DULUTH - Gabrielle Benton stopped using hair relaxers when she was pregnant with her first child. She didn't want to expose her baby to the chemicals. Today, Benton and husband, Jerell, of Superior, Wis., have two daughters, Alyssa, 5, and Ayden, 6, and their children reinforce Benton's decision to go natural.
"I didn't want to be hypocritical, tell them their hair is beautiful and then I'm perming my hair. So, I decided to go natural, and I haven't really looked back since," she said.
Benton shared at an event hosted by Project Naptural, a grant-supported, research and socio-cultural initiative aimed at educating, connecting and empowering black women around their natural hair, the history of it and the feelings around it, said Terri Moses.
Project Naptural was Moses' grad school research thesis. Now an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota Duluth, the effort is spreading a message of positivity, self-love and "don't touch my hair" across the Twin Ports.
In early September, women of all ages sported cornrows, afros and braids in a hair fashion show. Pictures of women are splayed on the Project Naptural Instagram account.
Project Naptural means embracing black hair, without chemical relaxers, and educating people on how to style natural hair, Moses said. That was a focus during the latest symposium on Sept. 15.
Women and some men practiced natural hairstyles on cosmetology mannequin heads with different skin tones and hair textures. "We have 188 different textures of hair in the black community," Moses said. She, co-facilitator Sandra Oyinloye and others demonstrated how to do a bantu knot, a puff style and also many ways to tie a headscarf.
On the tables were wide-tooth combs, tangle-taming leave-in conditioner, argan oil gel, bobby pins. Middle-schoolers sat around Moses' station while she demonstrated how to detangle without causing damage.
"I love that it's so hands-on and that people are getting a chance to actually, physically work with their own hair in a sort of gentle, nurturing, not critical, very loving way," said Lauren Harewood.
Events like this are happening all over the country, said Harewood, who is originally from New York and is studying physics at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
She used to chemically process her hair. When she decided to go natural a decade ago, she chopped all of her hair off to remove the processed growth. Today, Harewood wears it mostly in plaits (loose braids).
"The natural hair movement has taught us that we don't need to treat our hair with rough hands. We don't need to internalize that hatred for ourselves through the way that we comb and rake through our hair," she said.
Before this and the headscarf tutorials, Moses and Oyinloye discussed the history of hair in black culture. Hairstyles represented different stages of life, some took days to complete, said Oyinloye, a coordinator in UMD's Office of Diversity & Inclusion. "Slavery stripped them from their cultural connection," she said. In the 1960s, hair was politicized, and some used hair as a type of rebellion.
"Now, it isn't about politicizing our hair; it's about acceptance," Moses said.
Hung on the walls of the cultural center were posters designed by Moses highlighting different natural hairstyles, their names and comments from personal interviews she conducted. Some of the styles were twists, locs, braids, the puff.
Sharon Witherspoon has lived in Duluth close to 50 years. This is the first intentionally black hair event that she's aware of, and it's much-needed, she said. "It builds up self-esteem in our young people, whose hair may be natural, and (teaches them) to be proud of that. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
A big inspiration for Project Naptural is Moses' own hair journey - "acknowledging what culture was doing to me and my self-confidence," she said.
She described the alienation she felt about her hair as a child. In advertisements, on TV or in movies, black women often had straightened hair; natural, curly and full black hair was rarely present. That sends a message that your hair needs to be altered in some way, tamed, made smaller, to fit in, and that you're not acceptable as you are.
"I remember having plaits and cornrows and being made fun of. ... I remember going home crying," she said.
"Project Naptural ... makes us feel like it's OK to have felt that way."
The initiative isn't against straightening; it's about stopping chemical relaxers because it causes damage to people's health, Moses said.
Most smoothing products and treatments contain formaldehyde, a cancer-causing substance. Exposure can cause breathing difficulties, eye irritation and damage including blindness, among other things, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Alex West Steinman recalled using products with lye and formaldehyde. "If I could just get straight hair, people will like me," she recalled thinking. Steinman talked about her hair journey and how going natural affected her self-esteem, her voice and how she engaged in the workplace. "It's taken a lot of unpacking to love myself," she said.
"Women in general are taught that your hair is your beauty, and for black women so often, hair is incredibly fraught with this racist kind of colonialism," Harewood said.
In the natural hair community and in society, you can have curly hair, as long as it's a loose curl pattern, Moses added. "It looks mangy, it doesn't look professional," are comments Moses shared regarding hair with tighter curls.
There's privilege that comes with people with looser curl patterns. That system is reminiscent of colorism, people who have lighter skin are looked at differently than people with darker skin. There's also an issue with black hair and presentation, Harewood said, describing a pressure to make sure you're presentable, clean and dignified, representing the best of black people at all times.
"In a lot of ways, the way we dealt with our hair was how we showed our good 'negro-ness,' our willingness to assimilate. That's not to say that everyone that goes natural or someone that considers going natural is rejecting assimilation. In some ways, they are, but it's a very personal thing, ultimately," Harewood said.
Melissa Grimes is a hairdresser who's pro natural hair, but she's not 100 percent against chemical processes. She doesn't push them on clients, but she does use chemical relaxers herself.
"I had a Jheri curl as a little kid, and I remember hiding in the coat room when ... class was starting. I was terrified because I knew I was going to get teased about this little tiny afro," she said.
Grimes brought her two nieces to last weekend's event. "I hope they'll be inspired to follow their dreams and be who they are, internally first," she said.
Of Project Naptural: "It's positive energy, it's black girl magic," Grimes said.
Rose St. John came to learn some tips. She has naturally straight hair. "My daughter has biracial hair, it's not the same texture, so learning new stuff with it is fun," St. John said. For Amaya's curly locks, she uses a detangler, a curling cream, and a deep conditioner twice a month.
At the cultural center, Moses and Oyinloye wore T-shirts that read "Don't touch my hair." They handed out tote bags with the same message - a reminder about respect.
Every woman Moses has talked to has an experience with someone touching their hair unprovoked, she said.
"To pet our hair is likening (us) to a petting zoo or an exhibit," said Benton, recalling when a woman reached for her daughter's hair in a store. "We're not an exhibit or a freak show." Project Naptural creates a space to share those experiences. "I need to know I'm not alone," she said. It's also important to show her daughters, whom she has empowered to say, "You can look, don't touch."
This phrase is "saying 'no' to your privilege, and 'no' to your supremacy and your objectification of who I am as a black woman," Moses said. "This is my personal space, and you don't have a right to that."