THE PRINCESS WITH THE AFRO: How she became a Queen

Text by Becky Kay

Ever since I can recall, I wanted to be a princess. As soon as I learned how to talk, I told my mom to grow her hair out, so that she’d resemble one too. Maybe this was also because I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my blonde, thin, and beautiful mom with straight hair, would look more similar to a princess than me.

Nevertheless, my plan and my lifelong dream was to, one day, be able to straighten my hair. The sooner the better. Apart from wanting to look like a Disney character, there were, of course, many other reasons to this. Firstly, as a child, you just want to fit in, and in Czechia, if you’re a mixed-race person, this is close to impossible. Secondly, let’s not kid ourselves, taking care of my hair was, quite frankly, hell. We would visit my dad in London quite frequently, where my hair was taken care of by Black hairdressers - although this was painful, they were strangers so I didn’t dare cause a scene. As well as that, they had magical hands, and they always created something that I felt comfortable with on my head.

When the role of the hairdresser was taken up by my mom however, it was absolutely horrible - and not only just for me. In England, she courageously took up learning one specific hairstyle, and she knew that she had to put olive oil in my hair, and that brushing it out just hurt. I don’t know which one of us suffered more: I was angry at my mom for hurting me, and I was angry at my dad for giving me such genes. Mom was annoyed that it hurt me and that I’m not thankful to her for investing such energy into my hair, while my dad was offended that I wasn’t proud to be Black. It was, simply, a vicious cycle from which it was impossible to escape because of our lack of knowledge about afro-textured hair, and the unavailability of the right products.

Anyway, my princess era turned out to be one of my most stylish, in fact, because I owned a lot of very beautiful Disney dresses - and by wearing them, I was able to forget that I was too different from my ideal. I suspect that the turn came at the end of the first half of elementary school, when I ditched the idea of being a princess - and instead wanted to look really cool. As a mixed-raced child, I was going through a lot of confusion in terms of my identities, and it took a long time until I found my OWN style that would suit me and would really embody ME. So I started to dress in a, very much, pseudo-skater-gangster style. I would like to call this period, the period of the Dark Ages. Later on, it actually turned out that things could get even worse. The dream to be a princess slowly faded away, but the desire to have straight hair got increasingly stronger.

From a small village classroom, I went into a city high school, and suddenly, I was surrounded by an unusually large number of people, many of whom were really handsome boys. And I had an immense weakness for handsome boys. I was a pretty chubby kid, and perhaps the biggest motivation to lose weight was so that I was liked and fancied. I managed to lose a couple of kilos, but there was still one remaining problem - my hair. I kept bombarding my mom with questions regarding when I’d finally be able to straighten it ( I wanted to relax them = a very unhealthy and destructive process of straightening hair through chemicals). One day my mom dismissed me by promising she’d allow me to do it at fifteen. She didn’t know just how much I’d latch onto that idea.

Throughout the beginning of my adolescence, I felt less and less comfortable with my mother’s creations on my head, and we visited my dad less often. For me, this meant that I had to come up with solutions to take care of my hair in Czechia, without the help of Black hairdressers. This led to us spending lots of money on white hairdressers, who presented themselves as being able to knit Afro braids. Every hairdresser we contacted, and warned, that my hair was, in fact, very curly and abundant, claimed that they already had experience with such hair - and seemed very confident. The expression on their face was always the same, once they saw my hair - surprised and freaked out, but they always managed it somehow. Although the job, invariably, took them about twelve hours, which for me meant a numb butt and feeling a total disgust towards my hair, it was always a better option than going to school with an Afro and dealing with the ridicule, touching, and comparison of my hair to various textures or objects made from wool, through chemlon, stubble, nest, to pubic hair.

It makes me feel sorry to realise what journey I had to go through, to be able to love my hair properly. It’s a shame that, as a kid, I didn’t have some Black auntie, who would explain how to take care of my hair (with love, patience, water and oils) and also that it is beautiful - and I can do whatever I want with it. But because I had no one like that around me, I hated my hair with all my heart and perceived it to be an annoying problem that I’d have to deal with - for the rest of my life.

Nevertheless, until I was fifteen, I had variations of box braids, which I always wore as part of a ponytail, anyway, partly because I wasn’t inspired to do anything different with them, and partly because, even if I did, the stuck-up-small-town teachers would judge or stone me for it. For some reason, at the time, it was stylish to wear colourful tank tops and trousers, and I was swept away by this trend. Until today, I reminisce over my Tally Weijl skinny jeans, which were probably one of my biggest fashion offences.

I thought that I wouldn’t live till the day I got my hair straightened, but I celebrated my fifteenth birthday, and a month later I had straight hair. Well, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I just sat and ran my fingers through my hair, and enjoyed the fact that nothing got stuck in it. I finally felt pretty. With straight hair also came my, “wannabe”, hipster period, which was, frankly, very funny. I had a part-time job in a coffee shop where everyone was super cool, listened to very peculiar old music, and wore grey and black clothing, so I tried to do so, too. Although I looked embarrassing, I was satisfied. Paradoxically this was also a time when I, most intensely, rejected my Black side. People would make it very clear to me that I was “DIFFERENT”, which frustrated me. I didn’t want to be “DIFFERENT” just because of the colour of my skin or my hair. Thanks to my hipster style period, when I listened to different music, dressed differently, and simply deviated from the mainstream, I was finally “DIFFERENT” according to my own standards.

I feel that the last year of high school was when I came back to braids, but I viewed them differently, and had a different relationship towards them. I alternately had my hair braided in England and Czechia, meanwhile Black women started opening up their own hair salons here, as well. I don’t actually know what the main impulse was, I just didn’t want to destroy my hair anymore. I, more or less, knew that my time in the village was coming to an end and that going to University would mean more freedom.

With University came my biggest and most important shift. Due to the fact that I come from a village, and studied at high school in a small city, my move to a more metropolitan city was a key instance, in which I had to exceed. After spending a few years in Brno, my opinion is that it is only a larger, “middle of nowhere”, size than the one I used to live in, but nevertheless it represented a huge change for me on the threshold of adulthood.

Courtesy of BECKY KAY

It’s true that the first semester I spent just coming out of my shell, but immediately as the second semester started, I moved out and completely changed my wardrobe. I started wearing big hooped earrings, which became a sort of signature trademark for me, and whenever someone was referring to me, it was one of the main characteristics that they associated with me. This made me happy, because it meant that I, once again, had my “otherness” under my control. I started wearing distinct colours, colourful lipsticks, I dropped the bra, and most importantly, I untied the braids and went out with my natural Afro. This was a power move. It took a few, very long, hours of convincing myself that I am good enough, pretty enough, and that it doesn’t look unprofessional  (as a lot of people perceive it to be), and I just stood by it. What also helped me, quite a lot, is that I started meeting people who also weren’t white, and would appreciate my hair for what it was. At the start of embracing my hair properly, I was definitely still quite insecure, and whatever little tactless remark was said about my hair would offend me, and would tempt me to hide my crown as braids, again. But I had various rituals to help me avoid becoming discouraged, such as going on Youtube and watching videos where Black women give tips on what to do with our hair, how to take care of it, and mainly highlighting it as something beautiful. The way I now wear my hair was probably one of the best decisions that I could never make, because only now, am I really experiencing my blackness, my pride, and everything else that comes with it.  

See the Czech version of this article together with visual artworks in NOVY ZINE, issue 1.