My Beautiful Black Hair: An Interview with Photographer and Activist St. Clair Detrick-Jules
Inside: Q&A with photographer, activist, and author, St. Clair Detrick-Jules, creator of My Beautiful Black Hair.
I’m so honored to share with you a Q&A with St. Clair Detrick-Jules, award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Her new book, My Beautiful Black Hair comes out Fall 2021 but you get a sneak peek into this beautiful masterpiece right now!
My Beautiful Black Hair by St. Clair Detrick-Jules
Meet St. Clair
St. Clair Detrick-Jules is a filmmaker, photographer, and activist. Her father is Afro-Caribbean and her mom is American, and she was born and raised in Washington, DC. St. Clair graduated from Brown University with a degree in French and Francophone Studies in 2017.
Check out the beautiful trailer for My Beautiful Black Hair (Formally title Dear Khloe) below showing off all of St. Clair’s skills!
Becca: For those who aren’t familiar with your work (yet!) can you share a bit about what you do?
St. Clair I think everyone has a role to play in making the world a better place: some go out in the streets to protest injustices, some run for office, some become teachers and counselors… and I make art.
I believe that art has the power to change people’s minds, to make them see the humanity in everyone —not just those who look like them. Art allows us to dream, to imagine a world in which everyone is equal and liberation is abundant—and then encourage us to make that dream a reality.
I’m a filmmaker, photographer, and activist, and I see all those roles as connected. Growing up in a neighborhood of immigrants and African-Americans, I saw firsthand the inequalities many people face, so my
work mainly focuses on uplifting these voices (people of color, women, queer folks). My recent documentary DACAmented (which I filmed during my last semester at Brown), for example, highlights the stories of nine
young undocumented immigrants.
The Inspiration Behind My Beautiful Black Hair
Becca: What inspired you to create My Beautiful Black Hair?
St. Clair: While I was finishing up my last semester at Brown, I got a phone call from my dad: my four-year-old sister had announced that she was ashamed of her afro and didn’t want to go to school because of it.
The children at her majority-white elementary school were making negative comments about her hair—comments that all of us Black women have endured at some point in our lives. I wanted to show my sister that she is loved, she is understood, and she is not alone.
My upcoming photojournalism book, My Beautiful Black Hair, features the portraits and narratives of 101 Black women with natural hair and is dedicated to Khloe—and to everyone who has ever felt like they are not enough.
Making A Difference in the World
Becca: What impact do you hope to make with this book?
St. Clair: Well, of course, the primary goal is to teach my sister Khloe to love her natural hair. Whenever I’ve felt overwhelmed or exhausted while working on this book, I’ve reminded myself why I’m doing it in the first place: for Khloe.
I also want My Beautiful Black Hair to spread a message of self-love to everyone. For all the Black women who’ve ever felt ashamed of their hair, I want this book to validate them and their natural beauty. Too often, the media portrays Black women as angry, unattractive, and anti-intellectual.
For example, my family once hosted a foreign exchange student from Thailand who told my white mom (he was too embarrassed to tell me, since I’m Black) that back in Thailand, they stereotype Black people as “lazy and dirty.” Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. So I want this book to show everyone the truth of Black women: we’re strong, we’re smart, we’re beautiful. I want people who aren’t Black women to read this book and see our humanity.
I also hope My Beautiful Black Hair sends a general message of self-love to everyone who reads it. I shared an advance copy with a sixty-year-old white woman, and she said the book made her consider whether her dying her hair to cover up the grey is just playing into sexism and ageism, and realized that she’s “participating in a 24/7 beauty contest we can never win.”
At a time when confidence levels are at an all-time low (even among men), it’s important for us to lift each other up with love and validation, to make sure we all feel like we are “enough.”
Becca: Do you have a favorite feature within the book and if so which one and why?
St. Clair: Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can choose. Actually, I know I can’t. But let me highlight one of the many beautiful, brilliant women: The longest interview in the book belongs to an Afro-Dominican woman named Keyla Ynoa who I met in New York City.
She beautifully expressed the feelings so many of us Black women have experienced. She discussed extolling the white women she saw on TV as a kid like Hannah Montana, yet not understanding why she found them more beautiful than herself. She questioned why the Dominican Republic was so set on keeping Christopher Columbus’ remains on the island even though he had the Natives killed and introduced slavery to the island. She shared a story of her aunt secretly placing perming product in her shampoo bottle when she went to visit her in the Dominican Republic (a reminder that sometimes our biggest barriers to self-love can come from within our communities).
Keyla also reminds me that it’s okay to be “anti-norm,” as she calls it. She said she “keeps a tight grip” on her hair and even intentionally wears her natural hair to job interviews so that everyone knows she’s proud of her Blackness. With so many cases of Black employees being discriminated against for wearing Afrocentric hairstyles, I find it beautiful and inspirational that Keyla values herself more than she values a potential job. It’s a reminder that loving ourselves should always be our top priority, and I hope my sister Khloe realizes that after reading this book.
