“Hair” We Are, Naturally Rooted

– The Natural Hair Movement Adding Texture to Georgetown

The new black hair renaissance – the modern Natural Hair Movement – has its roots in America. Through social media, African-American women have been striving to re-educate themselves about their natural hair and the very essence of their blackness. They are learning to care for their hair with love and patience, embracing it and promoting it with pride. They are wearing their hair with the joy that 400 years of oppressive forgetfulness could not quell and are making a statement. They are saying: “This is us and we will not be changed.”

African-American women are no longer alone. Over the past five years, the cries from their movement have reverberated around the globe and the movement itself has grown out of its shell multiple times. Like a hermit crab, it has crossed oceans and shining seas to travel from shore to shore and take up residence in new, virgin spaces. As it wanders and grows in both size and strength, it leaves its mark on the global African Diaspora.

One can see the influences of the movement everywhere now. Women are sporting kinky twist-outs or coily flexi-rod sets. Men who are joining the movement are spicing up their fro-hawks with springy, spiky curls. Both women and men are donning sculpted afros like dark, textured halos glowing golden brown in the tropical sunshine.

Business is listening. Every few months, a new product line tailored for black hair is hitting the shelves in America, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Barbados; natural hair has successfully infiltrated New York Fashion week and day-time talk shows like The View are dedicating segments of their programs to this new, influential trend.

Now, Guyana’s own natural hair movement is gaining momentum and growing fast. Over the past five years, both women and men in Georgetown and the surrounding areas have been learning to embrace their natural hair and are following in the footsteps of the African-Americans.

“When you walk around town, you see an afro here and an afro there.” Denisha Victor explained, her eyes shining with gleeful excitement. Victor is the founder of Koko – a small beauty-supply store located in the Robb Street Mini-Mall. She herself recently went through her own natural hair journey and, through her experiences, was inspired to open her own business to cater to the vacant niche she noticed on the Guyanese market.

In August 2015, Victor and one of her co-workers decided to go on a joint natural hair journey. “I think curiosity is what caused me to return to natural,” she said, “For months and months, I was just like ‘I wonder what my natural hair texture looks like?’”

She, like many other young Guyanese women, had been relaxed since she was six years old. The chemicals damaged and eventually broke her hair, so she cut it then, only to relax it again to avoid the shame of having natural hair in high school. She is a young woman now, and her curiosity and support from her sister-friend encouraged her to grow out her relaxer and cut off the straight ends in January 2016.

Then, she hit a wall. At some point during her transition, she used YouTube to learn about the many natural products available on the international market. There was only one problem.

“I wasn’t finding products,” she reminisced, “Or, you would go to some stores and they can’t explain what the product is. Like, I saw this thing called ‘co-wash’ and I was like ‘What the hell is this?’ and the person there couldn’t give me that information. They didn’t know what it was.”

But newbie-naturalista Denisha was determined to find a way to gain access the products she really wanted so that she, too, could pamper her new, textured hair. She took initiative, importing her first batch of products (a curl sponge and some Shea Moisture and As I Am products) and then the idea just dawned on her: “Why not do this as a business?” she asked herself. After all, business was always an interest for her and, between her daytime job and her business, she could make a few extra dollars while supporting and uplifting other black women in the movement.

So, in early June, Victor got to work. She made her own Facebook page and started promoting her business idea. She posted product info, inspirational videos of black women and men with long natural hair, and styling videos and pictures. She posted a picture with various product lines and asked the Guyanese internet community “Hey! What do you guys want to see?” But the reception seemed lukewarm. Her initial posts only garnered a few likes and a handful of comments. As as the weeks went by, however, a handful of people showed a distinct interest in her initiative and thus, she decided to open her store.

She found a tiny rental in the new Robb Street Mini-Mall, put up a sign board outside, made her logo, brought in four shelves and a make-shift reception desk and stocked her shelves high with over ten natural hair-care lines that catered to both relaxed and natural women.

“My anticipation was that it wasn’t going to be a lot of people,” she said with a laugh, “Originally, Koko was only supposed to focus on natural hair, but I thought the market wasn’t big enough, so we catered to both.”

When at last her opening day came, nothing prepared Victor and lone employee – Donnett Barnwell – for what they saw that bright Saturday morning. Before they even opened, women started lining up in front of the store, anxiously waiting for the shopping green light.

“And people just kept coming and coming!” Denisha said as she and Barnwell shared a hearty laugh at the recollection, “We were working from 9 to 1!” It was like the women of Georgetown had been waiting – impatiently and eagerly – for someone to cater to the movement. In those few hours, Denisha and Donnett discovered that their message was heard much louder and clearer than they had expected. Women with full afros or afro puffs, head-wraps and lace-front wigs descended upon their tiny store and picked some of their shelves completely clean. The demand for products was so intense that, less than a year into their business, Victor and Barnwell have had move to a bigger rental.

