The second of three narratives on the three pillars of Project AfroDASH—The Artist, The Image and The INITIATIVE—we explore a topic that not only defines me as an artist, but also defines me as a representative of my roots and of my African-American culture. I believe that the connection to my roots begins with the embracing of both the spiritual AND physical remnants of my heritage. This image does not abide by social norm, instead by an innate desire to represent myself according to MY OWN standard of beauty. This self-made image is a reflection of my personal journey.
“This journey is my painting; this painting is my own.”
“…I just can’t. I feel like I’m kissing a dude.”
I can’t say that this moment was the most favorable of terms on which to begin a journey towards self-image construction, but I suppose I didn’t have a choice.
The thing is, though… That there are some words that just can’t be taken back.
I remember the first time that I went natural. The first time that I decided, “Well… I suppose the quickest way to grow my hair is to leave the chemicals behind, put the hot tools down and let it do its thing.” It’s one of those decisions where, in the naïve moments of your early-adulthood, you don’t really expect it to have a huge impact on anyone else’s life but your own. I mean, why on earth would anyone care what I do with my hair? It’s mine, after all—no one has to wrestle a comb through it, wash and dry it or press and curl it but me, right?
Apparently, making the decision to forgo chemicals means that, albeit unintentionally, you have become a new member of the elite, the exclusive, the infamous “Team Natural.” You’re part of the gang. You’re part of the don’t-take-no-mess-from-no-one-when-it-comes-to-my-hair crew. In making this decision, you are forsaking the teachings of your parents, begging the unsolicited opinions of your peers, and compromising the state of physical attraction of your significant other.
All this is to say is that if you are natural, you are baaaaasically giving a big “EFF YOU” to society because it is no one’s hair but your own to control, dammit!
Well, as it turns out, as a twenty-something in a serious relationship while balancing college and multiple nervous breakdowns per week due to stress and no sleep, the larger implication of a seemingly insignificant personal grooming decision gets a bit lost. Normally, what matters to you as a twenty-something attending an amazing school pursuing your dreams on a full scholarship is what is going on right then, at the current time and in the place. Exams, social lives, finding enough quarters for laundry—THOSE are real twenty-something issues. But from that moment that seemingly insignificant issue becomes something more, what suddenly matters to you are the consequences having dared to change something so apparently trivial your hairstyle. What matters more from that moment are the years of self-doubt that may dictate your personal decisions from that point on for fear of no longer “fitting in” or “measuring up” to someone else’s standards. What also matters is what people think, what people say about what they think, why they feel that they have the right to say what they think about your personal decisions. The insignificant issue becomes significant, and you are left with the bottom-line. You are left hurt over what matters most:
Someone you love has told you that you are no longer beautiful because of the way your hair grows.
To say that this particular moment in my life was the beginning of a phase of self-questioning is an understatement, really. (Mind you, this is not to be confused with self-loathing. No. I am happy to report that nothing in my life has provoked a full-on regression the deeply-rooted lack of confidence as a result of my days a target of elementary and middle school bullies). This moment was the first step towards the journey to learn who I was as an individual, and to define an image based on my own unique set of values. This process only began in that moment, however—there were about three more years, another reversion to chemical processing and bad eating habits and then back again before I REALLY began to figure out who I am, how I wanted to look and what my personal “style” was. It wasn’t until my second time going natural, my first “big chop” the reconnection to a childhood friend turned professional photographer that I really, truly began to understand that I really, truly began to understand what the concept of “Natural” meant to me, and why I would never, ever turn back.”
So, all of this said, I want you all to meet Allison:
Now, imagine me, just over two years ago: two months had passed since cutting all of my hair off, and I was rocking a teeny-weenie Afro. This was three months before THE big move—the Spanish one— and I was in dire need of professional headshots. I needed to take photos. I needed something to show that I was going off on a new adventure and ready for the word. With my new hair. With my new, shorter-than-ever hair. Just imagine, you guys. Imagine.
…Imagine. The. HORROR.
Here I was, having just made the decision to return to my natural hair, much more knowledgeable and CERTAINLY more conscious of the implication of a black woman’s decision to shun the societal pressures of maintaining a clean-pressed, straight-haired look—and, worse, still hearing a broken-record echoing my ex-boyfriend’s hurtful words. The amount of emotions running through my mind at any given time were enough to have taken over had it not been for both the excitement of the impending move and, little did I realize, the community of women at a dance studio that I was working and taking classes in at the time. Once the new challenge of accepting my new “natural look” presented itself, I quickly learned that I was more than equipped for this new journey. The time I spent alongside these incredible women helped me to learn to unapologetically express myself through dance; it was the beginning of learning how to unapologetically express myself through my own carefully crafted physical image. The energy of learning that this was a journey in SELF love rather than the pursuit of societal approval was intoxicating; it carried me long after leaving the studio, to the point in which I stood, facing my short, kinky hair in the mirror. It was one day just weeks after my haircut, weeks after leaving the studio, and just weeks before the move. “This is no different,” I told myself. “I am no different.”
