Arnelle Williams

When I left to study abroad in Cuba spring semester, I did not anticipate that my natural hair worn in beautiful Marley twists would be the subject of desire, beauty, and exotification. Being Black American in Cuba was not easily translatable; I was often misread as another nationality. My Marley twists, a hairstyle which is commonly worn by Black American women, sparked conversations about societal standards of hair beauty and illuminated a shared history of black natural hair among generations of Cubans (of color) who saw me.

This hairstyle, which uses Marley hair, a texture that imitates the kinks and coils of black natural hair, can be used to extend our hair to a desired length without needing to undergo a process of blow drying or ironing it beforehand. Before this creative innovation and its popular use, black women who wanted extensions used synthetic hair that was straight. The extensions then had to go through a straightening process so that the kinks and coils would not reveal themselves, along with the sharp contrast and nonconformity that our hair symbolically represents. Therefore, I learned pretty quickly, through my first encounters with Cubans, that I am wearing something that is different. A difference that is not necessarily registered as deviant, however exotic and greatly desired it might be by black Cuban women who want to learn more about the versatile ways that they can wear their hair. I saw that desire in the way that black Cubans touched my hair and proceeded to explain to me that it was beautiful because of the thickness, the long length, and the healthiness it embodied. It was a sight they rarely saw in black visual representations. That in turn made me exotic. I was exotified not just by non-blacks but by black people. The attention that I got from my hair led people to comment on my facial features and skin color as well.  I was, and still am, called beautiful because I embodied an unusual, but revelatory sight for the people who approached me. I was in a place in which my beauty was explicitly depicted as both different and positive. As a black foreigner, how strange that realization was for me! I also noted that this realization came about largely due to the social context I came from--that is, Brooklyn, New York, where I enjoyed access to a variety of positive black female representations--images that are frequently unavailable in both Cuba and the United States.

In fact, that absence, which connects Cuba and the United States, speak volumes about a dominant, Eurocentric standard of beauty: constructed using the building blocks of race, gender, and aesthetics to dictate who and what is seen as attractive, desirable/marriageable, successful, and to an extent in accord with a given nationality. I realized, much like I did in the US, that Cuba’s history of slavery, Spanish colonialism, U.S. intervention, and independence, has reinforced long, straight hair as a powerful, monolithic epitome of beauty. A beauty standard that countless black Cuban women internalize and subject their hair to. This continues to be exemplified over and over again in mainstream media, entertainment, and advertisements. I have yet to see a poster or popular music video that showcases black women and black natural hair, for these two entities in the public medium are few and far between. Yet what has been showcased through popular videos and songs like “La keratina” by Los Van Van is the prominence of keratin treatments and extensions to make hair straight and long, rendered as desirable, beautiful, and feminine.

In addition, as I walk through the streets of Havana, I have noticed that black daughters and women (unless they are older adults) wear their hair straight in Cuba’s extreme heat. I learned that the straightening of hair was often a response to the tremendous heat and humidity hair is subjected to in Cuba and to dominant beauty ideals. In an effort to confront this reality (the damage sun can do to hair on a day-to-day basis), straightening the kinks and coils is then seen as the only option in order to manage and cope. Although I have seen women wearing box braids and weaves, what black American women would consider to be protective styles, I did not see as much variety--styles like twists, cornrows, locks, and bantu knots--in Cuba. I believe part of it has to do with the lack of public black beauty salons. Beauty salons that I have encountered usually showcased an expertise in straightening or processing hair, rather than styling kinky hair. I remember going into a nice beauty salon in Vedado that had pictures of women with straight hair hanging on the walls of the place. I walked in with my hair in a big Afro-updo. I told one of the women working there that I had a friend who was interested in getting her hair washed and braided and that she had hair just like mine. Her facial expression changed from certainty to uncertainty, and she looked like she was calculating whether or not anyone could style my friend’s hair (based off the looks of mine) in this salon. With some hesitation, she nevertheless told me to tell my friend to call and make an appointment. In speaking with several Cuban women of color (and black female American students from other study abroad programs) about where they go to get their hair done in box braids or weaves, it is usually by word of mouth and in someone’s home. Those Cuban women of color who are able to execute these styles tell me that they have taught themselves and rely on connections with friends from the U.S. to access hair extensions or hair products. They each tell me that they do not know of salons that can do this type of hair care. There were no salons--vital spaces to cultivate, understand, and share knowledge of black beauty haircare with others.

Having grown up in East Flatbush (Brooklyn), where there is a beauty supply store on nearly every block with shelves filled with different natural hair care products, such as  Cantu, Creme of Nature, Shea Moisture, etc., and oils from olive oil to coconut oil, I was surprised to learn these were not available in Cuba. The effect of the U.S. embargo greatly contributes to the general scarcity of beauty goods, especially black hair care goods. I was told that in Cuba there is lack of “elementos o productos para mantener nuestro pelo, (porque) son caros.” I realized that bringing my hair care products with me was as essential as bringing clothes or shoes. For a moment, I had to imagine what it would be like to live in a country that lacks the market for my hair due to economic and geopolitical challenges like the U.S. embargo or state socialism. For Cubans with black kinky hair, to truly take care of this kind of hair, it is not financially sustainable. As a result, the decision to wear hair naturally is an uncommon one, and inherently political, entangled in a history that continues to shape it. At that moment, I was grateful for the black natural hair movement that has brought about incredible events such as AfroPunk and Curlfest in the U.S. and the efforts of  many black women entrepreneurs before me to make black hair care accessible, economical, and educational: a social aesthetic shared among my sistahs across the nation. This historical framework enables me to empathize with my diasporic brothers and sisters and most importantly, recognize that coming into contact with Cubans is crucial to understanding a shared history of internalized inferiority and unified blackness.

In a few weeks, I became known to my peers by my hair. It became an identifier before my race, gender, and nationality. I have been called Africana, Jamaican, Rastafarian, Negrita (a reclaimed form of endearment that Cubans call each other based on physical appearance), and, most surprising to myself, Puerto Rican. I am called these names by an array of Cubans who, although they share the same degree of melanin as me, see me as very different. I am frequently asked where I am from by white North American and European tourists who think that I am Cuban. Perhaps what has been the most eye-opening for me is when I am called everything but American. The moment I tell someone, soy de los Estados Unidos o estadounidense, they seem to be surprised. In one specific encounter, I was told that the speaker “never would have thought [I] was from America, never, never, never.” From the amount of nuncas that left his mouth I wondered when I would really be seen as an American in Cuba, and I questioned what representations of the U.S. have penetrated and permeated the minds of Cubans. When a man complimented my hair and my beauty, qué linda, I stayed woke in Cuba. This black natural hairstyle continues to transgress and reopen conversations on the effects of slavery and colonialism of black people, who have been “disfigured, oppressed, demeaned, humiliated, and despised” (Issoufou Mahamadou). It is also a chance to rediscover our identities and love, to impose, through powerful social networks and resistance, a strong vision and value of ourselves. The symbolic significance of hair has been crucial to my study abroad experience, prompting me to write a hair diary about blackness from the U.S. to Cuba.