By Deborah Johnson
When I was four my mother traumatised me in a way in which I thought I could never forgive her.
Tired of my consistent resistance and whinging whenever she attempted to thread my hair she had, unbeknownst to me, decided to cut it all off.
The morning of a school trip may I add.
Naively I sat in the bath with my eyes closed as instructed and offered no question as to what the sensation of feathers falling over me was.
When I was allowed to open my eyes, I hopped out of the bath innocently and headed over to the sink to brush my teeth as usual. Looking up into the mirror the reflection staring back at me wasn’t my own.
Yes the eyes, nose, and mouth so obviously inherited from my mum were the same, people had always commented on how similar we looked but where she still had her thick and full head of hair, I stood aghast at the uneven tuffs she had left me with.
And bawled my eyes out.
She pleaded with me at 13 when I decided to relax mine. Her pleading fell on death ears and unlike 7 years prior I had full control over the destiny of my hair and was convinced that straighter and smoother was the gateway to becoming to feeling at ease in my own beauty.
The dyeing of my hair various shades of purple/red/blue were met with tears as she bemoaned that I was forever ruining its texture, and I I would return with words to the effect of: “you ruined it the day you decided it send me to school looking like a bush baby”.
These are two things that we have never agreed on but also things that we both felt strongly about and formed integral parts of how we individually viewed ourselves.
My mum’s comments on how inelegant and crazy I looked went ignored and I found such frustration in how much she cared about other people’s opinions.
Eventually we stopped attending family gatherings. About two years ago I discovered a rift had been planted between her and an aunt owing to her (my mum’s) defence of me.
It isn’t without irony that we should find ourselves here now. Working together over the thing that has long been a contentious issue between us.
Don’t get me wrong; I have the most amazing relationship with her. Over the years we’ve come to accept and in fact nurture our differences, something that comes with age and in the realisation that we’re not that dissimilar.
It was in my first year at university when during a conversation that she told me she was opening a hair salon called SIMPLYGorgeous.
Ashamedly, my first response was “You are not serious?”. She had never previously mentioned any desire to start her own business- let alone a hair salon.
In retrospect I can understand why.
Whilst working her day job she would attend evening courses, and after being made redundant she established enough confidence to began working at a number of hair salons in order to get a rounded experience before reaching her end game – to open one of her very own.
In parallel I was out living the carefree life afforded to me by the sacrifices of a Nigerian immigrant mother. She was and always has grafted to create better opportunities for my brothers and me, and saw now as her time.
I dropped out of university in my second year, a decision my mum was mortified about, blaming herself for what she saw as ‘my indifference’ over my future.
Again our relationship became strained. University was never going to be for me and in all honesty the reason I went was because I knew how proud it would make her (it’s a badge of honour for any Nigerian mother to say her child has a degree) .
Although I was aware of the great privilege, I felt hindered by being at university.
Moving back home I threw myself into PR internships and eventually got a full time position, deciding that this was the career path I wanted to go down.
Over the years my mum would suggest I get involved in the “great family business” but I had no desire or skill to do hair, and that was the only avenue I saw when looking on it. She would accept this, content with the fact that I was working and showing some of the determination and ambition she thought absent in my decision to leave uni.
The 6 days a week- and on some occasions Sundays- to accommodate a client’s schedule. I’ve watched her do this for about 10 years now. Her determination, graft, frustration and tears – all without quitting – it’s not within her to quit but it is within her to slow down, something that I’ve watched as she’s gotten older.
Whilst she was working to build her own dream I was slowly questioning what I was working to build. Working within the beauty industry provided great insight into how overlooked people of colour are from a consumer and business level and I began to understand the importance of creating opportunities within your own communities as a vital means of elevation.
I understood that I wanted to do just that but did not fully understand how. It was during this process that I came to realise that working with my mum on the family business is the path I’d overlooked for so long.
Reflecting on salon experiences of my youth and through conversations with my friends I’ve realised that the ‘Afro hair salon experience’ has not really evolved over the years, something that my mum agreed on.
I’ve heard and witnessed people’s frustrations with timing at Afro hair salons, girlfriends tell me that they find visits to their salons as a daunting chore because of rowdy atmospheres or being treated as an inconvenience – things I recalled as a child.