The new rental looks the same, except it has a small air-conditioning unit and a sliding window opening toward the hallway that leads to what seems to be the administrative part of the building. The walls are still the same shade of pink; the furry, grey carpet still spread across the concrete floor. The shelves still tower to ceiling with a new batch of various products, but she’s added two pairs of bargain bins at the bottom of the shelves where people can get old stock at a discount. There is even a small section set aside for local products like Granddad JAK Virgin Coconut Oil and Radiante’s Whipped Shea Butter Mix.

The Natural Hair movement isn’t just lingering in Georgetown, however. Victor noted that it is growing exponentially eastward along the coastline toward Berbice and down inland toward Linden. “The movement is probably slower in other parts of Guyana, but it’s getting there.” She said as she nodded with excitement, her own twist-out bouncing slightly as she moved. “I think a lot of women want to go natural, but they don’t have the encouragement,” she continued, “On a weekly basis, you might come across someone who wants to do the ‘big chop’ or ‘transition’. Because more women are [going natural], [other] women are being encouraged to do it as well. A lot of women just need a friend or relative to go natural so they have somebody to sorta have company to do it with.”

Through her page, Denisha seems to be creating a growing sisterhood of natural-haired women who provide company for new members of the movement. Amid posts about products and promotions, she occasionally posts inspirational videos, pictures, and quotes to encourage her clients to embrace their blackness, enjoy their natural beauty and be who they are. “The movement is all about encouraging self-acceptance and self-love,” she said, seconding the American Natural Hair activists. For her, the movement is much more than just embracing natural hair. It’s about reclaiming one’s blackness.

Her opinions on the movement are not unique, however. Adjacent to her new store, a fellow natural hair promoter and businesswoman,  Marcell Allen – owner of Angels Cloud Cosmetics and Body Shop – mentioned that her favourite part of the movement is helping new people join in. “Bottom line, I think everyone wants to go back to their roots,” she said with a wide smile, “It feels good…when people would ask questions in terms of ‘You know what? I want to go natural. What do you think I should do? You think is a good thing or not?’ and I would give them advice because I know it’s a good thing.”

Even women in the first-year communications studies class, many of whom have natural hair themselves, agree with this sentiment. These academic naturalistas, even the ones who are still relaxed, agree that the movement is beautiful, liberating, cute and a symbol of the struggle for blackness and natural beauty.

However, they were a bit more critical of some aspects of the movement.

“I wish [business] people would let people know that natural hair is expensive. [Business] people don’t show the negatives. [They] just want to see products sell,” Lawanda McAllister complained. Lawanda further explained that if she couldn’t steal her mother’s products, maintaining her natural hair would be so much harder because of the expense.

“[Natural hair] is hard to manage,” Nateshia – another student – said, “but it’s totally worth it.” Nateshia and her friend, Finidi, are displeased about the bias they see in the community.

“No one has the same hair texture,” Finidi said amid a few giggles before her mood and tone became more solemn, “Like me. I have true black-man hair. I do a style today and tomorrow, it’s frizzy. And people laugh at me for it.”

“It’s like people don’t appreciate kinky hair.” Nateshia continued, “Like, everyone is trying products to go curly. What about texture appreciation. It’s like people trying to go dougla, not natural,” she elaborated as she gestured to her own head of large, frizzy flat twists.

Alana Lewis, a student who has been natural longer than all of her companions, believes that the natural hair movement is just a phase, doomed to die like any other trend, “You gun ketch laugh when relaxer come back,” she said, much to the amusement of the women around her, “When natural hair go out of style, you gun see.”

But Denisha disagrees and she quoted the natural hair stylist, Vincenzo, who came to Guyana a few weeks ago for a natural hair event. “He was like, ‘How could something that is coming out of your head naturally be a trend?’. And that really stuck with me. Because your skin colour isn’t a trend. Your breasts isn’t a trend. I mean, you can change that if you want to, but naturally, that’s what it is. So, I don’t think it’s going to fade.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe the natural hair movement is permanent. Maybe Alana is right. Maybe relaxer will make a come-back and or maybe something different will take its place. But one thing that is certain is that, at least for now, the movement is growing.

At the end of the interview, I thanked Denisha for her time and made my way toward the exit. On my way out, two young girls scrambled into the mall. “Excuse me? Where’s Koko?” one of them panted at a man at the entrance as her companion tried to regain her bearings. The man pointed inward and showed them the large, golden “KOKO” on the distant wall. They hustled in, racing to get to the store before closing time. No matter who says what, the movement has taken root and it’s probably here to stay.

Author: Nikita Blair

Copyright of: Nikita Blair

Special thanks to Marcell Allen, Nateshia Issacs, Alana Lewis, Lawanda McAllister, Denisha Victor and Finidi Williams for allowing me to tap into, and publish, their stories.

Photo Credit: PBS

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