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Editor’s note: The Capital spent two months interviewing nearly two dozen of Maryland’s black women lawmakers about the historic representation in Annapolis this year before session was cut short due to the coronavirus, how they navigate Eurocentric standards of beauty and how, for many of them, their relationships with their hair connect to their relationships with their mothers. The Capital also interviewed psychologists, researchers and historians to learn about how black hair has been regulated throughout history, and how those oppressive forces linger.

"I think that the way that people treat and respond to and engage black people has always been political. And I think that black hair is an easy way to identify and target black people."

- Del. Shaneka Henson

"There was a time when you wore your Afro, the bigger the better. The bigger you wore it, the more radical you were or were seen."

- Del. Debra Davis

"When young women see me, they can see themselves and know that they can achieve the same thing. I may be the first African American and woman Speaker of the House, but I don’t intend to be the last."

- Speaker Adrienne A. Jones

"The choices I made about my hair were political. They weren't just aesthetic. They weren't simply cultural expressions of my class or my family background. They were decisions that had political impact."

- Del. Robbyn Lewis

"Our existence is politicized. It is political not because we inherently are, but it is the way the world makes us."

- Del. Melissa Wells

Photos by Joshua McKerrow, Paul W. Gillespie, Jeffrey F. Bill / Capital Gazette and Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun

Nearly every Sunday morning before church for the first 17 years of her life, Sandy Bartlett’s mother washed her hair in the kitchen sink.

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She’d eat breakfast — oatmeal, usually — alongside her five brothers. Then her mother would drag a dining room chair across the linoleum floor.

She would climb up and bend over so her long hair fell into the sink. Her mother used Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and, no matter how careful she was, dripped water all over her shoulders.

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After toweling off, she’d camp out in front of the open oven with “Archie” comics, multiplication tables or Sunday school reading while waiting for her hair to dry.

“She never left me alone there,” she said. “She would come check to see if it was dry, and I would pray silently, ‘Be dry. Be dry. Be dry.’ ”

When it finally was, she’d sit impatiently on the kitchen floor in her pajamas as her mother pressed out her kinky curls with a hot comb, sending the smoke and sulphur swirling through the air.

She and her mother thought her straightened hair was “the way it needed to be done” to feel special for church.

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Now a first-term Democrat from Anne Arundel County, Del. Sandy Bartlett has ditched the hot comb for her kinky curls, and was a co-sponsor on a House bill aiming to create a respectful and safe environment for black people to wear their natural hair without discrimination.

Maryland’s version of the Crown Act — sponsored by nearly all of Maryland’s black women legislators — specifically safeguards hairstyles designed to protect the ends of hair by decreasing tangling, shedding and breakage, including braids, twists and dreadlocks.

The effort marks a shift in both legislation and legislators — it’s a bill by black women to protect black women and men. Without them this issue wouldn’t have been a topic of discussion at the State House.

Awaiting a signature by Gov. Larry Hogan, the law would expand the definition of race to include all textures of hair, and hairstyles often worn by African Americans. It would be enforced by the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

Adrienne A. Jones strikes the gavel to dismiss the House of Delegates on the first day of the Maryland Legislative Session at the State House in Annapolis Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.
Adrienne A. Jones strikes the gavel to dismiss the House of Delegates on the first day of the Maryland Legislative Session at the State House in Annapolis Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.(Dylan Slagle/Carroll County TImes)

Women and men who face discrimination on the basis of their hair would be able to file a complaint the commission could investigate and remedy as needed, according to the commission’s general counsel.

This session, cut short March 18 by the coronavirus pandemic, marked the swearing in of Maryland’s first woman and first African American Speaker of the House, Adrienne A. Jones. Elected to the legislature in 1997, the Baltimore County Democrat is only the fifth African American leader of a legislative chamber in the nation's history.

Just 62 years after Verda Freeman Welcome and Irma George Dixon were the first two black women elected to Maryland’s General Assembly, Jones is joined by 26 others including Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, a Salisbury Democrat who serves as speaker pro tem, and Sen. Melony Griffith, a Prince George’s Democrat who is Senate president pro tem.

“It’s a new year, it’s a new decade, and our House members look more like our state than ever before,” Jones said on Opening Day, her short hair swooped to the side.

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The percentage of black women lawmakers in the State House is nearly reflective of the state population — black women make up about 16% of Marylanders and about 14% of state lawmakers, according to the U.S. Census. Black women lawmakers come from Baltimore City and eight of the state’s 23 counties, and are just 27 of more than 900,000 black women residents in Maryland, most of whom are not afforded the privileges that come with serving in elected office.

