Anyone with access to the internet may have heard about the global phenomenon which has been’popularly dubbed the “natural hair movement.” The campaign is a push for black women to embrace their natural hair textures and use protective styles, such as locs, twists and braids, instead of using traditional chemical processes to straighten their hair.
According to a 2016 report from Mintel, the movement isn’t just a social media phenomenon. In the United States alone the expenditure of natural hair care products was estimated at $2.5 billion duringthe 2015 fiscal year.
But what is natural? Who can define it? Does it actually matter? Is it anyone’s business to dictate if someone chooses to stick to chemical process over “natural” hair? A Richmond based documentary, #donttouchmyhairRVA is a community art project exploring the politics of black hair with the goal of telling black stories from black people through artistic narrative storytelling. Chaz Barracks, a second year Ph.D student at VCU, and Christina Hairston, a recent VCU graduate from the communication arts program, lead the film project which was aesthetically inspired by Solange Knowles’ 2016’s song, “Don’t Touch my Hair.”
The duo commented that the feeling of black people having their hair politicized and exotified is nearly universal and relatable experience, which is partially why they feel their project has garnered vast support in the River City.
“We are very different. We don’t all agree. We don’t do the same work,” Barracks, who is the producer and team leader of the film, said. “But there is something to be said that there is (still) solidarity formed in our black identities and the fact we are different speaks to the mission of the project which is promoting diversity within diversity.” For Hairston, the communications and logistics lead of the project, the arts have always been an efficient way to address social issues ,and make an impact.
“Activism is not solely the act of marches or public demonstrations. Art will always play a pivotal role in the movements we have seen through history and the movements we continue to shape through our time,” Hairston said. “Whether it be through visual art, film, music or dance art is space for activism and aspace to create change.”
Hairston is a long time community organizer. Her experience, which includes a self-created exhibition where she interviewed and drew portraits of local community leaders, gives her to have a better sense of how to logistically plan filming the documentary. “We made sure everyone on the team had experience with community oriented art and could contribute to the project.” Hairston said.
Local black businesses have been the duo’s “biggest ally” by providing space and reaching out to new communities. Hairston also credited Richmond’s ‘mom-and-pop’ oriented attitude, as well as social media, for how well the film has been perceived in the River City.
“The general reaction has been really amazing because we are a diverse team even in age.” Hairston said. “Everyone here is also pretty ready to share. If you put a flier up and someone is interested they won’t hesitate to put the word out.”
The faculty lead of the project, Pamela Lawton, associate professor of art education at VCU, helped in the development of the documentary and is, according to Hairston, more of a “life coach” than simply a professor.
The film was funded by the Social Justice Fund — a VCU grant which awarded $2,500 to community based project that address pressing social issues. Though the grant helped with the creation of the film, Barracks pointed out that it was still a limited budget.
Many people either worked in kind or were given a very small stipend. “People who helped did it because they value work that is for us, by us,” Barracks said. Barracks is the self-described visionary of the project with an ability to decide where and how scenes should be shot and what the final product should look like. He credits his experience in academia and nonprofit work in the Richmond area in allowing him to understand how to properly curate the narrative within in the film.
“I have never produced a video, but through my own experiences, I can see why this is needed. Hairston is an artist but has never produced a video either but through her experience as a black woman, she can see why this video is needed,” Barracks said.
The film, according to Hairston, is nothing short of a political statement. “We have interviews where we talk about the word ‘nappy’ and what it means. We ask about ‘goodhair versus bad hair’ and if our understanding of hair goes back to colorism and slavery and the idea of the ‘house slaves vs field slaves,” Hairston said. “For me, the film is a way to highlight the many different perspectives that we, as black people, have on our own hair. Artistically, we wanted to show diversity of black hair.”
For Barracks the project is a statement on the connection between the political and the personal. “I think we as black people are conditioned to think, well if I just get the jobI won’t have to experience racism. If I just go get my Ph.D I won’t have to experience it. If I do really amazing artwork I won’t have to experience it,” Barracks said. “I think what this project is proving is that as people of color we cannot separate our identities from the work we do.”
#donttouchmyhairRVA is in the production stages and has a tentative release date for sometime this fall. The duo is planning to screen a preview during the Afrikana Independent Film Festival in September. For updates on the film follow Barracks @IAMMYLIFE_ and Hairston @c.n.hairston on Instagram.
Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor