The Battle for the CROWN: Normalizing Natural Hair in Every Space

This is a portion of an article that originally appeared in Sesi’s Summer 2021 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.
By Simi Segun

On the first day of sixth grade, 11-year-old Faith Fennidy was put on the spot when her homeroom teacher asked her, in front of the class, if her braids were real or fake. The reason for the sudden questioning? According to the teacher, the school’s new policy banned the style. “I didn’t really know what to say,” Faith, now 14, recalls. “And she had me bend over, so she could examine my braids.”

Faith returned the next day with the same hairstyle (cornrows that went down the middle of her back), and her mother, Montrelle Fennidy, was called to pick her up. Mrs. Fennidy tried to compromise with the principal of Christ the King Parish School in Terrytown, Louisiana, but she was given an ultimatum — change her daughter’s hair or do not return. “Faith was so upset, she was crying. She didn’t want to, you know, leave her school and her friends, and I didn’t want her to change her school and make her feel uncomfortable,” Mrs. Fennidy says.

So, within the next week, Faith showed up to her Louisiana school with a new look — box braids in a ponytail. It took all of 15 minutes before the school called Faith’s mom again to pick her up. But this time, Mrs. Fennidy had had enough. She told Faith, “I’m raising you to be confident, to love yourself, and I can’t comply with this rule. It goes against everything we stand for.” Mrs. Fennidy, along with her husband and son, arrived at the school for another sit-down with the principal. What followed was a viral Facebook post and video recorded by Faith’s brother Steven, showing Faith leaving her school in tears. And after that came the federal lawsuit, which they later dropped once the school took back the problematic policy.

Unfortunately, stories like Faith’s aren’t uncommon. Just this past April, 16-year-old Nicole Pyles, a sophomore at Durham Hillside High School in North Carolina, was forced to cut the beads out of her braided bun to continue playing her final softball game of the season, no matter she’d been playing with her hair in the same style for several previous games. In February 2020, Asia Simo, a senior at Captain Shreve High School in Shreveport, Louisiana was kicked off her cheerleading team because her hair didn’t conform to the “uniform” style. In 2017, 17-year-old Jenesis Johnson, a student at North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee, was told her afro was too “extreme.” All over the country, Black girls continue to get in trouble for simply rocking their hair as it naturally grows or for doing it up it in culturally significant protective styles.

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It wasn’t always this way. In pre-colonial African societies, hair was an important symbol — our crowning glory, if you will. From elaborate braids and locs to special combs and accessories, the drip was real, and a source of pride and identity. Hairstyles were like Instagram bios — one glance could tell you a lot about a person, from their relationship status to what tribe they were from.

That all ended with slavery. Slave owners would typically shave the Africans’ heads to strip them of their identity and humanity. They’d negatively refer to their hair as “nappy” and “woolly,” and suddenly, all the features of Black girl magic — dark skin, kinky hair, and intricate ‘dos — became a source of mockery and scorn. This campaign against Blackness continues to this day, as mainstream beauty standards still tend to favor straight, “good” hair as the norm, while natural hair is seen as “bad.” And right now, it’s still technically legal to discriminate against Black hair in 39 states.

That’s where the CROWN Act comes in. Originally conceptualized by a group of Black women just talking amongst themselves while attending the 2018 Essence Music Festival, the name stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair. Adjoa B. Asamoah — the National Advisor for Black Engagement for the Biden-Harris campaign, chair of the Democratic National Committee’s African-American Leadership Council, impact strategist, and all-around queen — was one of these women. This superstar group also included Esi Eggleston Bracey, Unilever’s Chief Operations Officer and Executive Vice President of beauty and personal care, and Kelli Richardson Lawson, founder of the JOY Collective, a marketing and video production company.

“I am probably the most public-facing because I am the one who deals directly with the lawmakers, and I’m essentially responsible for changing the law,” Asamoah says. “I was thinking about how critically important it is for us to have a sense of self-identity that is not Eurocentrism, which is consistent with what the CROWN Act is saying … It is, to me, critically important for our right to rock our crowns as we see fit, to be preserved and protected.”

One of the things the CROWN Act targets is discriminatory school policies, but here’s the thing: Most dress codes don’t specifically target natural hair. “Most of them use what is perceived to be a neutral language like ‘faddish hairstyles’ or ‘unprofessional,’ but what that does is it leaves it to [others] who are importing their own bias into what they perceive as professional and faddish, and a lot of people are simply uneducated about Black hair,” explains Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean at Boston University Law School in Massachusetts, who has also collaborated with other women to fight against discriminatory hair codes. “They have grown up internalizing negative stereotypes about Black people, about Black hair, about Afros, so they see any kind of Black hairstyle as being unprofessional or being faddish because they view themselves as normative.”

And when you’re told over and over again that the way your hair was created is a problem, it can really mess with you. “This idea of being told that you’re not enough, or your beautiful braids are a violation somehow of school rules, or your locs [are] the reason that you are missing what should be valuable instruction time [can impact] perceptions of worth,” Asamoah says. “I don’t want any Black girls or Black boys or Black men or Black women, because we are all inextricably linked, to ever feel like [they] are not enough because someone else has said so.”

To win the battle for our crowns, this country needs to have a legal and educational glow up, one that normalizes and appreciates Black hair — whether it’s a ‘fro or in braids, Bantu knots, cornrows, twist-outs, whatever. Faith is putting in work to make that happen by reaching out to the next generation. Recently, she visited a day care to read the kids a copy of Matthew Cherry’s book Hair Love. “It’s up to somebody,” she says. So, why not her?

Main Image: olezzo/ (Image for illustrative purposes only/does not depict any actual person mentioned in this article)


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