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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

‘Our truth is within our hair’: Falling in love with natural hair in Gainesville

UF Black Hair Expo showcases beauty of natural hair

Denisha Williamson-Walker shampooes a client's hair at her Locs by Dee salon located at 4040 W Newberry Road Unit 1300 on Friday, Jan. 28.
Denisha Williamson-Walker shampooes a client's hair at her Locs by Dee salon located at 4040 W Newberry Road Unit 1300 on Friday, Jan. 28.

As a child, Christina Demps sat on the floor of her parents’ bedroom, her head tipped back as her mother intricately braided her hair. When they could, they sat together on Sundays and prepared Demps’ hair for the next morning. But as Demps grew older, it became harder to find time.  

“My mom was going to work around 7 or 8 in the morning and my dad wasn’t doing my hair, so I relaxed it because it was the convenient thing to do,” Demps said. 

As a 22-year-old health education and behavior senior, Demps has come to fall in love with her natural hair while at UF, she said. 

“When I went home for winter break in freshman year, I cut off all the dead hair,” Demps said. “Now I love being able to wear my hair in twists, the wash-and-go, or I can wear my puffs or my slick-back bun. I don’t see myself going back to that relaxed state.”

Through collaboration, Black campus leaders like Demps curated the 2022 Dr. Hilliard-Nunn Black Hair Expo, which gives students the opportunity to learn about and celebrate natural hair Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. in Pugh Hall. 

As some students share the educational opportunities the Black Hair Expo brings, a master loctician discusses how Gainesville residents with natural hair can benefit from going to trustworthy and experienced stylists. 

The UF Black Hair Expo is a spin-off of the Black Hair Show. The late Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, an African American studies associate professor who died after battling cancer in 2020, created the show. The last hair show was in 2019, and this year’s revival, hosted by The Gator Chapter of the NAACP, is meant to honor Dr. Hilliard-Nunn’s legacy. 

Hilliard-Nunn was revered in the Gainesville community for challenging racial injustice — as a historian, an advocate, a poet and a teacher.

Through her passion for Black history, Hilliard-Nunn made a lasting impact on the students she taught, many of whom felt a genuine connection with her and were taken aback when she died. 

Demps, the president of women’s empowerment organization SISTUHS, Inc., said she loved Dr. Hilliard-Nunn’s African American studies class her sophomore year. 

“Being at a predominantly white institution, it is rare that you come across a Black professor,”  Demps said. “I think I’ve only had two or three since I’ve been here all four years, so it was a warm feeling to have a Black professor, especially for a class like African American studies.”

The expo will showcase the many forms of Black hair through the theme of “Black and Global” —  highlighting the diverse backgrounds that Black hair comes from and the various styles that are worn.

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Naiyla Durand, a 19-year-old environmental science sophomore and Black Hair Expo director, said she hopes that non-Black students at UF will see how versatile natural hair is. “What I want to accomplish most is for the Black student population at UF to feel comfortable in the many forms that their hair can appear in, learn new hair styles they’ve never tried before and the origin behind some of the hair styles,” Durand said.  

The process of learning to love one’s natural hair has been a significant journey for many Black students, including Darlesa Richardson, a 22-year-old advertising senior and the president of LADIES Inc., an organization that provides mentorship to young women in Gainesville. 

For a large part of her life, Richardson had difficulty finding the right regimen to maintain her natural hair. 

“It’s hard trying to find a combination of products that are for Black hair,” Richardson said. “Especially with social norms of having straight hair and having ‘workplace hair,’ where you usually have a wig, or you flat iron your hair and there’s a lot of hair damage that comes into that.” 

During the pandemic, Richardson learned ways to style her hair and hopes hosting the expo at UF will allow attendees to appreciate natural hair in a new way.  

“It’s important to highlight our history as well as our truth, and a lot of our truth is within our hair,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of stigma that comes with Black hair, with what’s appropriate and what’s not, so it’s important to highlight this part of Black culture and expose it to the Gainesville community to get a different perspective of what Black history entails.”

Outside of the UF community, a Gainesville master loctician, has worked tirelessly to help Black residents feel proud of their natural hair. 

Denisha “Dee” Williamson-Walker, the owner of Locs By Dee, specializes in locs, a braided hairstyle also known as dreadlocks. Williamson-Walker’s 18-year-old business uses all-natural shampoos, oils and other products that promote hair health. 

Working in West Gainesville, Williamson-Walker sees a range of clients, from college students to doctors, working at local hospitals. Most of them have attempted to style their hair at home or have been relying on friends and family to keep their hair up. 

If a hairstylist isn’t trained to service natural hair, there could be a myriad of consequences such as hair breakage, hair loss, clogging one’s scalp and finding one’s hair unmanageable, she said. 

“You run the risk of not falling in love with your hair if you don’t find the proper way to take care of it,” Williamson-Walker said. 

Similar to Demps, Williamson-Walker used to have her hair done every Sunday as a child by her grandmother. She credits her interest in the skill from the generations of women in her family who style natural hair. Williamson-Walker stated most instructors don’t know how to service natural hair unless they have it themselves.

“It’s honestly very hard to walk in any other salon where they don’t look like you to trust that they’ve got the type of schooling or education that they need to handle your hair,” she said. 

Kimberly Brown, a 31-year-old licensed therapist, started visiting Locs By Dee in 2014. 

Before having her hair styled at Locs By Dee, Brown had a poor experience at a salon that didn’t specialize in natural hair.  

“They didn’t use the right products on my locs, so it messed with the texture,” Brown said. “A lot of that product got stuck in between my locs and it took me a couple of months to get it out.”

After eight years of getting her hair styled by Williamson-Walker, Brown said she no longer experiences product buildup and her hair is thriving. Providing a rewarding natural hair journey like Brown’s is what Williamson-Walker takes pride in most when it comes to her craft.

“The best part is someone not thinking that their hair looks good and then they get up and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh,’ they feel like a whole new person,” Williamson-Walker said. “Helping people is my number one job.” 

Contact Eileen at ecalub@alligator.org. Follow her at @EileenCalub.

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