“One of the reasons why we are here is to really show up for our sisters who can't,” said Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Jones said that although she is the first African American and woman in the position, she doesn’t intend to be the last.

“Becoming the first African American and woman speaker of the House is inherently symbolic and gives hope to many — particularly to young, African American women and girls,” Jones said in an email to The Capital. “It is important for women of color to see themselves in positions of power. When young women see me, they can see themselves and know that they can achieve the same thing.”

Is black hair political?

We asked almost two dozen black women lawmakers. Here's what they said.

Del. Sandy Bartlett, D-Maryland City

I see it as a social statement in some ways. I see it as a personal statement. But the political part? When I think of politics I think of a give and take, a compromise or a collaboration. And I think that's just too big for hair. It is more of a statement of who you are or how you want to express yourself.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Shaneka Henson, D-Annapolis

I think that the way that people treat and respond to and engage black people has always been political. And I think that black hair is an easy way to identify and target black people.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, D-College Park

It shouldn't matter how you wear your hair but it is political. We have a curly hair revolution. We're not going to put up with it.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins, D-Silver Spring

Black women and black people -- in general -- are judged a lot by their hair... I think that it's more than political. I think that it is judgement. It's a sense of our worth, and our beauty and our professionalism based on our hair. It makes me really proud to be in this position and to wear my hair to really show people...my hair is professional and this is how it comes out of my head.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Regina Boyce, D-Baltimore

I think it is a statement of who we are, it is a statement of our ancestry, and it is a statement that this is a different definition and visual of what beauty is... I think it is us finally getting to a point where we're not only comfortable in our own skin, we're now comfortable in our own hair.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Diana Fennell, D-Colmar Manor

No, I refuse to let it define me... do not let anybody define who you are, don't let your hair define you. You want to wear it natural? You want to wear it curly? You want to wear it in a bush? Do so.

Photo by Jeffrey F. Bill / Capital Gazette

Del. Pam Queen, D-Olney

Your hair becomes that first impression that people get and they make a lot of assumptions about the hair.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Robbyn Lewis, D-Baltimore

The choices I made about my hair were political. They weren't just aesthetic. They weren't simply cultural expressions of my class or my family background. They were decisions that had political impact.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Hyattsville

Anything around black women's bodies has always been political. Whether it's our bodies have always been regulated, whether you track it through slavery, our access to health care, how we can have hair in the workforce.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Debra Davis, D-Indian Head

There was a time when it was political. I would like to say that it isn't now... There was a time when you wore your Afro, the bigger the better. The bigger you wore it, the more radical you were or were seen... But now the range of options for black women and their hair is exponential. I can't say that hair is political because there is such a range now. You're making a statement about your individuality.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Edith Patterson, D-Charles County

It depends on who is observing the hair. In the '60s and '70s, when I was growing up, they viewed as being a radical, that you were trying to affect change or that you were part of Angela Davis' ideologies... Some people haven't gotten the memo because they are still trying to impose regulations about what you need to look like. It all depends on who is looking at you. Your hairstyle could generate political oppression or generate admiration. It all depends on the viewer.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Sen. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore

It is certainly political in that there are those who make rules for other people in how they can wear their hair and people can experience discrimination... Political in the sense of self-determination and making decisions but also political because it is contested.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Melissa Wells, D-Baltimore

Our existence is politicized. It is political not because we inherently are, but it is the way the world makes us. But it is political in a liberating way. I like that my hair is nappy and people look at me and I ask them questions about what they are doing to help improve access to jobs and my community.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Sen. Joanne C. Benson, D-Landover

When I think about my parents, I am so grateful, because there weren't too many days gone by where my parents did not tell us that we were born for a reason...And they role model what they expected us to be. My mother combed her hair every day... So the hair for African Americans is not a political statement. It is a cultural statement. It has all to do with our upbringing.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-Salisbury

But when I think about going out into the different communities from the city government and the county government, I think it is something that needs to be addressed because I can see (discrimination) happening and definitely, we need to put a standard out there for (it) to not occur.

