Former NFL Player Challenges The Stereotypes Of Black Fathers Through Children’s Book ‘Hair Love’ | St. Louis Public Radio

Former NFL Player Challenges The Stereotypes Of Black Fathers Through Children’s Book ‘Hair Love’

May 26, 2019

A few years ago, former NFL player-turned-filmmaker, Matthew A. Cherry noticed a plethora of viral videos of young African American fathers styling their daughters' natural hair and bonding with them in gender nonconforming ways.

The videos were far more popular than similar social videos about black fathers connecting with their sons. And that struck Cherry as intersting. Cherry said thousands of users engaged with the videos because people “think this is an anomaly and they have never seen this before.”

“I saw this as a double-edged sword and wanted to normalize it,” Cherry said.

After analyzing the wave of videos, Cherry took to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in the summer of 2017 to gain monetary support to create an animated short film about a young black father doing his daughter’s hair for the first time.

Within the first six days of the "Hair Love" film campaign, Cherry exceeded the initial goal of $75,000. And by the end of the 30-day funding period, the drive went on to set today’s record as the highest funded animated short film campaign. It raised over $280,000.

According to his Kickstarter campaign message, Cherry said he “hopes the film showcases a positive image of black fathers and their daughters, while encouraging natural hair and self-love throughout the world through the animated space.”

Illustrator Vashti Harrison said she likes to represent girls who are often by themselves, reading a book or going through a more magical realm.
Credit Penguin Random House

Out of the film came the children’s book Hair Love. Cherry and New York Times best-selling author and illustrator Vashti Harrison came to St. Louis' EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore this week as a part of the book tour.

The book features Zuri, the go-getter preschooler who thinks her big and fluffy hair is magical. And Stephen, the 20-something working father who is committed to his daughter even if it means watching YouTube to learn how to do her textured hair.

Cherry collaborated with Harrison to develop every aspect of both characters. Cherry said he imagined Zuri’s dad as the type of guy people would stereotype. Stephen has a noticeable tattoo on his right arm and wears shoulder length dreadlocks.

“We really wanted him to be a representative of the new wave of young black fathers who may look a certain way, but when it comes to their kids they would do anything for them,” Cherry said.

Growing up in the small town of Onley, Virginia, Harrison said she remembers wanting to have braids or other popular African American hairstyles, but she was too scared to ask her mother for them because she did not want the style to draw additional attention to her skin tone, especially since she was one of a few black people in the city.

Harrison said she is elated to illustrate a story about black hair because celebrating natural hair was something she did not see growing up.

"Hair Love" the picture book is in stores now and the Sony Pictures Animation short film will show in theaters this fall.

Some of the young, black readers at the book signing this week spoke with St. Louis Public Radio about their favorite hairstyles and why they love their hair.

Lena Williams, 10

"I like all the curliness in my hair. My favorite hairstyle is the unicorn, where it is a mohawk braided to the middle of my head and then I have all twisties."

Lena Williams poses at the 'Hair Love' book signing at EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore on May 20, 2019.
Credit Andrea Henderson | St. Louis Public Radio

Laila Williams, 10

"I like that my hair shows my culture and that I have something different than everybody. My favorite hairstyle is when my mom puts my hair in two little buns. And my mom says I should be proud of my hair and don't let people discourage me."

Laila Williams is excited to discuss hair at the 'Hair Love' book tour at EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore on May 20, 2019.
Credit Andrea Henderson | St. Louis Public Radio

Morgan Harvey, 10

"I like when my hair is in puff balls and straight, and I like wearing braids because they make me feel strong and independent. My mother says my hair is really long and that I have a lot of hair, and if someone is picking on me about my hair to not worry about it."

Morgan Harvey smiles after getting her book signed from Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison at the 'Hair Love' book tour at EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore on May 20, 2019.
Credit Andrea Henderson | St. Louis Public Radio

This interview was edited for clarity.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. 

Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

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