In Arial Robinson’s first book, The Modern Day Black Alphabet, the 19-year-old Charlotte native explored Black culture through a series of photographs, each one representing a different part of the Black experience for a corresponding letter of the alphabet –– C for Cold, E for Education, Z for Zap, Zoom and Zone, and so on.
Robinson, a junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University kicked off February with the release of her latest venture, a book of drawings dubbed Black Hair Care in Color. This project was Robinson’s opportunity to explore her own relationship with her hair while also diving back into an old passion for drawing.
The Black hair experience differs from others, as Black Americans have lost jobs, been reprimanded in academic settings, or been shamed or embarrassed on national television purely because of their hair being deemed unruly or unprofessional. The Black experience has been subject to employers, peers, and pop culture icons all publicly discussing the most socially acceptable way to wear one’s hair.
Robinson’s Black Hair Care in Color aims to showcase what makes Black hair special.
“I challenged myself to draw different products that I felt not only depicted my experiences but other Black people,” Robinson explains. “Products like Blue Magic, Pump it Up! Spritz, and the hot comb. Things like that, that when you see them, you think about your experiences and your memories.”
Robinson created Black Hair Care In Color with Black children and adults in mind. The adults are meant to find comfort in seeing their experience normalized, while children can use it as a way of fighting the internalized shame that’s been fed to them from external forces.
“For children coming after me. From when they first look at the book that my hair is important and that these products that I choose are the tools that are going to help me express myself through my hair,” Robinson shares.
When I spoke with Robinson after the release of Black Hair Care in Color, we briefly bonded over personal experiences with our hair and the lack of proper representation in media. Even stories with Black characters rarely showed the full picture. Seldom did they show women wearing scarves to bed or setting aside entire afternoons to wash, detangle, and take care of their hair.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t see that and I think that’s still important to the stories in the history around Black hair,” Robinson told Queen City Nerve.
Joining the conversation, changing the rhetoric
“I understand how Black hair is perceived in different areas. Sometimes it’s welcomed, a lot of times it’s not,” Robinson shares.
The negative perception surrounding Black hair can be found throughout pop culture. This year, Tia and Tamera Mowery shared the reason why they started sporting straight hair later in their careers. When the duo starred in Sister Sister, their curls were considered cute and fitting for the younger characters they portrayed. Both sisters switched to a straighter look as they got older and the pressure of being in the spotlight took its toll.
“In this business, if I had my hair curly, I was told, ‘Can you pull that back?’ On auditions, I was told, ‘It’s distracting,'” Tia shared in a 2021 interview with Pop Sugar.
In 2009, comedian Chris Rock premiered Good Hair, a documentary about the pressure that society places on Black people — and more specifically Black women — when it comes to their hair. The film covers the evolution of Black hair care in a country still dealing with systemic racism and the rise in popularity of relaxers, perms, weaves and wigs.
Good Hair set the ball in motion, but it wasn’t until recently that the conversation around Black hair pivoted, inspiring the natural-hair-care movement, in which people reclaim their identity by refusing to alter their hair chemically or with damaging tools. For the first time, Black women were given the space to talk and learn about their own hair outside of straighteners, relaxers and perms.
Speaking from my own experience as a Black woman, the pressure to always keep my hair sleek and straight could be debilitating. Every two weeks from middle school to college, my mom would clear her schedule and break out the hot comb, proceeding to brush and brush until my hair no longer carried its same curl pattern. I eventually graduated to a ceramic flat iron after learning that hot combs cause more damage.
The year that Good Hair came out, I was just starting high school. I begged my mom to let me get a relaxer like my Black classmates. Going to school at a predominately white high school didn’t help. It wasn’t until college and becoming familiar with more beauty influencers that looked like me that my perspective changed.
That’s when I learned that most Black hairstyles have a purpose outside of general appearance. Braids, weaves and wigs are meant to protect and replenish hair especially during the dry winter months.
It’s hard looking back without blaming myself for the current state of my hair. It’s been years and the heat damage from constantly straightening my hair is still there. Seemingly every piece of media I saw growing up showed me that straight hair was more desirable and more socially accepted.
Making yourself the meme
Once Black Hair Care in Color was published, Robinson took it upon herself to market her latest creation. She took to her Instagram story, sharing a photo of herself holding a copy of Black Hair Care in Color and sporting a 4-foot-tall afro, inspired by the retro beehive hairstyle.
A follower commented referring to her as Marge Simpson and Robinson ran with the bit. She tweeted the same photo with the caption, “Marge Simpson is a black woman.” The post went viral, eventually getting picked up by Dazed and Confused Magazine and Girl Gaze.
“I’m hoping that when people see this photo that they stop, and that they don’t wanna look at it. They wanna comment, they wanna share, they want to be a part of it,” she told Queen City Nerve. “People like being a part of a story, and that’s something that I just really enjoy creating –– things that other people want to share the experience and have, like a community-like interaction with it.”
Robinson was able to plan, execute and publish Black Hair Care in Color in a matter of months, a much longer and arduous experience than the two-week process of creating and publishing The Modern Day Black Alphabet. While she worked on the new book, she juggled her schoolwork, making music and collaborating with other creatives.
From interning with DaBaby’s label Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment, to selling custom-woven rugs with her artwork, to running her own merch store, there is no point in time when Robinson isn’t working on at least one project. Most recently, she accepted a summer internship with Beats by Dre, where she will work in their marketing department.
With her work gaining national recognition and multiple projects on the horizon, Robinson manages to stay true to her roots: sharing and elevating Black stories.
“There’s an art in survival,” Robinson says. “I’m really inspired by those normal things that we do that we don’t think about. So, like, getting up every day and going to work or going to the grocery store or going to church — those things that we use to survive.”
Black Hair Care in Color can be purchased on Arial Robinson’s website in the form of a hardcover book, a coloring book or a matching card game.
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