Full of excitement, anticipation and popcorn mixed with M&M’s, I watched Black Panther in a packed movie theater on its opening weekend. Now I’m not an avid comic reader or anything, and I’d typically rather watch a superhero movie when it’s available to rent at home.
But this was so much more than a movie for me.
I grew up in a small, predominantly white, east coast town. There weren’t many black children in my school, and I found my image reflected in very few faces on the street. I was drawn towards images of black women in the media, pretending they were sisters I didn’t have, fantasizing about myself in their worlds.
I clung to the faces of unknown girls and women who, I thought, resembled what I should look like. Supporting characters often portrayed as women who struggled for their survival, trying to be understood. More often than not their look was strikingly dissimilar to mine. Their long, silky, straight hair was a stark contrast to my tightly coiled, often referred to as “nappy” hair. I found myself needing to recreate their look. To me, back then, the way they looked was synonymous with beauty.
Please don’t misunderstand—I grew up in a house that embraced who I was, and who I am. My mother always encouraged self-love. She instilled my deep love of literature and introduced the great musical artists of her time to me—ones that I still carry with me today and am now passing on to my children.
She would wear her short, natural hair out freely and would encourage me to do the same. But when the majority of people you see don’t look like you, you start to feel as though something you’re doing is wrong.
A cashier told me I looked like a boy with my afro when I was a young girl. Blessed with an infinite amount of empathy and a terribly thin skin, I was devastated. I would hide teen magazines that a friend gifted me under my pillow at night. Magazines that held pictures of young black girls with straight hair—silently saying secret prayers that would hopefully loosen my curls and therefore, would change my life. Would make me beautiful.
I begged and pleaded with my mother to allow me to relax my hair until she finally conceded. Sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, I was sure I would proudly walk out of the salon with my hair flowing in the wind. But, instead—I left the salon feeling mortified, not realizing that ‘straight’ didn’t equate ‘length’. And since I am eternally blessed with short hair that does not grow, I was left with a short, very dated, bouffant.
I was distraught. I still did not fit the Hollywood look. I begged my mother to allow me to get the new hairstyle I’d heard of—box braids. Neat, straight, long hair was exactly what I needed—the opposite of my coils.
My loving mother took pity on me, and took me to the salon. After two hours by bus each way, $300, and eight long and painful hours later, I had long, straight hair. Just like in the magazines.
The importance of this movie extends far beyond the seemingly simplicity of hair. The representation that’s shown, both on and off screen, shines blindingly bright like a beacon of hope.
The hope that my children will continue to see themselves represented in a new light. The need to highlight our stories of oppression and modern struggle are integral. Equally as important as these are the films that will showcase all sides of our stories. The stories that show all of our shades, that show our positivity, that show us thriving in a loving, worthy manner
The hope that my children will grow up in a world where they will continue to see those who bear a likeness to them as well as their friends. Blessed with the ability to see that they are not alone in a world that is just as much their oyster as anyone else’s.
The hope that my children will grow up in a world built on the knowledge learned from so many hard lessons everyone should have already learned. That when united, we will rise. That when separated, we cannot thrive. And that the importance of building each other up is necessary.
Self-love and personal growth are journeys that are never-ending. I recognize that appreciation of the self begins at home—and I hope to foster that with my children. Whether it be comparing afro sizes with my son, discussing ancestral roots with my stepdaughter, or massaging shea butter into my daughter’s curly hair. I try to instill that love.
My kids deserve to have their stories told and their likeness shared. We all deserve to be aware that there are many similarities in our stories and we’re not on this journey of life alone.
“Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. ”– African Proverb