by Mellissa Thomas
Upon her return to civilian life, entrepreneur, life coach, natural hair advocate, author, and U.S. Navy veteran Yataye (“Yah-Tay”) Keaton wasted no time becoming a force to be reckoned with for the natural hair movement. A natural herself since 1999, Keaton wore her hair chemical-free for her last two years of service, and is currently working on behalf of the over-twenty percent of the Army’s African-American and ethnic service members in light of its March 2014 Uniform Regulations update, AR 670-1. The naturals who honorably wear the uniform say the update is insensitive to them.
The Update’s Narrowing Natural Scope
The update lists the semi-usual fare: Women’s short hairstyles can be only an inch thick from the scalp; medium-length styles two inches thick; and long styles three inches thick. However, for naturals, things go awry. Cornrows are allowed, but can only be a quarter-inch in diameter and show no more than an eighth-inch of scalp between the braids, leaving no margin for new growth at the roots. The regulation calls new growth “unkempt” or “matted,” which is considered dreadlocks, and therefore unauthorized. Twists are also unauthorized, regardless of style.
That’s a Big Deal Because…
Women who wear their hair naturally face hair maintenance challenges once they deploy. The chemicals required to straighten hair are more difficult to acquire in other countries, especially combat zones like Afghanistan or the Middle East. “It’s about increasing the morale,” Keaton said of the ordeal in an April interview. “Those affected see financial, psychological, and emotional effects. It’s almost like attacking a person for who they are and their humanness.”
Furthermore, the regulation only adds to the hovering speculative cloud intimating the Army’s attempts to shrink its ranks. The New York Times recently reported that Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman, learned it firsthand by speaking with them herself. She found that soldiers, independent of race, felt they were being marginalized and slowly pushed out of the military.
According to NYT, Congresswoman Fudge and the fifteen other women members of the CBC wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on April 10, 2014, which was initially diplomatically blown off. However, former Sergeant Jasmine Jacobs, a natural hair soldier who was prematurely discharged from the Army the day after the CBC’s letter was issued, initiated a petition to rescind the update that has now garnered approximately 16,000 signatures.
However, Keaton, who recently received the Governors’ Veteran Service Award, isn’t only trying to make noise, but instead make change through education, allowing specialized stylists to offer seminars, workshops, and discussions for the branches’ decision-makers as well as natural-haired soldiers. “Ignorance isolates, and often discriminates,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to educate and dig into more cultural competency, being more culturally sensitive,” she said. “It’s about finding a solution for both parties, and it can be done – it’s just going to take work.”
The natural hair advocate and Jacksonville resident plans to facilitate training opportunities for active-duty soldiers in the Army responsible for grooming their fellow soldiers’ hair, so that while deployed, the natural women can maintain compliant styles. She also plans to facilitate training opportunities for civilian stylists on grooming regulations to inform them and help them assist natural soldiers while in port or on leave.
Keaton conducts natural hair care meet-ups, inviting Jacksonville military service members to come and learn more. She stays in the natural hair know by attending local hair conferences and workshops, as well as training sessions at the annual World Natural Hair Show in Atlanta. She keeps herself and the natural hair movement in the media, doing radio and media interviews for magazines and newspapers, and has already been featured in the Florida Courier. She is also a member of an Atlanta natural hair club, and started a Florida natural hair club of her own, Real Rootz Naturals, which ties into her clothing line.
Real Rootz Apparel
Keaton promotes the holistic life, and through her life coaching inspires young girls to completely embrace themselves, hair and all. “It’s about educating our young girls that natural hair is okay, our hair is very versatile – we can plait, twist, color, or shave it, and it’s manageable, it’s simply a matter of learning how to care for it.”
Her Real Rootz Apparel clothing line echoes her drive for self-love and natural hair pride with sassy slogans like, “Black Hair Is Good Hair” (above). In response to the uproar over Army’s AR 670-1, Keaton designed a shirt with the phrase “Go Natural” in block camouflage letters to support the challenge to revisit the regulation.
She revealed the “Real Rootz” name was birthed in 2004, but became an official clothing line in December 2010. She’d written a testimony of the hair care she received while growing up, and envisioned a collection while working on the testimony. Whenever a catch phrase or shirt idea came to her, she wrote it down. Keaton strongly believes in giving back (and she has through home improvement and coaching), so her Real Rootz Apparel proceeds go to supporting the community. Her expansion plans include backpacks or canvas bags, and jewelry; she’s also open to what her clients want.
“As hair grows, you’re getting to know who you are,” she emphasized. “My transition was tough, but it made me look within. It made me ask myself, ‘Am I my hair?’ ”
She uses a powerful classic adage in a recent blog post to demonstrate her passion for community involvement in educating more people about the natural hair movement: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”
Passion Makes Progress
Within a week of the media’s initial coverage of the AR 670-1 update, progress is already underway. In addition to Keaton’s, the CBC’s, and former Sergeant Jacob’s efforts (and of course many others), an online White House petition had garnered 17,000 signatures by April 18th, and the Washington Post reported that Secretary Hagel declared that all the military branches look into their uniform regulations regarding natural-haired service members.
On April 29th, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral Adam Kirby relayed that the Army’s updated regulation will be revised to remove any offensive language within thirty days thereafter. He added that “each service will review their hairstyle policies as they pertain to African American women to ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force while also meeting our military services’ requirements” within the next three months.
The first branch to respond after Rear Admiral Kirby’s press announcement is the Coast Guard, which released its directive update COMDTINST M1020.6H. While it has indeed reviewed its rules and now permits micro-braids, locks, weaves, and extensions, there is slight contention with its reference to new growth at the hair roots as ragged: “Women’s hair must be clean, well groomed, neat, and not present a ragged or unkempt appearance.” While to some this may seem petty, it only further bolsters Keaton’s point about educating the decision makers to be more culturally aware.
The saga continues, and will until more people come to understand what Keaton already knows to be true: natural hair isn’t just a style, but a lifestyle. She blogs about it at www.talkwithyahtay.com, and Tweets about it @talkwithyahtay.
Which side are you on in this debate? What are your thoughts on natural hair? Let us know in a comment below.
About the Author:
Orlando Fashion Magazine Chief Editor Mellissa Thomas is a Jamaica-born writer. She’s a decorated U.S. Navy veteran with Entertainment Business Masters and Film Bachelors degrees from Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL.
She’s currently available for hire, writing content for websites, blogs, and marketing material. She also writes poetry, screenplays, and ghostwrites books.
She has published four books, all available on Amazon.com. Her most recent release, “Faded Diamonds”, is now available in paperback on all major online book retailers and digitally available on the Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.
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