‘My Beautiful Black Hair’: How a little sister’s struggle led to a celebratory book

Anne Detrick/Courtesy of St. Clair Detrick-Jules
Filmmaker St. Clair Detrick-Jules' latest project is "My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories From the Sisterhood," a book she created from interviews with women and photos she took of them.

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Filmmaker and activist St. Clair Detrick-Jules is known for her award-winning 2017 documentary “DACAmented,” featuring young recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sharing their stories. But her latest creation uplifts a marginalized group in a different way. 

In the book “My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories From the Sisterhood,” she explores through photos and interviews the idea that Black women’s hair is inherently political – and multifaceted.

Why We Wrote This

What options are there for supporting Black women who face hair discrimination? One author’s solution: Reinforce the beauty of natural hair.

The project started as a way to help her younger sister, she says in an interview. “The fact that at just 4 years old she wanted to isolate herself and not return to school because of her hair was really heartbreaking.” 

Ms. Detrick-Jules came to accept her own hair more fully through completing the project, and suggests that women continue to stand up for their right to wear their hair naturally, even in the face of discrimination at school and in the workplace. 

“There is a lot to lose when we choose ourselves and our hair knowing that there could be backlash from all facets of society,” she says. “While we may lose some social acceptance or financial stability, the trade-off is liberation – so I think it’s worth it.”

“My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories From the Sisterhood” is the debut book from filmmaker and activist St. Clair Detrick-Jules. The native of Washington, D.C., courageously explores, through interviews she conducted and photos she took, the idea that Black women’s hair is inherently political – and multifaceted. Though Ms. Detrick-Jules is known for her award-winning 2017 documentary “DACAmented” – which features young recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sharing their stories of navigating life during the Trump administration – her latest creation uplifts a marginalized group in a different way. “My Beautiful Black Hair” is a testament to the resilience of Black women. Ms. Detrick-Jules spoke with the Monitor about her inspiration for the book, published this week, and why embracing natural hair is a form of liberation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you know your first photo book would center around the diversity and richness of Black women’s hair?

I knew that I wanted to do something for my little sister Khloe. During my last semester of college, I got a phone call from my dad saying that she was really self-conscious about her Afro. She was only 4 years old at the time. Khloe had been crying about her hair, and she didn’t want to go to school because she was so ashamed of it. She is 18 years younger than me, so I felt very protective of her. And the fact that at just 4 years old she wanted to isolate herself and not return to school because of her hair was really heartbreaking. 

Why We Wrote This

What options are there for supporting Black women who face hair discrimination? One author’s solution: Reinforce the beauty of natural hair.

And as a big sister, your first instinct is to do something to help her.

All these thoughts went through my mind. I was like I can tell her [her] hair is beautiful. I can just sort of reinforce it. I can remind her of it. But I think that it’s one thing to tell young girls to love themselves. It’s another thing to lead by example and show them something tangible. I eventually came up with the idea of a photo book ... something that she would be able to hold and feel connected to. I wanted her to physically look at each photo and see her reflection. This is what it looks like to love yourself.

Courtesy of St. Clair Detrick-Jules
Dina Harry, Danisha Almonte Luciano, and Catherine Lantigua share their hair in a photo in a section of "My Beautiful Black Hair" titled "'The Big Chop' / Going Natural."

What role does the media play when it comes to how Black women feel about their hair?

I think it plays a big role and it starts at a young age. Khloe’s favorite movie is “Frozen.” Obviously “Frozen,” like the vast majority of Disney movies, centralizes white princesses with long straight hair. Even thinking about “The Princess and the Frog,” where you finally have a Black princess, she’s transformed into a frog. And whenever she is a woman in the film, her hair is straightened. We don’t get that visual representation of actual Black hair.

The media upholds Eurocentric beauty standards, so it’s hard to find Black women with natural hair. It’s hard to remember that our beauty is still there within us. 

What did you learn from completing “My Beautiful Black Hair”? 

One of the women in the book says that love is an active process. That really stuck with me because before the book, I hadn’t come to a place where I totally accepted my natural hair. And now, I like my curls. But it wasn’t until I was actually making the book and talking to all these Black women and intentionally surrounding myself with Black women with natural hair that I really came to love my natural hair in a more meaningful way. I want the book to be remembered as a work of art, created about Black women, that brings us collective joy.

St. Clair Detrick-Jules/Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Michelle Mutisya's photo and words are included in a section of the book called "Mothers and Daughters."

Do you consider Black women loving their hair a radical act in 2021? 

It’s definitely a radical act because there’s so much to lose. I mean the CROWN Act hasn’t passed nationwide yet. There’s widespread discrimination against natural Black hair, and it’s legal in most places. It starts at school – and when we grow up, the legalized discrimination [against] natural hair in the workplace is still there. And there’s often judgment about it from the people that are supposed to love us. A few people in my book touch on that too ... how even sometimes their own family members weren’t approving of their natural hair textures.

There is a lot to lose when we choose ourselves and our hair, knowing that there could be backlash from all facets of society. While we may lose some social acceptance or financial stability, the trade-off is liberation – so I think it’s worth it. 

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