Black, White, and Belonging: My Brush With Curlfest
This biracial reporter’s journey to hair acceptance took years of navigating a beauty world that left her needing a space to celebrate her curls.
As a little girl, my hair salon was the living room floor. I would sit in front of my mother as she listed my options—ponytails, braids, half-up/half-down. All were relatively easy, but none were painless as I sat tearfully while a standard hairbrush ripped through the knots in my curly hair.
Being mixed was a fact of my life, but not something that I considered notable. People asked me all the time what race I was, and I’d tell them and think nothing more of it. My hair was thick and curly because my dad was black. But it wasn’t “black hair” because my mom was white.
My curly hair looked like a dream to friends and passersby but was a nightmare to live with it due to the lack of mainstream products and education for my thick locks. No one in my family knew how to take care of mixed hair in the ’90s.
In store after store, there were the “normal” products like Suave and L’Oréal products geared toward white women, and then there was the “ethnic hair” aisle, or in most stores a shelf or two.
Then there was my hair—right in the middle, not quite belonging and invisible among the plethora of products that promised to be a miracle worker. So my sisters and I waded through hair purgatory with no YouTube tutorials with styles and product reviews to guide us.
And while we oscillated between hairstyles, we also navigated the social politics of our hair. Growing up trying to find a place in the world—and particularly in the beauty world—has been anything but easy for someone in between like me. The culture wanted me to pick a side, but neither side was prioritizing my needs, and my physical characteristics couldn’t conform to either demographic.
Now in my 20s, my journey has come full circle. Hair can tell a story for any person, but especially someone like me or my sisters and other women like us, it’s been much more.
Thanks to trial and error and many, many products, I’ve come around to fully embracing my curls. They still have a mind of their own, but rather than trying to make them bend to my will, or that of a brush, I collaborate with them. The tangles I used to violently rip at, I now gently untangle to assist in creating volume and shape.
My renewed sense of self and love of my curls was reinforced at Curlfest 2018.
In its fifth year, the festival celebrates the beauty of natural hair specifically within the black community. Drawing over 20,000 attendees to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, it’s part hair tutorial, part Pinterest board inspiration, part reunion, but more than that a moment to just be in a sea of afros, dreadlocks, twist outs, and spirals.
In a time where every move—especially for people of color—is political, Curlfest is both that and not at the same time. For people of color under the Trump administration and in a country with a history like America’s, our existence is inherently political.
In a world where black and brown people are patrolled by our white peers or assaulted by the officers meant to protect us, or just bothered by those who are different than us, Curlfest creates a temporary bubble in which to congregate freely with the added bonus of learning about new products and techniques to really celebrate our curls.
“Curlfest means community, it means authenticity, it means come to a place where you can feel yourself, find representations of who you are in every way shape or form,” Simone Mair, member of the Curl Girl Collective which produces the event told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “If you wanna feel like you’re at home, this is where it is.”
As I surveyed all the products at Curlfest, it reminded me of how far the natural hair space has progressed since my childhood days of going through bottles and bottles of apple-scented Suave Kids detangling spray that functioned more or less as a placebo against my knotted hair.
When I was 9 or 10 and started doing my own hair, my oldest sister taught me how to scrunch my hair to achieve the just-out-of-the-shower look I always wanted. I’d wet my hair and then apply generous amounts of mousse, gel, and hairspray which turned my bird’s nest into a space helmet.
The crunchy spirals moved with me and stayed in perfect corkscrews. I tried the technique on my blonde best friend. Her thin hair fell flat, and I couldn’t understand why. I scrunched for special occasions throughout elementary school, but generally kept up my painful ritual of dry-brushing.
In middle school, I opted for two braids— it was simple, efficient and kept the hair out of my face. In high school and college I burned through flat iron after flat iron to achieve bone straight hair.
The method, albeit damaging, gave me the ability to style my hair effortlessly. Though the initial process took around 2 hours and resulted in countless skull burns, I’d go up to two weeks without having to deal. My natural curls I had wrestled with all my life were ironed invisible. Now years later, among Curlfest attendees I felt free.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I would fit in at the festival but I was wrong. My hair was an obvious ticket into the community, but I wondered if I was going to be met with suspicion.
Being mixed race often comes with an ambiguity that leaves onlookers guessing. I have Latino people speaking to me in Spanish on the street, and then I have black people asking me if my hair is really mine. Then I have white people hitting me with the “What are you?” question whenever it’s appropriate. Hint: it never is.
Still, at the festival, I didn’t feel like I had to explain why I was there—nobody did, regardless of whether they were white, black or brown. It was understood that we were all there to celebrate each other and spend time learning from each other.
I found brands I’d never heard of and new products from brands I’ve loved for a long time. This time, I may not have a found a new technique that’s going to change how I do my hair, but I did find a community that’s going to support me no matter what I do with it next.