Women Shaping the Conversation Around Hair

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell with Afro Pick sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas

New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell unveiled a two-story sculpture of a 28-foot-high steel Afro pick accented with a peace sign and a clenched fist. “All Power to All People,” by artist Hank Willis Thomas, drew selfie takers — and controversy on social media. Black hair is as much a part of our American fabric as Mardi gras and fight back from Katrina.

A Black woman’s hair is not only a form of her self-expression, self-love, but also celebrating her own beauty and Black excellence. Whether she’s showing off her thick coils and curls, wearing braids or locs, or experimenting with weaves, wigs and extensions, these freedoms of expression are under siege. We’ve long fought to overcome stereotypes and bias associated with a Black women’s unique hair types. Here we profile a few of the women fighting to keep those freedoms.

Annagjid “Kee” Taylor, 39, owner of Deeper Than Hair salon and YouTuber

Annagjid “Kee” Taylor, 39, owner of Deeper Than Hair salon and YouTuber. Photo courtesy of Annagjid “Kee” Taylor.

Last year, a video went viral in which Taylor spent three hours detangling the hair of a client who had not combed it in more than a year due to life and mental health struggles. But Taylor’s skill, patience and encouragement of all sisters to embrace our hair journeys is evident in every episode on her YouTube channel, Deeper Than Hair TV, which has more than 1 million followers. Taylor has re-created the emotional atmosphere of a Black salon virtually. Fostering camaraderie around sisterhood and our hair journeys, she generously offers tips, advice and tutorials. Sisters flock to her comments section to swap stories and support one another.

JoAni Johnson, 70, model

JoAni Johnson, 70, model. Photo courtesy of JoAni Johnson.

JoAni Johnson captured national attention when she was among the faces of Rihanna’s 2019 Fenty campaign. Her long, cascading salt-and-pepper hair is literal goals. Johnson’s embrace of her natural grays defies societal conventions of what’s expected around beauty and aging. She’s intentional and passionate about encouraging other women to embrace the natural transitions of our hair as we age.

Ayanna Pressley, 48, U.S. House representative

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, District of Massachusetts, during the 117th Congress. Photo courtesy of the House of Representatives.

For Rep. Ayanna Pressley, known for her signature waist-long Senegalese twists, her hair was a crucial part of her identity. But in 2020, she made a bold announcement: She was living with alopecia and experiencing hair loss. In that video for The Root, Pressley stood in her power, showing off her bald head. “I hope this starts a conversation about the personal struggles we navigate, and I hope that it creates awareness about how many people are impacted by alopecia,” she told WGBH reporters.

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Nnenna Stella, owner of The Wrap Life

Nnenna Stella, owner of The Wrap Life. Photo courtesy of The Wrap Life.

A good head wrap is a fashion statement all its own. Nnenna Stella knew this after spending days looking for a place to purchase some. Her frustration bloomed into The Wrap Life, which sells head wraps in a variety of fun colors and prints. It’s “more about cultural expression than utility,” Stella said in a Glamour interview. But can we also take a moment for The Wrap Life’s Instagram page, which features so many beautiful Black women killing the head wrap game?

Nikole Hannah-Jones, 46, journalist and educator

Nikole Hannah-Jones, 46, journalist and educator. Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame.

It’s hard to miss Nikole Hannah-Jones’ fiery red hair. The Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who created the landmark 1619 Project, which reexamines the history of slavery, rocks her bright, coily strands unapologetically. She does so deliberately, to break the stereotypes of what is expected of Black women in professional and academic settings. “This is for every Black girl who’s been told she has to shrink herself or her Blackness in order to succeed,” Hannah-Jones told Glamour at the start of the pandemic. “I want to tell that girl, ‘You don’t.’

Crystal Aguh, M.D., dermatologist and associate professor

Crystal Aguh, M.D., dermatologist and associate professor. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Encouraged by her own struggles with damaged strands that led to hair loss, dermatologist Crystal Aguh, M.D., decided to specialize in hair loss disorders. Her research focuses on skin conditions that tend to impact communities of color, with a particular emphasis on scarring alopecia. As a practicing dermatologist, Dr. Aguh has worked with hundreds of women and men affected by hair loss and damage. This journey also led her to pen her 2019 book, 90 Days to Beautiful Hair, as a science-based resource for Black hair to thrive.

Shani Crowe, 33, artist and braider

Shani Crowe, 33, artist and braider. Photo courtesy of Shani Crowe.

Who could forget the stunning braided halo Solange wore when she stepped onto the Saturday Night Live stage for her 2016 musical performance? It took braider Shani Crowe nearly 50 hours to complete the look, which included more than 2,000 Swarovski crystals. The hair artist extraordinaire continues to encourage daring hair looks through her styling and gallery work. She’s reframed an age-old African tradition by showcasing this art form in spaces around the world, from Brooklyn museums to the pages of national magazines.

Esi Eggleston Bracey, Kelli Richardson Lawson, Orlena Nwokah Blanchard, and Adjoa B. Asamoah, cocreators of the Crown Act

(Clockwise) Kelli Richardson Lawson, Orlean Nwokah Blanchard, Esi Eggleston Bracey, and Adjoa B. Asamoah on the cover of the 2021 Power 100 edition of Ebony magazine.

Our hair is not unprofessional, and the sisters behind the Crown Act set out to make that the law. The Crown Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, prohibits race-based hair discrimination. It was introduced in California in 2019, and 16 other states have now joined the movement. The bill is currently on its way to the Senate, after passing in the House in March.

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