Five young girls performed on the steps of the State Capitol and inspired acceptance, understanding and local anti-discrimination law. On these pages is a celebration of beautiful, natural, Black hair.
“My Curls, My Twists,
My puffs, and My braids
My Bantu knots, Our edges laid
Short, long, or in a fade
We rock our hair in different ways
We rock our hair in different ways
Any style WE gonna slay.
Cause every time, I whip my hair around, around, around
You can look but do not touch
my crown, crown, crown.”
— Lyrics from the song, Crown, by The Real Young Prodigy’s
It was a moment of joy for a world weary from pandemics and political antipathy: Five beautiful, bright, young Black girls burst into song on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol on March 29, 2021, and set into motion legislative change that supports acceptance, inclusion and respect.
Kaylin Booker, 13; Renee Robinson, 11; Andrene’ Flowers, 14; and D’Angelia McMillan, 12, are members of a talented, socially-conscious, advocacy-oriented hip hop group called The Real Young Prodigy’s that grew out of a hip hop program for elementary, middle and high school students founded by 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Nyree Clayton Taylor, an academic-instructional coach at Wheatley Elementary.
Their latest song, Crown, was inspired by the CROWN Act, a proposed piece of legislation which is sweeping slowly through states across the country. The acronym stands for “Creating Respect and an Open World for Natural Hair” and its passage would make it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their hair styles. The Crown Act was introduced in the Kentucky Legislature last year by Representative Attica Scott but was voted down, and when these girls heard that, they picked up their pens and were soon making plans to attend a rally at the Capitol supporting the act. “One of our younger members wanted to write a song about her crown and the older members talked to them about the Crown Act,” explains Nyree. “Everything we do, we try to attach policy to it for them to use their voice. They are always looking for ways to heal the city. They thought one way to heal is to talk about the beauty of Black women and their hair.”
After their performance, the Crown Act was brought up for a vote in Louisville Metro Council by Jecorey Arthur, Metro District 4 Councilman, and it passed. Mayor Greg Fischer signed it into law on July 15, making race-based hair discrimination illegal.
The girls’ powerful, poetic words of self-love and pride for natural hair styles sparked an awareness that was long overdue: Hair discrimination is a reality for Black women and men. A recent study by Michigan State University found that African American women face the highest instances of hair discrimination. They are more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. The study also determined that 80 percent of African American women felt they needed to switch their hairstyle to align with more conservative standards in order to fit in at work. A separate study by researchers at Duke University found that participants viewed Black hairstyles like afros, twists or braids as less professional. The same study determined that Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to land job interviews than white women.
“Black hair is filled with politics, history, power, and culture,” says Elle Smith, a WHAS reporter and current Miss Kentucky USA who wears natural hair styles. “As a child, I was told my hair was too big to sit in the front of the classroom. I was told by a white college professor that my braids were unprofessional. This is a conversation my black friends in this field (broadcast) have constantly. Is our hair professional? The answer is yes. Our braids. Our kinky curls, our wigs, our twists are all professional.”
Brooke Johnson, an entreprenuer, recalls a similiar experience. “I used to work in the corporate world and TV news and I couldn’t have natural curly hair braids, locs or even hair color. I didn’t like this at all and told myself I would not work somewhere I can’t be naturally me.”
“When I entered the professional world, I went to the salon every two weeks to have it chemically straightened. I did this for years until I finally decided I was going to chop it all off and go natural,” says Marita Willis, chief empowerment officer of the Hope Collaborative. “I was working as a vice president at a bank and I actually emailed the president to tell him what I was planning to do. Fortunately, he was wonderful and told me to do whatever I wanted. But I felt I had to ask.”
The pressure to fight their natural texture and waves begins early for Black girls. “My aunts used to straighten my hair with a hot comb and Ultra-sheen. Lordy, this is taking me back,” Marita says. “The perm used to burn your scalp — put sores on your head. My mother did not comb my hair so it looked stylish, so I was embarrassed. They used to say, ‘You got a mammie-made hairstyle (home ’do.)’ I cried inside. People can be cruel.”
“My earliest hair styling memories are of my mom braiding my hair, getting my hair pressed in the kitchen with a straightening comb and getting my hair relaxed for the first time,” says Renee Murphy, now chief of communications and community relations for Jefferson County Public Schools after 15 years as an anchor and reporter at WHAS. “I wanted a texture I didn’t have and length I couldn’t have. I wish I could go back and have a conversation with my younger self.”
While Renee can’t do that, she can now tell young girls that judging someone less professional, less appropriate or less capable because of their hair is not only ignorant, it is actually illegal in this city, and hopefully, soon, in this state. Representative Scott plans to reintroduce the Act in the next legislative session.
“While there is still so much work to be done around racial equality and social justice, this act will ensure that our children can feel proud of their hair and their heritage, says Prenashee Collins, chief of staff of T. Bain and Co. “When walking into a boardroom with our long locs, high hair buns, braids or afros, we won’t be made to feel like our hair doesn’t fit the professional profile. The passage of the Crown Act means healing for our city. Progress.”