Ayesha Rascoe On 'The Black Hair Experience' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders The Black Hair Experience is a pop-up visual exhibit dedicated to the beauty, history and nostalgia of Black hair. Guest host Ayesha Rascoe takes a trip there and chats with its co-founder, Alisha Brooks. Then, Ayesha is joined by NPR's Susan Davis and Asma Khalid about the two huge economic priorities for the Biden administration.

— Read Ayesha's essay: "The Black Hair Experience Is About The Joy Of Black Hair — Including My Own"

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

'The Black Hair Experience' Is About The Joy Of Black Hair — Including My Own

'The Black Hair Experience' Is About The Joy Of Black Hair — Including My Own

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Left to Right Aliah Cotman, Ashley White, Shakiyla McPherson and Lucia Boursiquot attend The Black Hair Experience at the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021. Dee Dwyer for NPR hide caption

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Dee Dwyer for NPR

Left to Right Aliah Cotman, Ashley White, Shakiyla McPherson and Lucia Boursiquot attend The Black Hair Experience at the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

Dee Dwyer for NPR

This is a story about the joy of Black hair!

I want to emphasize that right at the start, because like nearly every other part of the Black experience, Black hair has been weighed down by white supremacy.

And there are serious implications when a society does not accept the hair that grows out of your head. The discrimination is insidious, it can mean losing your job, or Black swimmers banned from wearing caps that would cover their long braids or locs, or Black actresses forced to do their own hair because Hollywood failed to see the value of their tightly coiled tresses.

But, Black hair means so much more than that. It's personal and beautiful and, yes, it's joyful!

Jacquelyn Patterson attends the Black Hair Experience at The National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021. Dee Dwyer for NPR hide caption

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Dee Dwyer for NPR

Jacquelyn Patterson attends the Black Hair Experience at The National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

Dee Dwyer for NPR

So when I heard about The Black Hair Experience — a pop-up art exhibit celebrating Black hair in all of its shapes and forms — I immediately jumped in my group chat and told my girls: "We gotta go!" Since I happen to be a journalist, I also decided to cover the exhibit for NPR's It's Been A Minute podcast.

Left to Right: Sakile Glasper, Drea Luke and Ebony Williams reenact moments spent at the hair salon in a display at The Black Hair Experience at The National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD. on Saturday July 17, 2021. Dee Dwyer for NPR hide caption

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Dee Dwyer for NPR

Left to Right: Sakile Glasper, Drea Luke and Ebony Williams reenact moments spent at the hair salon in a display at The Black Hair Experience at The National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

Dee Dwyer for NPR

The Experience Itself

Both times I went — one for pleasure, the other for work — I could feel the joy from visitors as they walked through the 20,000-square-foot exhibit. The Instagram-friendly space is divided into various scenes that depict key parts of Black hair culture, from the kitchen to the salon to the beauty supply store. I saw Black women light up at the sight of a wall plastered with magazine covers, full of images of Black hair styled in sleek updos, slicked back ponytails with the bang swooped on the forehead, multilayered bobs and more.

Alisha Brooks, a visual artist, co-founded the exhibit with her friend, photographer Elizabeth Austin-Davis. Brooks said that providing space for community and conversation was the goal.

"It was really trying to make a place where we can share our experiences," Brooks told me outside the exhibit's Fort Washington, Maryland location earlier this month.

Left to Right Nay Mills, Jazmin Butler, Kristen Goodwin and Alasia Clowe pose for a photos in a display cover in throwback Black magazine covers at The Black Hair Experience in the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021. Dee Dwyer for NPR hide caption

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Dee Dwyer for NPR

Left to Right Nay Mills, Jazmin Butler, Kristen Goodwin and Alasia Clowe pose for a photos in a display cover in throwback Black magazine covers at The Black Hair Experience in the National Harbor, Oxon Hill, Md. on Saturday July 17, 2021.

Dee Dwyer for NPR

Brooks says she also set out to make a deliberate political statement. You can see that message at work in a space set up to look like an office. The words, "my hair is not unprofessional" are displayed above a desk.

"It's important that we continue to have the conversation, because it needs to be normalized," Brooks said. "Once we can normalize it, then we can stop having all of the issues and debates around our hair. We should be able to wear it freely."

My Own Hair Evolution

My journey to embracing the hair that grows out of my head probably mirrors a lot of Black women of my age group. Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, having relaxed, or chemically straightened, hair seemed to be the standard for Black women.

Ayesha Rascoe, pictured here in her early teenage years, remembers getting her hair relaxed at 9 or 10 years old. Ayesha Rascoe/NPR hide caption

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Ayesha Rascoe/NPR

Ayesha Rascoe, pictured here in her early teenage years, remembers getting her hair relaxed at 9 or 10 years old.

Ayesha Rascoe/NPR

I started getting my hair relaxed when I was around 9 or 10 years old. Part of the reason is that I really didn't like getting my hair washed in the kitchen sink, with water flowing into my ears and eyes. My family and peers would also tell me I didn't have a "good" grade of hair because my hair was tightly, tightly coiled to my scalp.

Getting a relaxer meant going to the salon, which could be tedious, but nothing compares to having that fresh new hairdo. My mom, my younger sister and I would get our hair done every other week, and our hair relaxed every 6 to 8 weeks. We went so often I had a bunch of styles over the years: finger waves, French buns, roller sets with curls all over. I loved getting my hair done, although, sometimes I probably looked like an old church lady at 15.

Freeing My Hair

As an adult, I kept relaxing my hair because it was easy and it's what I knew. But more and more Black women were giving up the so-called "creamy crack" of hair relaxers and rejecting the notion of "good" hair as being more akin to European hair. I started to feel like the last of a dying breed.

Then a few years ago, before an NPR Politics live show in Atlanta, I got my hair done, and the stylist was shocked. "You're still relaxing your hair?!" she exclaimed. "I had to throw all my relaxers out, nobody gets them anymore." Soon, my friends were going natural with really great results, so I decided to give it a try. I haven't relaxed my hair in about two years.

Ayesha Rascoe and friends at The Black Hair Experience. Ayesha Rascoe/NPR hide caption

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Ayesha Rascoe/NPR

Ayesha Rascoe and friends at The Black Hair Experience.

Ayesha Rascoe/NPR

My goal now is to wear my hair however I feel at the moment, whether that's in braids, sewn-in hair extensions, curly, straight — whatever feels right.

At The Black Hair Experience, it felt like that freedom was on full display. And that's what touched me so deeply. "We really want to create the message that regardless of you choosing to wear a relaxer or your hair natural or if you have locs, if you are bald — however you're choosing to wear it is beautiful," Brooks said. "It should be celebrated."

The audio for this episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry, Andrea Gutierrez and Liam McBain. Our intern is Manuela López Restrepo. Jordana Hochman edited audio and text. Amna Ijaz edited photos. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.