“This is who I am for the rest of my life, so I have to learn to love her.”
Shortly after this, I emailed Allison, and told her that I was finally ready for my headshots—and that I also wanted to begin an annual document of my Natural Journey. Since that moment, she has helped me create a photo-journal to document each new phase of beauty, discovery and acceptance. Her work is absolutely amazing. During this project, this incredible artist has helped me bring images to life that I had only sketched images of on paper. I just kept finding myself thinking repeatedly, “Is this real? Is this me???” The answer was, of course, yes. Yes, this was me. This IS me. This is the “new” Erin Corine Johnson that I would have to learn to love, and learn to be proud of.
From our first two installments:
Natural – Year 1 (Full Album) <— August 2012
Natural – Year 2 (Full Album) <—August 2013
Over the course of these past two years, the documentation component of my journey has served so many purposes in my life. Although the first year was unmistakably the most difficult, it was also the most formative in that it taught me the meaning of RELATIVE beauty. Living in a new country teaches you that once removed from one society and into another, no standard matters but your own. You are often times newly immersed in a culture that knows nothing of how your image relates to certain standards imposed by your own culture. You are now surrounded by a group of people that knows of neither your previous societal constraints nor your previous personal battles. The old standards cease to exist. The reference is gone. The surroundings have changed.
The only standard that matters is your own.
Coming across so many people that were oblivious to the conflict surrounding the Natural Hair Movement in the United States was an eye-opening experience. By my second year, I was steadily recovering my sense of self-worth and with the help of many amazing friends, constructing an image that fit my lifestyle and what was beginning to materialize as my life’s work. Being such a cultural individualist, it just made sense to embrace such a special physical reminder of where my ancestors came from, especially coming from a forcibly displaced culture in which we have very little knowledge of our direct lineage beyond the last 200-300 years. Because the concepts of artistic expression and constructing an artistic image are so closely related in process, I found great joy in learning to express myself as a musician and teacher under this new “image” that I had created while finding a place my new community. All in all, I suppose I decided that part of my responsibility as a culturally-conscious performer was not solely to interpret music, but also to portray an image that connects and inspires my audience to embrace their own unique natural beauty, just as is—and to cherish every part of themselves that is a reminder of where their ancestors have come from. You could say that natural hair and lifestyle became a sort of tribute to the culture that I was just beginning to know, the history that I was just beginning to retrace and the lineage that I had just begun to reconnect to. I may not know exactly where my great-great-great grandparents came from, but a quick glance in the mirror reminds me that, well—some genetics really do survive generations and generations of migration, immigration, social change and inter-cultural mixture, don’t they? After these two years of retrospective interest and questions of identity, I decided that I couldn’t possibly hate a feature so definitive of my culture’s social movement through history. As an artist, the least I could do was display pride in my hair and in the way it connected me to other removed African cultures. Although some disagree with the concept, I decided at that point that, you know what? I AM my hair—but not because society told me to. It is a sort of souvenir, I further concluded. It is a link to my family’s past, and a bonding feature between those of us with similar lineage. I am my hair because it is mine, and God gave it to me. It makes me unique, it makes me stand out—and the confidence it gives me makes me a better artist.
I am my hair because I MYSELF decided it to be so.
And man, I tell you guys… The moment that I decided that truth for myself was one of the most liberating, strength-inspiring moments of my life. 🙂
* * * * * * *
So, as it seems, I am just few months past my second “Naturalversary” and the time for the third installment of this 5+ year annual project is rapidly approaching. In this special year, the project falls on that very special, long-awaited pillar of my life—my Golden Year, where I will celebrate 27 years of life on October 27. I’ll spare you all a reprise on the numerology conversation, because there is an entire post dedicated to it already… Please know, however, that this such is a special year to have arrived at such a huge pivot in my professional life, and to have also have finally arrived to a point of unshakeable confidence in the artist that my image reflects. My image is a work of art in and of itself, and I feel that every individual owes it to him or herself to construct it according to his or her own standards. The documentation of this journey for me is an exercise of creativity and collaboration; it exercises my ability to use a physical phase to construct an image, and to invite the vision of another to bring said image to life. This year’s concept, pending the financial success of the Afro(–) campaign fundraising efforts, will be incredible—and, if I may say so myself, one of the best yet as this year’s installment follows one the most formative phases of my life. The location where I continue to pray that it will take place has so greatly impacted my perception of life and beauty, and the individual elements of this year’s concept combine to uniquely express the person I am, where I have come from and where I have been. This year’s installment not only sets the stage for what’s to come, but also introduces a new defining feature of the person I am and the artist that I aspire to be. With this and each subsequent chapter, with every new challenge and every new set of circumstances, The Image is re-defined. Another leg of the journey is complete, and next phase begins.
…This time around, however, it begins on MY terms: natural, confident, and ready to re-introduce myself to the world.
“Let no one fear the road to his or her most beautiful, natural self—whomever that self may be.”