But I’d never fully understood why this was the case. During research I was told, ”It won’t ever change, black people understanding that they have to wait”. This was a statement that shocked and spurred me to try and make SIMPLYGorgeous different.
Who says we don’t deserve better just because it has become the status quo?
We’re currently in the process of re-branding and re-configuring the salon, the long term goal for SIMPLYGorgeous is to create a ‘destination Afro Hair Salon’, at an affordable price point, that provides a top level service to all customers seeking the best in afro hair styles, care and products but also with an emphasis on supporting and elevating black community and business as a whole.
A salon in more ways than one, SIMPLYGorgeous will act as a space for like-minded women to gather for a cross section of SIMPLYG events covering beauty, art, culture and much more with the idea of encouraging knowledge and conversation and further connection amongst women of colour,, within our own community.
Our first SIMPLYG event will be this summer. We’re working with Gina Knight of Natural Belle , who I have longed admired and met through my work in PR to hold workshops on how to create your own custom made wigs as part of her new service offering The Wig Witch.
Women like Gina and Oyin of The Good Hair Club are great examples of women of colour creating great services for individuals like me, and I believe that in order for ‘black business’ to compete, that we as a community have to support that. Initiatives such as the recently launched #UKBlackOwnedBusinesses are a great insight to how many opportunities there are to do so.
This is just the beginning for my mother and I, she says that the salon was started in 2006 and now we are watching it grow. It’s going to be a hard and long journey, but one that she’s made for so long.
and visit The Wig Witch Custom made wig service
Visit The Good Hair Club
Visit UK Black Owned Business
by Rose Miyonga
Last week, TK was fortunate to have the sparkled voice of Tahmina Beghum of XXY magazine as she shared her experience of dual identity and frustrations with rigid concepts of personhood. This week, we are so excited for Rose Miyonga, one of our contributing editors to share with us her experiences the same subject.
My mother is White British and my father is Black Kenyan.
My sisters, Poppy and Jasmine and I have had to explain what this means to people our whole life, so I have been aware of my racial identities for as long as I can remember.
During my early years, my family lived in Brixton. I don’t remember my brown skin or my hair (usually in dreadlocks or cut short) being an issue. Of course, in my immediate family, it didn’t matter.
I knew that my parents had different skin colours, just as I knew as they had different eye colours and that they loved my sister and me. It was just one thing that blended in with a whole host of other things that happened to be true about my family.
When I was six years old, our family moved to Kenya, and my sister and I were enrolled in a local school on the outskirts of Nairobi. The cracks in our ‘deeply flawed’ system of categorisation and classification of ‘race’ were clearly exposed when our race changed somewhere between Heathrow and Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Suddenly, without warning or consultation, we were white. To my Kenyan classmates, my skin was pale, my hair was soft, and I could see that relatively, I was more white than most of my friends on the school playground… It was a lesson in ‘context’.
This is not to say that race and racism do not exist, as the realities that we have to battle with every day make them evidently tangible, but that race and racism were created and constructed as tools to justify slavery and subjugation; to divide and dehumanise.
I didn’t fully understand how other people’s perception of my skin tone would come to deeply affect me when I was six, but I had learned something important, and something that would repeat itself in various iterations over and over again:
As a teenager in rural England, my Blackness was constantly highlighted by my peers, and I was forced to grapple with it, accept it, and eventually fall in love with it, and when I spent two years at school in the U.S., I remember trying in vain to explain to some (not all) of the people I encountered that I was actually not just black.
I’ve given up explaining now (well, for the most part). Although my heritage does matter, I don’t want my skin colour to define how I live my life. I can’t control how I am perceived and treated by others, but I can control how I look at myself, and I choose to look at myself without judgment, to see my beauty without boundaries, and to love myself without limitations
by Rose Miyonga
Andrea Pippins is an artist, illustrator and designer from Washington, D. C., whose work seeks to inspire a generation of women. Her first book, I Love My Hair is a colouring book that invites people of all ages and colours to celebrate their hair for its unique beauty. Her second book, Becoming Me, is a glorious exploration of what it means to be a young woman of colour. It asks us to doodle, scribble and write our own investigation into ourselves.
I spoke to her about beauty, creative arts, and the importance of self-expression.
