#PartingTheRoots with Simone Wright

Simone is a dancer, fashion inspiration, business woman, and activist bringing attention to black histories, black hair, and the black identity in Canada.

Last year, Simone created Parting The Roots, a project which shared archival photos of black hair along with photos of herself, her family and her friends. With each photo she discussed the history, politics, significance, and art behind black hair. She used Parting The Roots as an opportunity to start the education process and to dispel ongoing myths about black hair. She also used her platform to validate and celebrate the beauty of black hair.

I spoke with Simone to learn more about her project and why it was important for her to create the space for black hair history and celebration.

Q: What was the inspiration behind your 2017 project Parting The Roots?

A: Hair has always been something that’s been important to me - even from the time I was a little girl, my hair has been a big part of my life. However, the main reason I started this project was actually because of something that happened at work. It was a negative situation that I wanted to spin into something more positive, and that turned into Parting the Roots.

I was part of a workplace diversity training, and the facilitator was talking about how to bring your whole self to work. She was speaking about how many individuals hide parts of themselves or “cover” parts of themselves to fit in at work. The facilitator mentioned that one of the ways people cover is by changing their appearance. The example that she gave in regards to this was a black woman straightening her hair to “hide” her real appearance. However, she didn’t provide any context to this - I understood where she was trying to go - but she didn’t explain this to the broader group. So for my non-black coworkers, if they saw me coming into work with straight hair one day, they would now be thinking - oh Simone is trying to hide her identity - they had just been told this by a diversity and inclusion specialist.

She didn’t explain the history behind the way black individuals - particularly women - were oppressed and forced to assimilate and straighten their hair. Some work places still have rules preventing women from wearing braids or other natural hair styles. She didn’t explain any of that context.  

When another black coworker of mine emailed the facilitator afterwards and explained to her that you can’t actually say straight hair is hiding or “covering” because there are many reasons why a black woman might have straight hair (I know that some women find it easier to maintain and some just prefer it). This facilitators response was simply that she had read this in a research paper and therefore it was true - there was no apology, and there definitely wasn’t a consideration that the reality may be more nuanced.

After I heard that, I thought no - I need to do something about this! I wanted to put that energy towards something positive. In the end I came up with the idea of doing this project and sharing Parting the Roots online. I really wanted to educate people on the history and significance of black hair and I wanted a space to celebrate it.

Q: What were some of your favourite photos that you featured in Parting the Roots?

A: The first post would actually be one of my favourites. It really talks about the history of black hair. It talks about how in Africa the different tribes would wear different hairstyles for many reasons. The different braids, the different styles - people don’t realize how much was communicated with this. It could indicate the status you held in your tribe, your marital status, your gender, and more. I was really glad I was able to share that history right away in that first post.

It also meant a lot to me that I could share pictures of my mom. I shared her first ever passport picture when she still lived in Jamaica. She had natural hair in that photo, but she actually hot combed it so that it would be straight. When I saw that photo I had to ask her why she straightened her hair. She said she just did it because it was more convenient for her to maintain. This photo really brought me full circle to the comments originally made by that facilitator, and for me this photo gives life to that complex and nuanced relationship many black people have with their hair.

One last favourite is a photo with the caption “Kim Kardashian Braids”. There is a story behind that post - a friend of mine had recently texted me asking if I knew anyone who did Kim Kardashian braids. I honestly didn’t know if she was serious. I said: please don’t ever use the Kardashians as a name for traditional black hairstyles. But it made me realise - wow, people really don’t know about this history. So I posted that photo of a woman from the 1800’s, hundreds of years before the Kardashians, with what my friend had called “Kardashian braids” in her hair - what I would call cornrows. The main point of that post was to help people understand that just because someone wears these styles doesn’t mean they are the owners or creators of it. My concern is that people wearing these hairstyles understand where it comes from, understand the history, and the significance - and acknowledge that.

Q: What do you hope changes in regards to black hair in our culture, especially for black women?

A: This is a very tough conversation - and one that I have with my own friends and family - because some of them still believe that wearing natural hair into the workplace isn’t professional. They think wearing your hair relaxed or in weaves - that’s deemed professional. But my question is: professional to who?

So I hope, for all of us, black men and women - for us to be strong and comfortable in our own skin. I understand that it might be intimidating to some people - but this is why I wanted to do this project - to educate people. And I wanted to educate both black people and non-black people. Everyone needs to know about this. As I said - a lot of black people still feel that natural hair or protective hairstyles (like braids) are not professional. So I want us - especially within the workplace - to have that understanding that professionalism is you as a person - not what’s on top of your head.

I also hope that our culture changes so that our children can be comfortable with the hair that they have. And when they have examples of women in their life sporting a variety of styles - including natural styles - this gives them the freedom to believe that any type of hair is okay. I think it’s really important for our kids to see themselves in their parents, and I’m excited by the growing movement to embrace more black hairstyles.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for people who want to learn more about this?

A: Yes! There are so many resources out there. When I was working on this project in 2017 I actually went to the Parkdale Library because they have a West Indian/African diaspora section - and they have tons of books on this. I highly recommend Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps.

I would also recommend seeking out a natural hair salon because they can advise you on moving to natural hair if that is something you are looking to do.

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A huge thanks to Simone for taking the time to speak with me and sharing her knowledge. You can view the complete collection of Parting the Roots photos here, and you can follow her on instagram here to see what she comes up with next!