Supporting natural hair in Louisiana--a state without the CROWN Act
Nicollette M. Davis got her first hair relaxer when she was 5 years old. In her early 20s, she decided to cut off her chemically treated hair and return it to its natural state—a journey of self embrace with many emotional and physical ups and downs, she said.
The movement to embrace natural hair has been growing in recent years, with advocacy organizations and lawmakers pushing for the passage of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment and educational opportunities based on hair texture or the hairstyles worn by some communities of color, including braids, Afros, and dreadlocks. As of July, 13 states have passed the legislation into law except for Louisiana. Because of resistance at the state legislative level, the city councils in Shreveport and New Orleans passed CROWN Act ordinances that went into effect this summer.
To help support others in their natural hair transition, Davis started the Natural Hair Support Group in 2016 at East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s Greenwell Springs Road Regional branch. There, she is an adult services and reference librarian. Before the pandemic, these monthly meetings drew dozens of women, men, and children who shared concerns and tips for maintaining healthy hair, naturally.
Davis shared her story below.
In a 1972 interview with The Boston Globe, award-winning actor Cicely Tyson discussed the backlash she received for wearing her natural hair on screen. She said some of the criticism came from other Black women because they didn’t perceive natural hair as beautiful based on Eurocentric beauty standards.
Since then—and especially over the past 10 years—the popularity of natural hair in the Black community has led many to give up chemically straightening their hair. Many Black women—myself included—had never felt our hair in its natural state. In 2013, after seeing other Black women prominently rocking their natural hair, I decided to embrace mine.
I spent hours researching styles and products and watching YouTube videos. I grew out my hair for almost two years and cut off the chemically straightened portion in 2015. I thought I was well prepared to deal with this new and beautiful texture, but I wasn’t. Week after week, hairstyles failed, and products didn’t work.
Around the same time, I started a job as a library technician at East Baton Rouge Parish Library, where I currently work, and was tasked with creating monthly programming for adults. As I was leaving work one evening, it hit me. Based on blog posts and videos—and my own physical and emotional struggles—I knew there was a need for a supportive, in-person community for those interested in natural hair.
The very first meeting of the Natural Hair Support Group, in April 2016, had almost 40 participants, creating the foundation for one of our library’s most consistently attended programs. Today, the group’s email list contains nearly 200 people. While these numbers are wonderful, the mark of a successful program is impact.
One story I’ll never forget: In early 2020, a teen and her father came to a meeting, and the teen shyly introduced herself, barely making eye contact with other attendees. Her father introduced himself and said, “I’m here today because my daughter doesn’t like her hair, and she doesn’t believe her hair’s texture is just as beautiful as loose curls or coils.” She appeared embarrassed but agreed with the comment. Her words and her father’s deep concern moved other attendees of all ages to offer stories of their growing confidence in themselves and their hair. After the meeting, the teen visibly held her head higher.
Witnessing a community lift someone during their formative years was one of the best moments of my career and life.
Because of the pandemic, meetings are now virtual. Zoom burnout is prevalent, so over the past year, we have had only a handful of formal get-togethers. Despite those barriers, many attendees are now friends and stay in touch outside the library. The goal is to have quarterly meetings, at minimum in 2021, to help make the support group accessible to those with busy schedules.
To start a similar program at your library, you have to have someone on staff with a deep, personal passion for and understanding of natural hair. Invite and pay speakers and cosmetologists who are experts on natural hair. While it’s important to share resources and information, the key is to build community.
NICOLLETTE M. DAVIS is adult services and reference librarian at the Greenwell Springs Road Regional Branch Library in Baton Rouge. Contact her at ndavis at ebrpl.com or @literaryjones
Feature photo: Model Amani Huell by photographer Brooks Leibee
This article first published by the American Libraries Magazine.