Photo by Jeffrey F. Bill / Capital Gazette

Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, D-Silver Spring

Over time, it has created political concepts of being conscious and recognize that it doesn't matter whether your hair is natural or if your hair is straight. As long as you recognize you're a black woman, and you're powerful. I think that's kind of the politicalization of it.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Forest Hill

When I came here, last year in the Senate, right on the heels of my election, I was so tired of straightening my hair. So I got faux locks, and everybody seemed to love them. So I can honestly tell you that I don't feel I've been discriminated against personally because of my hair. I feel like the discrimination has been because I am a black woman. I definitely feel like I was discriminated against when I was in the House of Delegates, as a black woman and not because of hair.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Nicole A. Williams, D-Greenbelt

It is definitely an expression of who we are. This is something that started before my time probably during the '70s with just being proud about who you are as a person and not being ashamed about the fact that your hair is different than somebody else's hair.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Stephanie Smith, D-Baltimore

I went to a historically black college in undergrad and at that time I was the minority of women wearing my hair that way. People would joke and be like, 'OK sister soldier.' It was like you are more militant.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Fulton

People might look at certain hairstyles as being radical, or they see a certain hairstyle and they automatically assume that black woman has certain views or issues or that she might be more militant or less militant.

Photo by Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette

Del. Andrea Fletcher Harrison, D-Glenn Dale

At that time when women first started wearing their hair natural, it may have been more of a political statement. But now, I don't think that it is, I think that it's just a part of life.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

Del. Veronica Turner, D-Camp Springs

We got all different styles of hair, textures of hair, so it is okay for us to be different. It's not all political, but they can make it political. We have the natural hair, and we know where we come from.

Photo by Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette

‘A nod to history’

Over the past 400 years, discrimination against black hair has been woven into realities of work, school and daily life. Regulation is still embedded in dress codes, grooming standards, and workplace professionalism guidelines.

“Black women legislators are giving a nod to history,” said Morgan State University professor Stacey Patton, whose research focuses on race, culture and women’s issues. “There were no black women legislators in the 18th century to question standards or policies. Hundreds of years later, it is shifting.”

Del. Stephanie Smith, the primary sponsor of Maryland’s Crown Act, said it will help prevent discrimination against personal appearance long denying African Americans opportunities for economic and social advancement.

“Hair becomes a proxy for race,” Smith said.

The 38-year-old, a Baltimore City Democrat, proudly wears her hair in dreadlocks on the House floor.

“I remember when I was in law school you always knew interview season because everyone’s ‘fro became a press because that’s apparently what they felt was necessary to get in the door,” Smith said. “And don’t get me wrong — I’ll never fully know opportunities I’ve missed because I never wore my hair straight for any of those law firm interviews.”

When the Crown Act passed, despite the late hour on the House floor, many delegates had their phones out to take pictures. Smith said she was moved to see so many supporters had stayed to watch.

In written testimony on the Crown Act before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh explained that for decades, natural hair textures, Afro hairstyles and protective styles worn by black people “have been described as messy, matted and unkempt — styles that are not suited for professional settings, such as schools and the workplace.”

In 1981, American Airlines prohibited cornrows, a policy upheld by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The Army banned twists, dreadlocks and cornrows in 2014 — a ban lifted in 2017 after backlash. A 6-year-old black boy could not go to a private school in Florida in 2018 because of his dreadlocks.

A little more than a year ago, a high school wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks on the side of the mat to be allowed to compete in New Jersey.

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The regulation of black hair has roots in the 17th century when the transatlantic slave trade forcibly removed millions of Africans from their homeland and brought them to the Americas for labor.

Many were jolted from African civilizations that honored hair as a representation of one’s status, identity, religion and ancestry, Patton said.

The enslavement of Africans stripped its victims of their humanity, heritage and traditions.

“Imagine going from having at your disposal all of the natural resources that you have and use in Africa to adorn your hair and yourself to be beautiful,” said Del. Shaneka Henson, D-Annapolis.

In addition to being displaced and disoriented, Henson said, black hair was “deprived of culture, deprived of resources, and being compressed into this European standard of beauty that happened to black women, their bodies, and their hair, all at once.”

In 1786, Louisiana prohibited black women from wearing their hair out in public, forcing them to cover up with tignons or handkerchiefs, according to an ethnography published by the National Park Service. Freed black women had to wear headwraps, something they later reclaimed as an accessory with ornate scarves.

“We see the continuation in different contexts over the span of U.S. history,” Patton said. “There’s always been a resistance of black people having ownership of our bodies — our hair is part of that struggle.”

Standards of beauty

Though black women in the General Assembly wear their hair in a variety of styles ranging from natural curls to dreadlocks to twists to weaves, nearly all of them described unspoken truths instilled in them from childhood about what hairstyles are acceptable in the workforce.

Before Del. Pam Queen ran for office, she worked in science and technology. She said she was often concerned with how others perceived her hair and whether it was hindering her ability to advance her career.

