How a Black woman is empowering students of color through their natural hair
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The year was 1969 when Maya Angelou released her seminal autobiographical piece “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
This influential piece of literature put a new spin on the way narratives were told, specifically by Black women. Long gone were the days of hiding behind their experiences, rather a new era would be birthed where they would be champions of their battles, and flaunt the aspects they were once insecure of.
Angelou’s legacy has been embodied in several women, long before it was embossed on the United States quarter.
Storytelling looks different for many women of color. Some have the aptitude for writing soul-stirring novels, while others transform blank canvases into conversational pieces of art.
However, many Black women have found a natural way to tell their stories.
From holding their ear in anticipation of a hot comb on Easter Sunday to the liberation felt after “The Big Chop,” it is safe to say that many Black women have a story behind their hair.
And like many great stories told today, many take to social media to share their unique experiences.
Phiandrea Pruitt recalls the day that she was scrolling on Twitter and found a tweet where a Black woman voiced the struggles of being natural.
Pruitt identified with this Twitter user and wondered if there was a holiday where Black women could come together to celebrate their hair.
In doing her research she was introduced to The Crown Act.
The CROWN Act is a law that was first signed into law on July 3, 2019, which according to their website “expanded the definition of race in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and state Education Code.”
The law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination has been passed by 14 states. The Jackson City Council unanimously approved a resolution in July to support the bill, which State Rep. Orlando Padon plans to introduce in the 2022 Legislative Session.
However, Pruitt did not want to wait until this law was passed in Mississippi to start a conversation about Black natural hair in professional settings.
Since she was 10 years old, Pruitt knew that she wanted to help people out, which influenced her decision to pursue a degree in social work.
While she is enthusiastic about helping others, she makes it clear that she is not a people pleaser.
“I’m always trying to empower people,” Pruitt says.
“We practice self-care a lot in social work. You can’t help someone else if you can’t help yourself. "
Her inclination towards empowering others proved to be a driving force behind one of her biggest accomplishments, bringing “World Afro Day” to her college campus. Pruitt instantly fell in love with the idea and wanted to see it celebrated more in her community.
World Afro Day was originally founded on September 15, 2017 by Michelle De Leon with the intention to globally recognize and celebrate Afro hair in its entirety. The non-profit was first endorsed by the United Nation’s office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, and is now celebrated across six continents.
Pruitt brought the idea to administration in 2019 and hosted her first celebration of World Afro Day in September. Since then her initiative has grown into a program that includes pop-up shops for Black-owned businesses, paint parties, and panel discussions.
Her intended purpose was to encourage Black people to have the confidence to show up as their true and authentic selves in spaces where they are minorities, similar to De Leon’s vision.
“I can be around a group of white people and remember that I’m the only African American. I’m not going to assimilate to what they have going on in order to feel welcomed in their space,” explained Pruitt.
Pruitt says that one of her mentors at Delta State shared her experience of being the only woman of color in the room, and she encouraged her to always be confident in herself and her presence.
“It’s crazy because we have to make people feel comfortable about ourselves when we want to do something for ourselves.”
Pruitt still recalls the feelings of anxiety and nervousness of presenting her idea to the administration, bracing herself for the dreaded two-letter word. However, she received the green light with only two weeks to plan.
“I was nervous because I’m in the Mississippi Delta trying to empower some Black people!”
She admits that the first celebration was truly just for educational purposes, however, the positive feedback and commentary from other students inspired her to propel forward.
“I had freshman students coming up to me telling me how empowered and excited they were.”
The program has increased conversation on how Black women have faced and handled diversity in the workplace. Professionals ranging from professors to law enforcement officials were candid about their negative experiences being the only Black people in their work environments.
One of the most profound aspects of her program is that it is open to the entire community, which caused people from all races to extend their support and learn.
“These conversations have to happen because it’s the real world.”
“It’s a lot of struggle that comes with Black hair. To be an ally, you have to be aware that it’s something personal for us. Just because you aren’t the person that inflicts that pain, doesn’t mean that your presence is enough. You have to actively work towards being understanding of going on.”
The conversations had on World Afro Day, have proved to be prominent long after the Instagram boomerangs and highlights expired.
Kyria Cooper says that she walked away feeling more empowered after participating in the celebration.
“I wasn’t used to my hair drawing up, and I had really bad shrinkage,” Cooper explained.
“People will think you‘re bald-headed, and I show them ' no I can actually pull this down to my shoulders,’.”
“I was struggling first, and I was ashamed. Phi cut her hair and she’s done so many things with her hair. If she can do that, then I can do that too.”
Not only has Cooper noticed an increase in confidence in flaunting her natural hair, but she also feels more comfortable educating other races about the importance and symbolism of natural hair.
She recalls that the student walked in with a blonde hairstyle and that it was noticed by a non person of color.
“Oh, you see her hair today? It kind of looks like mine!” they said.
As the student turned to leave, they asked the student could she touch her hair because she was so used to her wearing her “big afro.”
“I explain why you shouldn’t touch our hair. We spend a long time doing our hair, and for you to try to touch it, that’s a problem. However, that should be the end of the discussion.”
“What Phi did? That’s going to go down in history.”
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