Hair Love — Academy Award Winner Matthew A. Cherry’s Call To Love Natural Curls

Book cover of my copy — illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Kinky curly hair “has a mind of its own”. The protagonist Zuri of Matthew A. Cherry’s children’s book “Hair Love” says this about her own hair. All those, who have kinky curls or coils, know that this is true. Especially those who are of African descent and recognize their hair as 4c know that maintaining healthy, beautiful hair can be a struggle, even more so if it grows long.

For some, dealing with their curls day in and day out might have developed into a love-hate relationship. As beautiful as curly hair is — ranging in types from 3a to 4c — it takes up a lot of time to keep it that way. For the longest time curls and particularly tight, kinky curly hair has been deemed as unattractive by most beauty industries and societies around the globe. The promotion of hair straighteners and hair relaxers has been especially aimed at young girls and women over many generations, which has led countless women to dislike their hair and damage it in an attempt to transform it into long, straight hair.

Cherry’s children’s book is an homage to kinky curly hair, promoting its beauty and unique properties. Its main focus is telling little girls that they are perfect and gorgeous just the way they are. Despite the difficulties they may have in styling their hair, the effort is worth it.

The story starts out by telling the reader that Zuri loves her hair, because it can be worn in various styles, each bringing out different characteristics of her hair and her personality. The young girl describes her mane as magical, while claiming it could do everything.

The reader is made aware that for some reason a special day lies ahead of Zuri. Her hairstyle must be perfect for this occasion. At first, she tries to dress hair curls and coils herself. But as she is still a little girl, she needs the help of her father. In the course of the book she and her father bond over the struggle to manage her hair and their mutual love for it, regardless. Whether in braids, in puffs or as a big afro — the hair is viewed as a gift.

It is essential that children are made aware from an early age that they are perfect, just the way they are. Only recently, dark skinned women with natural hair have been able to win high-ranking beauty pageants as “Miss Universe” or “Miss USA”. Over the years, more often than not, the winners had been light skinned with straight hair or loose waves. When they were darker skinned, they generally had straightened hair or wore weaves.

The wider acceptance of natural curly hair — without it being fetishized like the afro in the 1970s — has just recently gained momentum. Wearing open natural kinky hair, braids or cornrows while operating in a professional setting is beginning to be welcomed. Matthew A. Cherry attempts to awaken pride in children for their coils and kinks from an early age.

The story is accompanied by delicate, lovingly created illustrations by renowned artist Vashti Harrison. Carefully placed, the pictures focus on the figures and few details in the foreground. The background is generally kept hazy or omitted completely. The illustrations are widely composed of soft, pastel colours. Only occasionally bright, striking colours brake that pattern. Throughout, Zuri’s hair is portrayed in shimmering facets of multiple light and dark brown tones. Vashti captures the varying textures of the girl’s magnificent hair, depending on whether she wears it open, in buns, braids or waves. Her father’s dreadlocks are similarly presented in individual detailed styles. The love the depicted family members have for each other and for their hair radiates from the illustrations.

Matthew A. Cherry gained widespread acclaim for his short film of the same name “Hair Love”, which won an Academy Award in the category “Best Animated Short Film” in February 2020. Even though the subject and overall plot is the same, it varies slightly in some scenic details. The film takes the viewer on a hair adventure sprinkled with cheerful humour, while addressing difficult subjects. Nevertheless, it maintains a cheerful and light-hearted aura.

Illustrations by Vashti Harrison, copyright © 2019 by Vashti Harrison

Primary literature:

CHERRY, Matthew A.. Hair Love. New York, Kokila. An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.

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