My Sounds of Freedom

 By Olivia Hanley

Singing is a passport to the world, according to my choir conductor. For me, it was also my ticket to embracing my identity. Coming from a white father and a black mother, my head of curly hair has always been my physical reminder that wherever I am, I’m either too black or too white. I’ve always felt like an outsider at my school, embarrassed about my natural hair. However, I have come to realize that my self consciousness over my curls stemmed from my existence as one of a few students of color in my classrooms; my hair was merely a beacon, signaling that I was different from others. 

Outside of my family, I grew up in two worlds—predominantly white private schools and the overwhelmingly diverse Chicago Children’s Choir. I was accepted into the choir when I was eight and have grown up with its rich model of difference in terms of race, ethnicity, and the socioeconomic backgrounds of singers who come from every neighborhood in the city. However for many years, the values celebrating whiteness at my school overpowered the cultural diversity I experienced at our rehearsals twice a week. 

In seventh grade, I discovered a solution to my identity problems—the straightening iron. For two hours, I stood on a stepstool in our bathroom while my mom wrestled with my hair. I hoped that my hair would be stick-straight and shiny, much like my best friend Stella’s blonde hair. 

When I came to school the next day, people told me my hair was beautiful, something they never said when it was curly. Since then, I straightened my hair once a week––sometimes with midweek touch-ups. I watched my curls stretch and stretch as if fighting the pull of the flat iron before finally surrendering and turning straight. Even once the straightener had smoothed past them, the strands still looked like they itched to return to their original pattern. 

One hectic Saturday, while en route to choir rehearsal, I realized I had neglected to straighten my hair. A wave of terror consumed me. I arrived feeling that I was walking through a storm without an umbrella. My everyday armor against the stain of difference–– straight hair––was gone and it even mattered to me in a place where cultural differences were normal.

Initially, I worried that people were making judgements about my hair, until we sang Ok by Kirk Franklin. The song is soulful, bluesy, and raw with emotional yet powerful lyrics:

Why do we hate one another? 

When love is the most beautiful color

It takes away the grey 

And makes everything ok

I was suspended in that moment of harmony, so caught up in the song that for the first time I wasn’t worried about my hair, even if it was just for a few minutes. 

The choir has been pivotal in curing my shame over my curly hair. Singing has always provided a sense of freedom that temporarily carries me away from the rest of the world. After that day, I showed up to rehearsals with my curly hair more often. While I still felt self-conscious, with each passing day, focusing on the music overshadowed thoughts about my hair. Eventually, I felt sure enough in myself to show up to school with my natural hair. In a sense, this was the final hurdle. A few months later, I decided to say goodbye to the straightening iron and never looked back. 

 It took me so long to feel confident about my hair because I bottled up my emotions. Knowing what it feels like to struggle with the parts of myself that are different, I created an affinity group at my school for women of color; a safe space where we can talk about anything from hair to identity. Our group gives girls the support I once needed. After all, not everyone has a singing voice to free them from insecurities.

Olivia Hanley, a 2021 graduate of Chicago’s Francis W Parker School, will be a freshman at Brown in the Fall.

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