Back in middle school, I loved writing fiction. It was a form of escapism. So I wrote a 10,000-word story (it was abysmal, so please never ever ever ever ever ask to read it) about these kids with superpowers based on the meaning of their names. It was loaded with all kinds of characters, and the two main protagonists were named Chili and Pepper. A few years ago, I went back to read it and noticed something strange. Here are some of the descriptions of the main characters:
- “His blue eyes looked like oceans, and his black hair was the color of the night sky.”
- “Fierce blue eyes that looked like they would steam when she was mad and red fiery hair.”
- “Grassy green eyes and light brown hair with leaves in it.”
- “A tall girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
- And cringiest of all: “A tall lady, maybe six feet tall. She had long blonde hair and dark brown eyes … she had wolf ears.” (Who knows what the helI I was thinking here?)
This all might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, but as I was reading and reading and reading, something occurred to me. Not a single one of my characters remotely resembled me — a brown-skinned, dark-brown-eyed girl with a myriad of hairstyles, none of which happened to be long and blonde (and presumably straight). It’s not bad to write about other people and their perspectives, but when zero of the characters in your 10,000-word, 50-page lil’ draft of a book look almost nothing like you, it’s disheartening. You wonder why. Is there something wrong with me?
I realized that I was doing this not because I didn’t want to write about characters that better reflected me, but because I didn’t know how. I was simply writing like what I was reading.
As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi said in her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of A Single Story,” “I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed.” And that’s what I did, for the most part. There was one key difference in the books I read, however: all my romanticized characters were white and blue-eyed, and what I ingested was what I produced.
It’s not to say that the book series I loved reading — “Harry Potter,” “Percy Jackson and The Olympians,” “The Heroes of Olympus,” “The Kane Chronicles” (was a huge Riordan fan if you can’t tell) — didn’t include or describe a diverse array of characters. But in “Harry Potter,” one of my favorite series growing up, the “Black” characters were not romanticized, nor were descriptions expanded upon. Lee Jordan, whose naming convention comes with a racist history, is merely described as “having dreads”; Dean Thomas is described as “a Black boy even taller than Ron”; Angela Johnson is described as “a tall Black girl that played Chaser”; Kingsley Shaklebolt is described as “a tall Black wizard” and, from what I recall, bald; and Blaise Zabini is described as a “tall black boy with high cheekbones and slanting eyelashes.” Although these characters are mostly secondary and thus might have more limited descriptions, the language used is reflective of many “Black” character descriptions I’ve read. With the myriad of shades and creative, innovative and versatile hairstyles that exist and present themselves in people of African descent, I think it’s more than possible to romanticize these features in literature.
Indeed, romanticization goes beyond just representation — that is, beyond just a mere description. Romanticization also involves picturing these characters and their unique features as surreal, magical, beautiful or otherwise interesting. I really wish there were more romanticizing of Afrocentric traits, culture and experiences. And one feature that could go with a lot of that is Afro-textured hair.
One day, I was watching the YouTuber StarPuppy. In one of her videos, she made a very interesting point about how Afro-textured hair is often not romanticized, explaining,
“You know how straight hair is often described like ‘a soft cascade of blonde locs fell around her face, highlighting her angelic features’ … Words, images are very powerful, and we [people of African descent] don’t have a lot of positive ones, so we need to make some up.”
That resonated with me a lot. As a once avid reader, how many times had I read a story describing someone’s “soft cascade of blonde locks”? On the other hand, how many times had I (and how many times have you?) read a story describing someone with features like:
“Hair similar to a cloud on earth, voluminous yet light and soft” or
“Gravity-defying, cosmic curls; so airy, sweet and saccharine like spun sugar” or
“Coils [catching] daylight and [making] it dance like diamonds” or
“Dark curls fully flowering around [the] head.”
These were all comments under the video, where viewers enthusiastically answered the call to StarPuppy’s challenge.
Immediately, I fell in love with this vivid, romanticized imagery, especially inspiring because I then had my natural hair out for the first time in over a decade. Envisioning colorful analogies alluding to the skies, nature and the universe was so powerful. I realized how much my full-on 4c afro resembled clouds in the sky, tree tops of the forest and even the cosmos up above. My afro wasn’t just natural; it was also magical.
With all of the creative, innovative and versatile Afro-hairstyles that exist, I think it’s more than possible to include romanticized portrayals of them in novels or other pieces of mainstream media. Now, I intentionally go out of my way to find sources of romanticization. I flood my Instagram feed with images of inspirational Afrocentric art. My doodles are littered with imaginative possibilities and with wild ideas like Hair Heroes: superheroes with superpowers based on different hairstyles (RIP Bantu Babe, Puff Puff, Crochet and Wavvy). I refer my friends to StarPuppy’s inspirational words. I have hope that things are tending toward greater romanticization — but in the meantime, as StarPuppy says, let’s make some up!
About the series:
Normally, I have written Daily articles about my infatuation with Stanford (e.g., 10 Things Stanford Feels Like Beside a School, 10 Unique Moments I realized I was here, 23 things I Missed About Stanford). And those are really fun to write, to share and express my appreciation of being at a school I love very much. But with this “Afropreciation” series, my goal is to explore my experiences and thoughts about the world from the “Afrocentric” view that I can offer — one that centers my experiences as a Sierra Leonean American girl — and to put them into conversation in hopes of understanding more about the world around me. I acknowledge that I am one perspective, and I’d love to hear what other people from a wide array of perspectives — be it from the African diaspora or otherwise — think about these issues and/or my points of view on them. Feel free to email me to chat. I am always open to learn, explain and elaborate on things. Any resources are also appreciated. Thanks for reading.