Growing out my hair allowed me to access a new sense of self-love
Writer Emmanuel Onapa shares his journey to embracing natural locs, he also provides a few essential tips for Black men trying to grow their hair
image Shanell Kennedy
words Emmanuel Onapa
Hair is one of the earliest sites of identity and declarations of selfhood. It’s the little garden of Eden growing from our head top. First tended to by those who nurture us at a young age – the formative stages of grooming our hair are taught by our guardians. They teach us one of two things: to acknowledge our hair’s inherent value by taking care of it, or to disregard it completely.
How our guardians pass this onto us can strongly impact our understanding of self, but stronger still is the legacy of colonialism, white supremacy and the empire. Black hair has constantly been policed and politicised, regarded as unprofessional and undesirable by those that have gained from these systems of oppression and those that have not tackled their internalised self-hate. Society has created an environment where we struggle to enjoy and embrace our natural hair like other races are privileged enough to do. But I’ve been growing out and embracing the natural beauty of my hair for about two years now and I'm reaping the benefits, but getting there has been a journey.
Anyone who has made even the slightest alteration to their hair understands the deep connection between our psyches and our hair growth – but the sentiment is often more profound for Black men. As Black people, our hair has always been deemed as political by those that aren't Black, and sometimes by those who are. Every millimetre of fade, every centimetre on top signals our Blackness and carries significance. Our hair forms a central part of our individuality, culture, and uniqueness.
I still remember when I was 17, strolling the streets of Kampala, Uganda, with my cousin who had braided my hair just a couple of hours ago. I was stopped by one of the locals who asked me if I was selling “gunga”. This person had blindly associated me with the Rastafari religion, while also making the dangerous assumption that all Rastafarians sell weed, simply because I had my hair braided. As soon as I returned from Uganda, I felt the pressure to trim my hair so that I was not subject to the uninviting, judgemental gaze I experienced in my home country. In retrospect, I can now laugh at the wild assumption of me being considered a drug dealer because I dared to experiment with my hair. But this incident highlights how internalised the colonial mentality has become by everyone. And sadly, many people do not have the privilege to unlearn this mentality as quickly as those that have access to resources and information which enable them to challenge the way they think.
The harmful ideas of how a Black man should present his hair are also gendered. “Boys are supposed to have short hair” or “you’ll tap into your masculinity more if you hair was shorter” are just some antagonising statements thrown at Black men who learn to love the hair budding out of their scalp. You will likely hear this from African parents and elders in community spaces such as churches and these statements are rooted in rigid and destructive assumptions surrounding gender at large. Anti-Black hair sentiment is also something Black women are all too familiar experiencing. From being a butt of a ‘joke’ based on untrue stereotypes of their hair, to hair policies in educational institutions and workplaces that unfairly impact them. If you're Black you are constantly discriminated against because of your hair.
The culture of white supremacy plays an overwhelming role in dictating what is seen as an appropriate way for Black men to navigate their own life. Hair discrimination has its roots in systemic racism with the goal of preserving white spaces. Policies which police Black people from wearing their afros out, having locs, braids, and bantu knots have been used to justify the discrimination against Black people. To further complicate this, anything outside the aesthetic parameters of being physically adroit, thuggish, or impassive makes you seem less Black and masculine. Since society insists on associating long hair with femininity, this leads to a crude calculation: the longer the hair, the less masculine and Black you are.
However, since growing out my hair, I’ve found a more profound sense of liberation, identity, and power in having the means to shape my own identity. My journey started during the Covid-19 lockdown; with the nationwide closure of barbershops. I had no choice but to watch my hair grow in the confines of my four walls. At first it felt uncomfortable, I worried about the connotations I had experienced, but seeing others around me embrace their hair journey during these times too felt freeing.
Once the world opened and it was time to schedule my next haircut, I just… didn’t. Two weeks turned into five. And while I didn’t halt grooming my hair altogether – I’d still aim to get regular shape-ups to keep my hairline neat – it felt all too redemptive to consciously let my hair grow without having to question what others might view as “professional” or “tidy” when it came to my hair. As I saw the curls and coils sprout out of my scalp, it simultaneously fed into my sense of identity and self-worth. I eventually started exploring different styles with my hair, from cornrows and two-part braids to tribal braids and two-strand twists. Now, my hair asserts who I am: multifaceted in all my complexities. It is malleable, and allows me to express myself in various ways.
Watching my hair grow over the past two years has been like observing the growth of a tree sprouting out of fresh soil. The journey is still a learning process, but throughout, I’ve educated myself with the help of people like @jlavish_ and @skinnnyy.e on TikTok and @rvhairuk on Instagram, about how to maintain my hair as it grows. From washing, to detangling, to conditioning it when needed – for me, this is about once a month. These creators have also helped me learn about the different ways most Black hair can be categorised (4A, 4B, 4C and 4D/Z – which range from a dense, kinky curly texture through to an extremely coarse texture with a very tight curl).
I’ve also been building a rapport with the shopkeeper at my local beauty store (shout out to Paks) and am becoming a mixologist with essential oils. This journey has facilitated a space for me to get in touch with my ethnicity and identity as a man, in ways which I haven’t been able to before. Self-experimentation, yes, but also learning about the various ways to start my locs journey – and building community with other Black men that are on their own journeys with their hair.
It has even occurred to me that maybe one day I could be the dad who is not entirely naïve and inexperienced in looking after and nurturing my daughter’s hair. Perhaps I could assist her in navigating her path to form her own identity with the help of a wide-tooth comb. I could instil self-confidence in a son, too.
Coming to terms with accepting my scalp, roots, hair ends, and everything else – no matter its form, shape and measurement – has been much more redemptive and liberating than any other societal notions about what a Black man should or could look like which are pushed on me, day in, day out. Controlling my own identity through my hair is far more therapeutic than being a pawn to other people’s insecurities, and lack of knowledge or open-mindedness. I hope more Black men find freedom in growing out their hair too.
How to grow out your hair as a Black man
There are many ways to start growing out your hair as a Black man. The first is to establish a simple hair care routine. To come up with a successful routine, you must understand your hair. Is your hair low, medium, or high in the ability to absorb and hold moisture? What is your hair texture – is it mainly 4a, 4b or 4c, for instance? Does your hair love cream or oils? With Black people all having unique hair types, we must create an individual routine to meet our hair needs. There will be some trial and error involved. Once you have a routine, whether you want to consistently boost your hair growth, or find a length that works, is up to you.
Your type on paper
If you’re not sure on your hair type, a barber should be able to help you. There are also guides online – the naming convention here comes from the ‘hair typing system’ developed by famous hair stylist Andre Walker.
Moisture is key
Within the routine, moisture is one of the most important factors. For most Black people, we are looking to minimise dryness. When our hair is dry (which most Black hair types are prone to because of our curls and coils make it difficult for our natural sebum from our scalp to reach the entirety of our hair), the strands become brittle and prone to breakage.
Let the natural oil do its thing
As Black men, we must refrain from washing our hair too much, as washing it too frequently strips away natural oil from our scalp surface, which our hair absorbs. Without this oil, hair can dry out. Hydrated hair is flexible and can be managed without breakages. Breakages are when hair strands snap – going slit and ragged, instead of staying healthy throughout the scalp. Dry hair can even fall out, which is why we have to be especially careful when bleaching it.
Consider essential oils too
When exploring ways to grow our hair, we must consider essential oils. They’re like food for our hair – nutrients within essential oils boost hair growth. Those frequently used are olive oil, castor oil, coconut oil and tea tree oil which both improve hydration and are said to promote growth.
Avoid products with harsh chemicals
Whenever you want to purchase a product for your hair, always remember to check the ingredients list. Buying products free of alcohol, SLS, Sulphates, mineral, and petroleum is imperative. These products leave your hair dry and brittle – using products with many organic ingredients is advisable as they’re less likely to leave your hair feeling dry too. Once you’ve established that a particular product works for you – stick to it – and your hair will grow.
And ditch the heat too, of course!
There are also many ways to minimise heat when drying your hair to minimise hair damage and to grow healthy hair which is much stronger in the long-term. Not applying leave-in or other finishing products, Gently squeezing your hair to remove excess water, and parting your hair in sections that make it easier to dry are a few ways to go.
The most important thing however is sticking to a healthy routine, and to create hair that helps you to feel good.
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