The Mother Daughter Relationship
Becca: In your work, you uncovered varying mother-daughter dynamics related to natural hair. Can you talk more about this?
St. Clair: “Mothers & Daughters” is the biggest of the ten sections in My Beautiful Black Hair.
Some women have mothers (and other family members) who haven’t always been supportive of their natural hair. One mother physically forced relaxing cream onto her daughter’s scalp when she tried to go natural. Another still asks her daughter (who is a grown, married woman) when she’ll get her hair relaxed again. The white mother of a biracial woman in my book used to make comments about her daughter’s hair being difficult
And it’s interesting because these are all mothers who love their daughters and want the very best for them—yet they just have a different idea of what’s “best.” After all, with discrimination against natural hair being legal in most states, it makes sense for these mothers to be worried about their daughters being denied opportunities based on their hair.
On the other hand, there were several daughters who were inspired by their mothers to go natural. When one of the women in Dear Khloe told her mom she wanted straight hair, her mom went natural herself to show her daughter that curly hair is beautiful. Another woman went natural after seeing her mom’s “big chop”* and the self-confidence that followed.
One of the mother-daughter pairs got emotional as they talked about the mother’s efforts to always teach the daughter to love her natural hair. “What would my life have been like at twenty if I had just loved my hair?” the mom wondered as she looked at her daughter. She continued, “I fought
with my hair, so to see [my daughter] happy with her hair—to know that she feels pretty with her natural hair—that’s my dream.”
That was such a beautiful moment for me as the photographer/interviewer, because I felt like it perfectly symbolized the current natural hair movement: The more Black women embrace their natural hair, the more Black girls will grow up never doubting the beauty of their curls—including my sister.
*When Black women cut off all their chemically-straightened hair, they call it the “big chop.”
Let’s Talk Art!
Becca: Any tips for aspiring photographers and writers pursuing their craft?
St. Clair: I didn’t go to school for photography. In fact, unless you count following around my photographer godfather when I was younger, I don’t have any formal training. Prior to working on Dear Khloe, I’d really only done film;
it wasn’t until I decided I wanted to create a photography book for my little sister that I stole my husband’s old Canon and started clicking.
All that to say: everyone’s path is different. I know successful filmmakers and photographers who have years of formal training, and I know successful filmmakers and photographers who have none. The nice thing about photography, though, is that you always have willing subjects. In the age of social media, everyone wants their photos taken, so you can practice your photography skills with as many people as you want.
St. Clair’s Career Sweet Spot
Becca: How did you find your Career Sweet Spot (overlap of your strengths/passions/value you add to others)?
St. Clair: I’m actually still working on that! I work part-time at a tutoring company, and I love it because I get to work with kids (who are adorable!) and middle- and high-schoolers (who always have really interesting things to say). I’ve been using that income to fund my art, which has been working out pretty well.
My boss and my coworkers are so great, I’m happy with where I am. I’d love to work on my art full-time one day, committing all my time to pushing for social justice and spreading love.
What’s Next for St. Clair
Becca: What’s next for you? Any other exciting projects in the works?
St. Clair: To be honest, I’ve been so caught up in My Beautiful Black Hair that I haven’t wanted to get side-tracked in another project. I tend to overdo things–yes, I’ve been called a workaholic, but I’m working on finding balance. From publishing as an independent author to marketing and distribution, it’s a lot of work for one person to prepare for a book release.
BUT! I have several ideas in mind, one of which is a follow-up to My Beautiful Black Hair in which I’d document natural hair and Afrocentric hairstyles in other countries—especially African countries where so many of these natural hair traditions began. Unrelated, I’d also like to return to the Ecuadorian Amazon (where I spent several weeks during my time abroad) and make a documentary about an Indigenous community called Tzawata, which is currently fighting for its land against large companies.
A documentary about love would also be nice… we’ll see! 🙂
I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know St. Clair and share her beautiful book with you! You can sign up for the waiting list here so you’ll be first to know when it’s available.
Read More Career Sweet Spot Q&A:
Going Green with Author, Shannon Brescher-Shea
I Brushed My Hair Today: Q&A Karen Johnson
Developing Resiliency in Your Creative Pursuits: Q&A with Rebecca Moon Ruark
Great interview, Becca. And it was cool meeting St. Clair. I love what she says about disruption–it’s oftentimes uncomfortable to change perception, even of ourselves. I’d add that while I know Black girls and women bear a lot of burden for perceptions of “appropriate” hair, it comes up with boys too. My white boys started going to their majority-black elementary school in first grade, and there was a lot of hair comparison going on. All the boys spent a lot of time rubbing each other’s heads–noting how different their hair felt. I do think it’s natural for kids to notice difference–and often much more uncomfortable (even a little disruptive) for us parents, who worry about offending. Kids keep us open and honest, I think.