I spent my early years, from the age of six months to four years, in a sewing studio in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, D.C. The studio was run by a French woman named Solange Cody and was occupied by a team of four women who spent their days constructing, hemming, and altering clothes. These ladies, except for one African American woman, were all immigrants—including my mother, who’s from Brazil. While my mother was sewing and fitting clothes, I would be drawing and colouring for hours. I believe that space planted the seeds for my own creativity; my love for textiles, patterns, and colour; and my desire to become an entrepreneur. But that all would come together much later.
I didn’t really know about graphic design until I saw Halle Berry playing the role of Angela in the film Boomerang. Angela was an art director and artist, and it was my first time seeing a woman of colour doing that kind of work. Even though it was fiction, it blew me away. But it wasn’t until I started applying for college that I really learnt about careers in graphic design, or what was then called commercial art or graphic art. I applied to Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and though it took several tries because of a lacklustre portfolio, I was finally accepted into the design program.
After working as a graphic designer at companies like Hallmark Cards and TV Land/Nick@Nite, I returned to Tyler and graduated with an MFA in Graphic and Interactive Design, so I could teach design at a college level. Eventually, I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue a path as a full-time freelance designer and illustrator. Currently, my work is transitioning from graphic design to a focus on art and illustration. I’ve always solved design problems with illustration, not realising that that is where my skills and talent flourish.
Aside from my mother, I would say the media heavily influence my perception of beauty. My mother had a subscription to Essence magazine, and I remember absorbing those pages filled with beautiful women. But I always saw it as a publication for adults. Where was the magazine featuring little girls who looked like me or had hair like me?
As a teen I loved Seventeen magazine, but honestly, at the time those pages didn’t show anyone who reflected me. So it was difficult to find style, hair, and makeup advice.
As a kid and teen I watched a lot of TV, and thank goodness it was during a time that black TV and film was doing so well. From TV shows like Living Single and A Different World to movies like Love Jones and Boomerang, I did have a lot of positive references that influenced my ideas of beauty. There could have been more, but having those showed me more of a range than what I see today.
I Love My Hair happened when I met an art director at Random House and sent her some ideas for a colouring book last spring, none of which had anything to do with hair. After looking at my artwork, she responded asking if I’d be interested in doing a colouring book about hair, and I said, “OMG, of course.” I didn’t have a specific plan of what to include, I just knew that I wanted it to be fun and that I wanted to show a wide range of hairstyles and ideas of hair. There were 84 pages to fill, so it was a creative challenge to figure out what would be interesting and what would work in terms of filling it with colour. Because “hair” is so specific, and because I didn’t want it to be just about hairstyles, I had to be creative in my interpretations. So I explored abstract representations, lettering, and accessories and tools related to hair.
I don’t know the numbers, so I can’t speak about the gap in the market for books celebrating women of colour, but I can speak about what stories are being celebrated and highlighted. I do think there is a gap in the kinds of stories that are told about women of colour, and a huge gap in what gets recognition, awarded, written about, etc. I assume that fewer of us get opportunities to write books, but also wonder if it’s really that fewer of us get recognized. Or a combination of both. Either way, it is frustrating.
Because of my family and community, I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of self. But in certain areas of my life, I can be a perfectionist, and at times this results in high expectations and me being hard on myself. In the last few years, I’ve learned to surrender, be easy, and give myself a break. This also means not working so much and allowing myself to just be.
I would tell twelve-year-old Andrea to always be herself. That who she is enough, and that life is too short, so to not take things too seriously.
I am a strong believer that image is power. Whether it’s in propaganda, a story being told, or an advertisement, an image really drives the message. The people behind media understand this and use images to tell how us how to see the world. And until we get people of colour behind the wheel as directors, producers, cinematographers, artists, and designers, we won’t be able to control how we are portrayed or the stories that are being told about us. In this way, we can give all people access to visual expression, which is important. The beauty, though, is that we live in a time when the tools to create images and tell stories are readily available. And people are taking advantage of it. We can already see how the media is shifting because of that access.
But on a micro level, being able to understand what you see is just as important as being able to read. So regardless of your level of interest in art and design, you need to be able to interpret the millions of messages being thrown at you everyday. You need to be able to decipher and question the intent behind an image. And with the arts being eliminated from our school programs, people aren’t developing that skill.
Having access to the visual arts is about self-expression AND developing a form of literacy.