When she entered the race for House of Delegates from the 14th District in 2016, her hair did as well.

“At that time I was the only African American female from Montgomery County,” Queen said. “I cut off my locks.”

Many black women described an immense pressure to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty to fit in and succeed.

Professor Afiya Mbilishaka — whose psychology research at the University of the District of Columbia focuses on black women’s hair and identity — said there are societal consequences for not conforming to standards in beauty in a world that places so much value on appearance.

“We live in a system of white supremacy and there is a white ideal or standard,” Mbilishaka said. “It is even more complicated for black women with the intersectionality of race and gender.”

Sitting in her Annapolis office in January, Queen pointed to framed diplomas on the wall from Tuskegee, Johns Hopkins and George Washington universities.

“If you looked at my resume, you would not even know that I’m African American,” Queen said.

Pointing to a smaller, framed photo of herself in a graduation gown with dreadlocks, she asked: “Could that hairstyle be the speaker of the House? Could that hairstyle be the president of a university?”

“So when I take that hairstyle, I’m telling myself I’ve limited some of my options — outside forces do change things.”

Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, identifies as multi-racial; her father is Nigerian and Yoruba, and her mother is Indian and South African. Her ethnic identity and physical features, she said, impact the way she walks through the world.

“I think it’s very hard to put all black women in the same box because we all have different intersectionalities going on. Whether you’re a queer black woman, or you’re an Afro Latina, or whatever you are, a lot of us don’t have one monolithic identifier,” Fisher said. “Hair is huge for black women, but it’s not the only thing.”

For years Del. Jheanelle Wilkins relaxed her hair but after being inspired by other black women wearing their natural hair, she cut off her own and started over. Now, she wears it in a large, recognizable Afro.

“Whether it's political, like standing on the House floor or whether it's in conversations with friends and family in normal day life — I really just strive to be authentic,” said Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat. “It's really important as we talk about hair to try not to judge other women because then we get back to the entire conversation around women and men being judged by their hair.”

For Del. Andrea Fletcher Harrison, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, the understanding that black women had to wear their hair “fried, dyed and laid to the side,” was commonplace when she was entering the workforce in the late 1970s.

She isn’t likely to veer far from the shoulder-length pressed curls she is known to wear throughout the session, though many of the younger women in Annapolis are embracing their natural hair.

“They’re free and they love who they are and what they do. (But) I still can’t do it,” Fletcher Harrison said. “In order to try and succeed, I had to conform to some things, but I don’t think we have those restrictions on us as a country anymore.”

Mothers and daughters

When Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk lost her mother 10 years ago, something changed inside of her. Grappling with the loss launched her onto a journey of self discovery that focused heavily on her roots.

Digging into her family’s past in the Dominican Republic — and her twin daughters’ future in Maryland — she realized black women across the United States are leaning into a “curl revolution.”

“Now I’m more in tune with who I am and where I come from,” said Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat from College Park whose district includes part of Anne Arundel County. “Now, I’m free.”

Haircare by black families is a practice of dual purpose: The simple act of washing, braiding or pressing a young black girl’s hair is also a time to prepare her for the realities, and at times difficulties, of the outside world.

As a child, Peña-Melnyk’s hair was often pressed and relaxed, but as she grew older she let her hair return to its naturally curly state.

Now she’s raising her twin daughters to embrace their naturally curly hair. She hopes younger generations of girls will feel empowered, too.

“You can be anything you set your mind to, and the doors are open for you. And you could be just yourself the way you are with your curly hair,” Peña-Melnyk said. “You will add to the conversation and you will make a difference.”

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The practice many of the lawmakers described was formative — not just in relation to hair care — and helped them grow into their sense of black identity.

Mbilishaka, the psychology professor, said mothers can build their daughters up in a world full of racism and sexism through preparation and protection.

Preparation informs black girls that the world “does not affirm you so this is what you need to do,” she said. “Protection is building them up — you are beautiful and wonderful. Don't let anyone critique you.”

As a way to embrace her hair, Del. Sandy Bartlett wrote a poem about her curls. She shared the overall idea of the poem in an interview with The Capital.

Bartlett, the Democrat from Maryland City, doesn’t press her hair for church anymore, but she looks back fondly on the mornings with her mother.

At the time she thought it was the way her hair needed to be — but the rules are changing. Bartlett sees a future where black people can wear their hair in any style without judgment or discrimination.

Now when she stands to explain her vote in a building that was likely built by slaves, her kinky curls rise with her.

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