By her account, by the time she was in her late 20s about 10 years ago, Mechal Renee Roe had grown used to almost daily questions lobbed at her and stares cast at her by coworkers.
Their curiosity revolved around her hair. Roe had long dreadlocks cascading down her back, which she styled a multiplicity of ways. Some coworkers at the children’s clothing company where she worked as a design manager, confused her hair with braids and asked if they were real. Those people with questions, typically, were white. Then there was the contingent of coworkers — mostly black — who asked her why her bosses would let her wear her “hair like that.” Their own naturally kinky hair was permed into straight styles. Roe’s hair was an affront to their notion of professionalism.
But Roe found communion and solace outside the office when she attended natural hair beauty expos in Atlanta, including the World Natural Hair Show in College Park. There, she found herself surrounded by black women like herself with different natural hairstyles — from ‘fro hawks to Bantu knots — all of them sampling grooming products made specifically for natural black hair. That’s when the seeds for Roe’s new children’s picture book, “Happy Hair,” were planted. Originally self-published in 2014, Random House picked up the book a year ago and gave it national release in October.
An illustrator, Roe drew all 13 images for the book, each featuring a natural hairstyle worn by little black girls of all hues. We talked with Roe, 37, about the book, navigating predominantly white workspaces while wearing natural hair, and making peace with the hair texture you’re born with. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What was it like going to those hair shows after a week at work where, as you say, you’d endured plenty of questions about your hair?
A: I would go to these events, and I saw black women in their 30s getting “the big chop.” They were cutting off their permed hair for the first time on stage in front of a sea of other black women. It was a revival feeling; it was like meeting ourselves in our fullness. It was a sisterhood of strangers, but we all shared similar experiences.
Q: What was it like going back to work after one of those events?
A: I went back to work thinking, what if there was something when we were children that sort of helped us embrace our hair at a young age? What if there was something that made us feel loved and like our hair in its natural state (and know it) was beautiful? Because some of the stories we were sharing at these events were all similar; like putting towels on our heads when we were little and pretending we had long, flowing hair, all wishing we were some sort of Disney princess.
Q: Because back then there were no African-American Disney princesses.
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A: You know, not having those representations, we sort of buried a lot of those childhood feelings, and it was kind of released at these revival events.
Q: In Atlanta, a city that is so black, did you feel this isolation over your hair choices?
A: Absolutely. You have to be another person at work. There were probably like two other black women who were in the same position as me as a manager, and we would go off into a corner of the building and talk about things that were relevant to us, not out in the open so as not to be a threat. There was a fear of being seen as an angry black woman...It’s hard to shake that. Once you get that, it follows you.
Q: Would you say your hair was a hindrance to your progress?
A: I wouldn’t say that, but for some people it is a hindrance.
Q: So how did you want to address this in a children’s book because these are weighty issues?
A: I want to give to little black girls and little brown girls; I want them to feel so loved and so welcomed that they just don’t question themselves at an early age. So they won’t be 30 and just now meeting their natural hair. Accepting who you are at a young age opens up so many more doors.
Q: Why did you self publish the book first in 2014?
A: I reached out to a couple of agents, and you can feel when someone’s giving you the run around. And I felt the message was so urgent that I should take matters into my own hands. So, I funded it, printed it myself, split a booth with a girlfriend of mine, and we opened at the World Natural Hair Show in 2014. I also set up my Instagram. I started going to local hair salons.
Q: So how did Random House pick it up?
A: I’m an artist, so I finally got my portfolio together and sent it to an art agent at the beginning of last year, and I sent my book too. The next day he said, “So, I have several offers. Several publishers want to publish your book.”
Q: You now have a similar picture book coming out for boys, too?
A: Yes, in February. A lot of moms and fathers were saying boys struggle with this issue, too.
Q: One style you have in “Happy Hair” is a pressed, straight style. Why did you include it?
A: I think it’s a freedom of expression. I didn’t want to say, “You can only do this. You can only do that.” It’s more, you can love your natural hair, and your natural hair can go into many states and many styles. But ultimately, it’s you loving who you are.