro deserve to be derided? No. But it didn’t deserve to be applauded either. As black women we won’t be able to break the association of natural hair with “slave hair” until we learn how to manage our scalps and our strands, and release the bondage of stagnant, frustrating hair.

For more natural hair related commentary, news and inspiration please visit

– Leila Noelliste


  • Melissa Danielle

    I have to admit, after I cut my locks and started working with my afro, all those memories of working with my tightly coiled hair that seemed to suck up every last bit of oil came rushing back. It’s daunting. Right now, I wear my hair in a Caesar. I have the head for it and love the minimal maintenance, but I know that once I’m ready to start growing it back I’ll be making regular visit to the salon for coils and two-strand twists.

  • Kaikou

    Yeah I’ve been there and there is no denying the fact that person is or was trying to belittle you for whatever reason. But like you said there is a wave going for naturals and educating yourself is the first step.

  • Shari

    Awesome article, Leila. Thanks for being so honest.

  • kadiane*francophone

    ” As black women we won’t be able to break the association of natural hair with “slave hair” until we learn how to manage our scalps and our strands, and release the bondage of stagnant, frustrating hair.”

    I would rather says: As black women we won’t be able to break the association of natural hair with “slave hair” until we stop associating it with slave hair ourselves. The reason why people do not even bother learn how to manage it is because the don’t want that hair anyway. I mean a lot of people know how to manage their hair and still get called names. Also a lot of naturals have very loose curly hair but still NEVER go out without flat ironing because deep down they want to distance themselves from blackness (just a little bit). I mean they can’t say that White blogs could not have showed them how to manage their curls.

    I only started learning how to manage my hair after i stopped looking down on it. Not before.

  • Shanetta

    When I first went natural, my sister called me Kunta, and Kizzy, the Roots special had been on all week on TV ONe so……….

  • Taylor

    Weaves remind me of slaves. Or shall I say slaves to eurocentricity. Natural haired sisters tend to be highly educated, open minded, unique, and not stereotypical.

  • KYCurly

    RE: ” As black women we won’t be able to break the association of natural hair with “slave hair” until we learn how to manage our scalps and our strands, and release the bondage of stagnant, frustrating hair.”

    While I agree that learning how to take care of natural hair is paramount, it should be in tandem with viewing the hair that grows out of our heads as beautiful regardless of what products we use to style it. I know women who know how to take care of their natural hair, but still struggle with seeing it as beautiful.

    Since I view curly/coily/kinky/nappy hair as beautiful, I don’t stop long enough to be offended by a statement like “slave hair” because that’s what “slave hair” was; it was natural and it was not straight. Anyone making such a statement about my hair or any natural hair is saying a lot more about themselves, not me or my hair, and I don’t take on other people’s baggage.

    I also prefer “take care of” rather than “manage” my hair because “manage” leads easily to viewing natural hair as “unmanageable,” a premise I reject; my hair is not some wild animal that needs to be wrangled.

  • Ev`Yan

    This was a great article. It really made me think about my own hang-ups regarding being natural (just BC-ed about a week ago!). Without realizing it, I have equated natural hair with slave hair. It’s awful, & I’m not proud of those sub-conscious thoughts. Currently, now that I am going natural myself, I’m in the position to confront those demons head on & ask why I feel (felt) the way that I do (did).

    I really appreciate this article because it brought awareness to my own hesitations when it comes to natural hair.

  • Laquita Thomas-Banks

    Great article.

  • Caro

    I totally agree with you .. Same thing happened with me.. I realized how versatile were my natural hair when I stopped relaxing, braiding, waving etc….