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“My natural hair has helped shape my identity.” —Christine Pembroke
St. Clair Detrick-Jules is a Washington, DC–based photographer and filmmaker whose work often advocates for social justice among marginalized groups in the US. Her first documentary as a student at Brown University, DACAmented, highlights the experiences of DACA recipients under the Trump administration. Detrick-Jules decided that her next project would focus on a deeply personal topic that hits even closer to home.
Dear Khloe: Love Letters to My Little Sister, Detrick-Jules’ new book, was inspired by her younger sister Khloe’s experience of being bullied at school for her natural hair. As a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, Detrick-Jules was moved to create a series of portraits and quotes that capture the experiences of black women today as they navigate the cultural stereotypes that are often applied to their hair. The result is an inspiring message of love and empowerment for not only her younger sister, but all women who have ever faced discrimination based on their physical appearance.
BuzzFeed News spoke with Detrick-Jules about her new book and the powerful message behind her pictures:
Can you discuss some of the concepts behind Dear Khloe?
The focus is on Black women’s hair: the diversity of it, the beauty of it, the magic of it, but also its painful history. Each of the 101 Black women has a different story to tell: Some speak about self-love and the liberation of getting the “big chop,” some share stories of their family members supporting — or vehemently opposing — their decision to go natural, some discuss the discrimination they’ve faced in school and in the workplace, and some discuss other topics related to natural hair and being Black, from colorism to sexism to learning about their African heritage.
“Hair is a part of a woman’s spirituality.” —Asha Hadiya
“To honor where our ancestors came from – and who we are now – is intrinsically beautiful.” —Elise Bryant
“My hair is aware of this ugly history, but we’ve made something beautiful out of it.” — Brigid Carmichael
I also hope that these photos — and the quotes that go with them — help people understand that there’s no “right way” to be natural. There are a ton of different reasons why Black women go natural, what natural hair means to us, and how we see, or don’t see, our hair as part of our identity.
Where did the series begin for you?
It all began when I received a phone call from my dad. My then–-year-old sister Khloe was self-conscious about her Afro — so self-conscious that she refused to go to school after receiving offensive comments from her classmates about her natural hair. I was angry at my sister’s classmates, angry at mainstream media for not representing enough Black women with natural hair, angry at myself for feeling so helpless.
I knew just telling Khloe her hair was beautiful wouldn’t do any good — it hadn’t worked for me or my girlfriends — and I realized that I had to find a way to show her. Getting a young Black girl to love her Afro is social justice, and it’s also uplifting, and there was just so much beauty and wisdom and power in what the women were telling me in our talks. So it ostensibly started with the phone call from my dad, but it really started 400 years ago, when we were brought here in chains and our hair history was interrupted. With my book — and with the natural hair revolution we’re witnessing — I’m hoping my little sister and all little sisters everywhere get back on track.
“My hair is professional.” —Ashley Nicholson
“I like natural things; I don’t like putting things on or in my body that are toxic.” —Laura Funderburk
“Frozen is my niece’s favorite movie. She’s like, ‘I want Elsa’s hair!’ — They need to give us some black princesses with natural hair.” —Dajae Scott
So this is a deeply personal project for you?
I haven’t met a Black woman who doesn’t have an intimate, complex relationship with her hair, and I’m no exception. I went to a majority Black school for kindergarten, but then moved to a majority white elementary school for first grade. That’s when I started feeling different, out of place, and — in some way I couldn’t yet express — inherently wrong: My skin was too dark, my facial features were too large, and my hair was too curly. And this is coming from the perspective of someone who has a loose curl pattern and light-skinned privilege. For someone like my sister, who has a much tighter curl and darker skin, I imagine the difference between her and her white classmates feels more significant.
This book is, of course, personal to me because many of the questions I asked the women during my interviews were drawn from my personal experiences. Feelings of rejection, self-doubt, desirability. As the women answered my questions, and went off on their own tangents, I saw my own “hair journey” reflected in theirs.
How do you meet your subjects?
I think I hide it pretty well, but I’m actually an overly sensitive introvert who stresses over social interaction, so I started by reaching out to people who I already knew and were least likely to reject me: my friends from high school and college. A lot of my girlfriends from high school had gone natural in college, so it was cool to reconnect and bond over our newfound love for our curls. I’d just graduated from Brown and moved back to DC, so my mom also recruited some of her students at the University of the District of Columbia, which is an HBCU, to be in my book.
“How do you unlearn hundreds of years of colonialism?” — Johanna Figueroa
“Our hair makes us unique.” —Adam Mbai
“One time I went to the salon to cut my hair so I could go natural and my mom was furious. She said my hair was going to be ‘nappy.'” —Leeann Jimenez (right).
After I exhausted those immediate resources, I had to turn towards the introvert’s nightmare: reaching out to complete strangers. There were a few women who I saw in public and asked on the spot to be in my book, but I found most of the women by searching natural hair hashtags on Instagram. I shot my shot.
What’s something you took away from this project that was unexpected?
Throughout the process of creating Dear Khloe, I’ve learned that there’s no liberation in self-love. I’ve learned that the opposite is also true: There is imprisonment in self-doubt, in self-loathing, and when we learn to love ourselves, that’s real freedom. To quote Bob Marley — whose music is permanently ingrained in my brain because my Afro-Caribbean dad played his music ’til we all went crazy — “None but ourselves can free our minds.”
I came into this project expecting to teach my sister self-love, but I came out of it realizing that I still have a long way to go too before I can honestly say I fully love myself. I’m getting there though!
What do you ultimately hope people will take away from these images?
For all the little Black girls out there, waiting for validation that may never come from mainstream media, from their families, from their classmates, may these images serve as a reminder that they are loved, they are seen, and there is an entire community of Black women with natural hair out there who support them. It’s my hope that little Black girls see themselves reflected in these photos.
For all my fellow Black women, may we find healing in these images. Khloe once cried when my friend came to visit because she’d just woken up and was embarrassed about her “messy” Afro and didn’t want my friend to see. So many Black women have experienced these feelings of shame, starting in our childhood, and that’s crazy. We’re so used to bottling up our pain; we haven’t been given time to heal from centuries’ worth of trauma. We’ve taken on so many roles, we’ve spent so much time trying to save this country from itself, but what about saving ourselves?
It’s my hope that the images in Dear Khloe give us the space to be vulnerable, to reconnect with our own emotions, and to heal, and may they grant us permission to smile, to laugh, and to rediscover the joy we once possessed as very young children before the weight of racism and sexism came crashing down on our shoulders. And for everyone else, it’s my hope that these images of powerful Black women remind them of their own strength and power. The love of the women in my book for themselves, for their hair, and for their communities radiates off of them, and this love, I hope, comes across in these photos.
“It’s all a learning process.” —Lattesha Webb
“I’ve gotten over the stigma of needing long hair to be beautiful.” —Imahia Stanford
“I am enough.” — Mariame Fofana
“I’m confident in myself, so I don’t care what others think of me.” —Ebony Walters
“Black women are held to this high standard of always having to look ‘put together.’ It took me a long time to realize it’s okay if my hair is ‘messy’ one day.” —Breanna Brummet-Swayze
Gabriel H. Sanchez is the photo essay editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York City.
Contact Gabriel H. Sanchez at [email protected]
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