Image Source: @devrivelazquez
Upon returning to New York City after taking two months of what I like to refer to as a city-dweller detox, I wanted to immerse myself back into the culture of the beloved city in a big way. That’s when I learned about a new Airbnb Experience that was offering a tour of Harlem, a neighborhood in the popular burrough that I hadn’t yet fully explored in my two years of living here. I figured, this might be the best way to dip my feet into the richness of it all.
On a brisk Wednesday afternoon, I sat down with tour’s curator, Mikaila, for tea at a cute local and black-owned shop with vibes as warm and hospitable as the tea itself. The Fashion Anthropologist greeted me with a contagiously vivacious demeanor that instantly encouraged me to put my guard down and become all ears for a day of education, inspiration, and honest conversation in good company. When asked what all entails the role of a fashion anthropologist, Mikaila simply explained it like this: “I help people understand the cultural context of why you wear what you wear. Hair is part of our fashion identity.”
As Founder and CEO of The Common Thread Project, the fashionista and naturalista who has spent the past decade living and working in New York City knows a thing or two about the impact the Harlem Renaissance had on the nation’s natural hair movement and Black culture as a whole. But first, she dove into her introduction with these important factors to consider as a preface for her guided Airbnb Experience through the neighborhood:
Hair is our culture, it’s our history, it’s our politics.
The history of Black hair is so rich. We don’t really appreciate the dynamics, the history of our hair. It started on the continent of Africa and came here. For example, the Himba tribe from Namibia, always wear dreadlocks. The girls wear their locs in their face to signify age. When they hit puberty, they wear their hair out of their face.
When the Middle Passage started, Africans started braiding seeds into their daughters’ hair to help them along their journeys. Slave traders started shaving their heads off as a way to prevent this from happening, but to erase their identities. The shape and form of cornrows came from slaves who worked in cornfields. Those types of signatures make me want to scream inside -- look at how functionality, history, tradition, and employment come together in one hairstyle.
Everybody has a hair journey.
“Mine was very much influenced by my mother. I was never allowed to have a perm (my mother is old school Jamaican.) I was very resentful of that, especially in high school. There were so many periods in my life where I felt like I didn’t have control over my hair. I became 5’11’ at 11 years old.One of the ways my mom aged me ‘down’ was by braiding my hair in childlike styles -- a lot of bubbles, barrettes, and plaits. From Africa to today, we’re going to realize how much our hair is tied to our ancestry.”
Your hair is your language.
“It says so much. We need to be thinking more critically [about it]. A lot of times, Black women will sabotage their hair for a look. If maybe Black women understood the importance in the conversation of themselves, we’d take better care of it. It’s a conversation of who I am. I just want you to be conscious of whatever decision you make, and informed. Is your hair a story that you want to tell the world?”
There’s a whole industry behind hair envy.
I admitted to Mikaila about a folder on my phone that is dedicated to hair of women from social media whose hair I ‘admire’ while I know that it can be toxic to my own mental health and self-acceptance. She says, “As Black women, whatever works for you, works for you. People want to be tied to their past. Hair is our DNA. We all want to know who we are. It starts here (points to head).” What I remembered in my talk with Mikaila was the true beauty in our uniqueness, especially as women of African descent. Our hair is ours.
If you plan on visiting Harlem, be sure to check this out. You will become more informed about the history of Black hair while taking a walking tour through popular hair shops and Salon Beleza, a Brazilian-owned hair salon catering to embracing natural hair. On Airbnb Experience, type in Harlem fashion and hair tour and people can book it. Or click here to go straight to the experience.