99 Problems

Published on September 25th, 2013 | by Aya de Leon


Angry Black Mom AYA DE LEON Launches Positive Hair Project

As a black mom, and particularly as the mom of a daughter, I’m always vigilantly guarding against racism and sexism.

Meanwhile, I am a working mom and a writer.  I have dozens of creative projects that are in various stages of completion, and I am trying to put all my energy into launching a my sexy feminist heist novel.  It is not a children’s book.  I don’t have time to work on my children’s book.

Tiana Parker

But then along comes racism and sexism.  Seven-year-old Tiana Parker was recently sent home from a charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for wearing dreadlocks.  The school rules state that “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.”  Are you kidding me?  Just like the Ohio school in June that attempted to ban afro puffs.

When it happened in June, I told myself, yeah, I’m gonna write that children’s book one day.  But now I see a picture of a little girl crying about being sent home from school for having natural hair? I am furious.  And heartbroken.


I live in the Oakland Bay Area.  While there are many problems with the schools here, hair isn’t one of them.  Many kids have natural hair, fros, locs, frohawks, afro puffs, and nobody’s getting sent home for that.  I have locs, my sister has a huge afro, my man has an unruly short fro that he wears to his tech industry job.

Starting when my daughter was two, I began to point out and compliment people on the street with afros or afro puffs.  Locs and braids are wonderful, but they often hang down.   I recall as a girl wanting gravity to affect my hair some kind of way, but it was not to be.  So with my daughter, I began to point out and praise the people whose hair was spiraling up to the sky.  Puffy.


“Did you see her beautiful puffy hair?” I would ask my daughter.  “Look!  He has puffy hair just like us!”  I would call to people on the street:  “Hey!  We like your afro!”  Black people would stop and smile.  They would compliment her hair back.

Mostly I keep my daughter’s hair in braids, but one day she asked for an afro puff.  I texted everyone we would see that day.  “D has an afro puff today.  Make a fuss.”  Everyone did.  She enjoys her puffy hair. She often wants it wilder and more puffy.  Soon enough, however, she’ll know what that seven-year old now knows.  Many people think something is wrong, ugly, uncivilized, unprofessional, and bad about her natural hair.  While it’s not true, it’s hard not to internalize it because so many people, including black people ourselves, often believe it.


So the Puffy project has been going on informally for a couple of years now.  And I made a personal book for my daughter with pictures of natural haired black people looking pleased and happy.  And I live in a part of the country where she won’t get directly attacked for having natural hair (just indirectly attacked via media now and peer pressure in the future).  And I want that to be enough.  But it’s not enough.  I want other kids to have access to these images.

So today, I’m launching the Puffy Hair Project.  It will be a book of photos of children and families with natural hair.  But I’m not a photographer, so I need photos.  If you’d like to be involved, please send a high resolution photo with the name and contact info of all of the adults and parents or guardians of the young people, as well as name and email of the photographer to PuffyHairProject@gmail.com.  I will send permission/release forms to those selected to be in the book, and they will get a free copy.


“That’s me,” my daughter says when she shows the book to friends.  “And that’s my family,” she says, pointing to the picture of the three of us.

It won’t end racism or sexism.  It won’t protect black children from future attack by institutions.  But I believe that the best way to fight negative media is with positive media.  So send me your nappy, your puffy, your kinky, your curly.  Your wavy your dreaded your braided your cornrowed.  Your spiraling tresses, yearning to breathe free.  Not just black people, but anyone with puffy hair. Priority will be given if your hair defies gravity.


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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In May 2020, Aya published her first children’s chapter book, EQUALITY GIRLS AND THE PURPLE REFLECTO-RAY, about an Afro-Latina girl who uses her superpowers to confront the president’s sexism. In December 2020 Kensington published her first standalone novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about FBI infiltration of an African American organization fighting for climate justice and Black lives. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Mutha Magazine, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry. In 2020, Candlewick will publish her first YA novel, a Black/Latina spy girl book called UNDERCOVER LATINA. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. Visit her online at ayadeleon.com, on Twitter at @ayadeleon, Facebook or Instagram at @ayadeleonwrites, where she writes about race, class, gender, sexuality, culture and climate.

3 Responses to Angry Black Mom AYA DE LEON Launches Positive Hair Project

  1. Maria says:

    I love this! xo Maria

  2. Damita Brown says:

    Thank you for speaking to the beauty of our puffy hair. The reality of exclusion and forgetting needs a voice. And thank you for doing poetry for the people.
    Another poet for truth,

  3. Eve says:

    Love this. I’m currently engaged in a dialogue about our choice to leave our 21 month old with a little Afro. This line — “Many people think something is wrong, ugly, uncivilized, unprofessional, and bad about her natural hair. While it’s not true, it’s hard not to internalize it because so many people, including black people ourselves, often believe it” — wow. Nails it on the head. Thank you.

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