The path that many Black women have followed on the road to beautiful hair is littered with hot combs and curling irons and paved with hair care compounds and bags of hair.
In case they’ve forgotten, The Black Hair Experience (TBHE), now at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., brings back a lot of memories in an exhibition with 15 neon and pastel-colored sections and walls decorated with afro picks, rattail combs, plastic rollers and covers from every possible magazine targeting Black women. The exhibition began in Atlanta and is at National Harbor until the end of this year. TBHE then travels to Texas for viewings in Austin, Dallas and Houston.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Alisha Brooks and Elizabeth Austin-Davis, long-time friends, who pulled it together two years ago in Atlanta, Ga. The idea started with Austin-Davis, a photographer, while working on a project about Black women and their hair.
“We both have faced discrimination based on our hair,” said Austin-Davis about TBHE. “We wanted to make it fun and in celebration of us.”
Valerie Amafujo Simmons, who prefers to be called “Ama,” is a 64-year-old native New Yorker. As a child, her hair was pressed. She would go to the hair salon when her mother went. Simmons moved to the D.C. area in the late ’90s and immediately noticed a cultural difference with Black women and their hair. Simmons has yet to visit TBHE but is intrigued by the concept.

A wall of pressing combs and curling irons is one of the sections at The Black Hair Experience, an exhibition at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., running through the end of 2021. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)

“In New York I lived more of an artist’s life. The corporate life was more liberal. I had a locs ponytail with my sides shaved,” said Simmons, now a Silver Spring resident. “When I moved to DC, it was a whole different vibe. I cut off my locs which were down to my waist. My locs had a lot of energy, but I wanted to be more available in the workforce.”
A group of girls, ages 10-15 from Hampton, Va.. called “Sisters in Unity Incorporated” learned about their hair during a recent visit. Their mentor, Irene Peoples, arranged for a visit after learning about it from the TBHE website and arranged for a “We Care” workshop at TBHE focusing on self-love and how that feels through their hair.
“They were really intrigued with the creativity and how it celebrated Black women. I wanted to give them the opportunity to see just how proud they should be,” said Peoples about visiting to TBHE. “They looked forward to posing for pictures at the exhibition when they arrived.”
Jordan White, a senior at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC. is an intern at TBHE. Working at the exhibition is a big leap for the animal science major with a minor in chemistry, but it made sense for her.
“I felt this was my calling,” said White who lives in Prince Georges County. “What I learned during COVID was to pursue my passion. I decided to take this creative route.”
Another intern from Prince Georges County, Alanna Webb is a junior mass media major at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga.
“I got emotional,” said Webb when learning about TBHE. “I love the goal and mission to make this a safe space and to feel good about yourself.”
Chiquita Laurie, from Leesburg, Va.. came to TBHE with her sister-in-law Bonita Dralle from Richmond, Va.. Dralle admitted she was apprehensive.
“Coming in, I loved the atmosphere because it celebrates Black hair, Black excellence and Black women. I’m glad we came,” said Dralle.
“For so many years we were told our hair was not beautiful,” said Laurie who admitted she changed her hairstyle to sister locs ten months ago, “This experience gives the atmosphere to rock it with my sister locs and be proud of it.”
White sums up who should come to the exhibition.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have a big top, locs, a perm, kinky curls, a big ‘fro or little ‘fro,” said White. “Regardless, whatever it is, however it’s growing, it’s yours and it’s beautiful.”

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Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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