My favourite artists are also people who inspire me, such as Emory Douglas, Kerry James Marshall, Sister Corita Kent, Frida Kahlo, Malick Sidibe, and Nina Chanel Abney, among many others.
Follow Andrea on Instagram
Featured image by Danielle Finney, all other images courtesy of Andrea Pippins
By Rose Miyonga
As soon as I step off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it envelops me in a familiar embrace and I know that although I am more than 4000 miles away from London, I am home.
It was never my intention to take a year out from my degree at University College London and move to Kenya. It was actually conceived during a conversation with my sister, Poppy, who is a photographer and lives in Nairobi, on the way to Heathrow Airport.
She suggested. “I can’t just…” I stuttered
“Why not? If you want to be a writer, write, and if you don’t like being in London, come to Kenya.”
So I did.
On the outside, it could look like I was in the throes of a breakdown: I dropped out of university, got a tattoo and moved to another continent, but I was actually calm and joyful, seeing my life with clarity and enthusiasm for the first time in what felt like years.
Kenya is where I was born, and it is my Fatherland, so in a way it made total sense to go back there, move in with my sister and get a job as a writer. I went with the blessing of my family and my university, and I didn’t feel nervous stepping off the plane into that warm Nairobi night. Instead, I had managed to find a remarkable power: confidence.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in making things happen, in asking for what you want and embracing opportunities (and working hard, sometimes).
When I arrived in Kenya, I didn’t really have a plan. Poppy and I went back to her house and ate brownies and chatted and laughed long into the night, and the next few days were spent visiting old friends and enjoying the sunshine.
I had been living independently to varying degrees since I was 16, but support from my family, scholarships and student loans had meant that I’d never felt entirely financially self-sufficient. A paying job was for the first time not a way to make extra cash, but an urgent necessity.
Luckily, Poppy once more had a simple solution, and introduced me to a friend who offered me her job: my first full-time paying job as a writer.
I very deliberately went back to Kenya for myself, to nurture myself and reconnect with my Kenyan identity and my Kenyan family, to seek new adventures in a place that I call home.
I stopped acting out of fear and obligation and started acting with confidence and vitality.
Now, back in drizzly London and preparing for a new adventure in Madrid this September, I carry the memory of re-learning what I first learned as a young child: how to ask for what I want and how to approach life with confidence and a willingness to have fun along the way.
Rose Miyonga is [currently] a London-based student, writer and general adventurous woman. Born in Kenya to a British mother and Kenyan father, she has lived, studied and worked in the UK, Kenya and the United States, and hopes to make a career out of traveling, learning and sharing stories.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
All photos courtesy of Poppy Miyonga.
Emma Dabiri is a Teaching Fellow at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. She’s written for ThandieKay in the past on race representation in beauty and we’re delighted to have her contribute her thoughts again, this time on the necessity of afro hair. Over to Emma….
Society commends itself on being progressive, multicultural and diverse. We are told that we are equal, that we are lucky to live in this century, in such a tolerant environment, with access to these privileges.
When we try to interject this narrative with the realities of our lived experience, to articulate the challenges and complexities of navigating society in the body of a black woman; the varying degrees of injustice, violence, pain and disrespect that we are subjected to, often for no reason beyond the fact that we are black women, we are frequently met with resistance that spills over into venom.
Discussions about Afro hair provide a reminder of the constraints placed on our bodies, in this age of alleged equality. The fact that having the audacity to wear your hair as it grows from your head remains a politicized act.
Despite the presence of a number of highly visible black women, from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé, some (people) remain shocked when faced with the reality of what most black women’s hair actually looks like (when it is not chemically straightened or hidden under a weave).
We (still) face stricture and censure in the education system and many professional settings, if we are so bold as to imagine that society might accept us looking like ourselves, rather than insisting we make ourselves into imitations of others. Many of the icons we can readily recall who have sported Afros were revolutionaries.
Increasingly this is changing, but progress is slow. Even within the natural hair movement, the beauty ideal is not set by the fully picked out ‘fro. A more palatable, ‘mixed-race’ curl – rather than the resplendent Afro in all its Africaness, remains what many aspire to. That’s right I said it, AFRICAN.
So go on, seize your Africaness. Get intimate with it, make yourself comfortable in it, never ever underestimate the beauty of our hair. For it is ours and ours alone, and surely like most things that are rare, is it too not exceptionally precious?