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Hair Story: An Interview with Ayana Byrd

In 2002, in an era we like to refer to as BF (Before Facebook), Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps toured the country to promote their co-authored book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, which traced the history of black hairstyling from the 1400s to Lil' Kim. What Byrd and Tharps couldn't have anticipated, however, was the huge cultural revolution that was about to explode through blogs, social media, and YouTube. This year, they rereleased Hair Story with a brand new forward and chapters that address the changes of the past decade. We chatted with Byrd to hear more about the book’s additions, her own story of “going natural,” and the positive voices leading the conversation online.

Did you incorporate any reader feedback into this second version?

Hair Story What we took was the enthusiasm of touring the country with the first version—we had these really amazing experiences happening touring the country. Once, we were at Spelman in Atlanta, and this woman was like, "I read your book, and I started growing my hair out, but I’m really embarrassed to wear it, so I still wear a wig. But now that you’re here talking I never want to wear a wig again." And she snatched her wig off her head in the auditorium. It was so powerful! That was where reader feedback and conversations we were having helped inform the new version of the book. Really having a handle on what other people care about.

What would you say to a woman who’s struggling to embrace her natural hair?

I went natural in 1992. I was in college in New York, and I was broke. I couldn’t afford to take care of my hair the way I wore it—I thought it was going to be as simple as that. [But] I felt crazy when I cut my hair off! I didn’t feel as confident; I didn’t feel as attractive. We live in this culture where as women we’re told that so much of our identity is about looking a certain way, and from the time you’re a little girl you know what that certain way is. The first thing I would say to someone is to give yourself a break and not think that you’re crazy or a narcissist or superinsecure because you’re having a hard time going natural.

The other thing I would say is get on the Internet and start looking at pictures of women with natural hair. If we can just see images over and over and over again of hair we’re aspiring to, or the hair that we want, or the hair that’s actually growing out of our heads, it starts to normalize something that isn’t a normal part of what we see. I think that it starts to feel more beautiful, and that can give you a lot of confidence.

Are there any conversations about black hair right now that concern you?

I think Twitter tends to show the worst of people regardless of what you’re talking about. It brings out the bully in a lot of people, and I think that’s what I’ve been seeing like one of the bigger conversations we’ve been following. We were asked in almost every interview what we thought about the attack on [Pam Oliver] for what her hair looked like. She was being compared to Chewbacca—just these horrible, vicious attacks on this woman who’s one of the top female sports commentators in the country.

Who do you think is leading a positive force online?

There’s this blogger Denene Millner [who has] a blog called My Brown Baby. She frequently tackles conversations happening on social media around black women, identity, and beauty and hair; she’s just an excellent critic. She always sets the conversation exactly where it needs to be. Another woman who I think is doing exciting things online around beauty and race is Yaba Blay, [who] just launched this Tumblr site called Pretty Period.

Doing research for this edition of the book, did you run into any common misconceptions about black hair that still exist?

There are these divisions that have popped up, like natural versus straight. If you wear weaves you’re x, y, and z. Or if you go natural you’re x, y, and z. You know, all these different assumptions made about people based on their hair texture or whether they have a weave or not. Those ideas have existed for decades, and it’s really unfortunate to me that they’re around now.

What products do you use every day?

I love Jane Carter. [I use] her Nourish & Shine every day, especially in the winter because radiator heat makes my hair go dry. I also use Kerastase Bain Oleo-Relax—it’s my favorite shampoo. John Dellaria, which is a hair salon in SoHo, has their own Shuga line, and their conditioner is the best conditioner I’ve ever used.

What are you working on next?

Ten years ago, my best friend and I came up with this idea that we wanted to do a children’s book about two girls named Yani and Shani. We really felt like there are never enough stories, especially for girls, about the power of friendship. Writing the book, we both harkened back to how we felt having these adventures with each other, even as adults. The first one is coming out in August—it’s called Yani and Shani’s Rainy Day.

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