Hair as Repair: Emotional Reparations

Photo and makeup by Erika Emerton

Have you ever heard of the phrase Emotional Reparations? I hadn’t until three months ago, honestly. But since discovering the term, I’ve been able to find language that helps me better articulate my journey of racial healing within myself and my community.

So what exactly are Emotional Reparations? I’m glad you asked 🙂

In the context of 21st Century America, the idea of reparations is often associated with demands for financial compensation to descendants of enslaved Africans, accounting for the centuries of damage done by the institution of chattel slavery. However, a brief study of the origins of the word reveals a more expansive definition, as the word reparation stems from the Latin word reparationem, meaning “the act of repairing; restoration.” By this definition, reparations become more than just money, or any other physical resource. It stretches to include impromptu and curated experiences of healing devoted to repairing the centuries of emotional and psychological harm inflicted upon Americans descended from enslaved Africans. This broader understanding is what has led me to think about the desperate need – my desperate need – for Emotional Reparations.


Lately, Facebook has been showing me memories from WAAAY back in the day. I’m talking about those memories from 10, 11, 12 years ago, the ones that make you feel all types of ways. Seeing photos of my smiling face framed by long, silky, flowing hair evokes such complicated feelings.

When I see these photos, my heart aches because I’m reminded of how deeply I had internalized a lie that any and all identifiers of Blackness were ugly and undesirable. My chest tightens and my heart races as these photos bring me back to memories of sitting in my hair dresser’s chair for hours, sacrificing my scalp as chemical burns turned into scabs, all so that my hair could be straight like the “pretty” girls I grew up seeing in the movies and magazines.

The emotional wear and tear of growing up in a country that idealizes particular forms of White Femininity (read: long, silky hair; snow-white skin; slim and slender body frames) really takes a toll, and looking at these photos fills me with simultaneous feelings of anger and sadness as they bear witness to the successful tactics of white supremacist culture convincing 13-year-old Nia that the “whiter” she looked, the happier, prettier and better off she was.

One of the even harder things about recalling these memories is the reality that these photos depict genuine smiles; 16-year-old Nia truly believed she was better off chemically straightening her hair and explicitly surrounding herself with people who also idolized and exhibited features of Whiteness (i.e. avoiding Black people and communities at all costs).

But I thank God that on August 18, 2016, I found the courage to not only shed years of chemically damaged hair, but to also begin shedding the psychological and emotional damage caused by 23-years of internalized anti-Blackness.

August 18th, 2016: The day I did “The Big Chop.”

Watching my hair grow from its itty bitty baby curls to its Formidable Fro Form has healed me in ways I didn’t even know I needed, and just as my hair has been growing healthier and stronger, I, too, have been experiencing emotional repair and strengthening. My hair has gifted me with experiences of healing that go beyond banknotes and empty promises of economic development plans, and if reparations in their fullest sense are about the work of restoration, I can confidently claim that the journey of learning to embrace the beauty of my natural hair has been a living and growing embodiment of the work of Emotional Reparations.

Moreover, my hair has taught me a cardinal truth: The work of Emotional Reparations is a communal endeavor. I know this to be true because the emotional and internal healing I’ve experienced over the years has only come through communing with others, especially through the sacred communion of Black Sisterhood.

More specifically…

Emotional Rep-hair-ations have looked like me connecting with one of the most wonderful Jamaican hairdressers New Haven has to offer, who helped me find the courage to shave off my hair and encouraged me to internalize the Truth that I am beautiful not in spite of my Blackness, but because of my Blackness.

Emotional Rep-hair-ations have looked like me confessing my fears of getting Box Braids because I had so deeply internalized that hairstyle as “ghetto”/unprofessional, and being met by a beautiful community of Black women who celebrated my newfound courage to experiment with my hair.


Emotional Rep-hair-ations have looked like Black women helping me condition my hair in my living room and fasten my graduation cap so I could secure that Yale Divinity School Master’s Degree and walk across that stage looking REGAL 😉 #BlackBeauty.

Emotional Rep-hair-ations have looked like little black girls running up to me to tell me they love my hair and me telling them they’re beautiful in return.

I have the privilege of being able to call this beautiful little human my God-daughter. Her name is Trinity and she’s pretty incredible <3.

Ultimately, journeying these last five years with my natural hair has filled my life with countless conversations, laughter, tears, hugs, and songs of healing, and though I still feel all the complicated feelings when I see Facebook memories from back in the day, I also feel all the beautiful feelings of joy and gratitude as I see photos of the new memories I’m creating through the transformative work of Emotional Reparations.

Yale Black Seminarians, Class of 2021

One thought on “Hair as Repair: Emotional Reparations

  1. Pingback: Hair as Repair: Emotional Reparations – Community Healing Network

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