This is third installment of the “Black Athletes and Hair” series by Excelle Sports staff writer Adele Jackson-Gibson, exploring the conflicts female African-American athletes often face in dealing with their natural hair. Click here for the first installment detailing black hair in female gymnasts and here for the second installment that looks at whether black hair is the real reason why so few African-Americans swim.
My name is Adele and my hair is nappy-curly-straight. My afro has as many textures as the amount of sports I’ve played: soccer, track and basketball. When I was a competitive athlete in high school, I wasn’t proud of my natural hair, and looking back I’ve realized that my hairstyles were often a product of convenience and my need to conform. Synthetic braids were neat, long-lasting and resilient against sweat—fine for basketball at first. Then I felt that straightening my hair helped me to fit in as the only black girl on my club soccer team, but even a teardrop would make it curl again. Track is an individual sport, and through running, I learned to fall in love with myself. Eventually, I learned that my natural curls are what work best for me when I play. Sweaty or dry, rain or shine, it’s me all the same.
There are other black athletes who have their own hair journeys, and in this four part series I look at different sports and hairstyles. This is a story about sporty black girls and how we relate to our hair.
Flo-Jo and the “Purple Hair Baddie”
Ever since I started running track in grade school, the legend of Flo Jo has followed me like a beloved bedtime story. I pictured her to be an athletic goddess, with a tumbling mane that trailed in the wind as she raced. As a kid, when I’d run fast and win races, people would tell me all about Flo Jo. I thought, “I could be like her—the fastest female sprinter in history!”
Florence Griffin-Joyner was one of the greatest U.S. sprinters of the 1980s—and of all time. She was the first woman to win four medals at any single Olympic Games and still holds world records in the 100- and 200-meter races. While she died of a mysterious illness in 1998, people will always remember her for her fast times and flashy style.
Sick of the standard track uniform, Flo Jo began sewing her own running outfits in high school—pink jumpsuits, American astronauts suits, pants with one long leg or even a simple black leotard. She often grew her nails so long that they almost curled into her palms, and over the course of her athletic career, she rocked nearly every single hair do, from a brown mullet to a black bob.
“Dress good to look good. Look good to feel good. And feel good to run fast!” she would say.
From Flo Jo, I learned that my hair didn’t have to answer to anybody—except me. The track is a place to show physical prowess and it is also a space to express personal identity.
Last fall, my friend introduced me to the modern-day Flo-Jo, an Antiguan high jumper with long, straight lilac hair. Her name is Priscilla Frederick, but people call her the “High Jump Diva.” In watching her Instagram training videos I noticed that Frederick liked to paint her nails all sorts of colors and that her magical mane liked to float in the breeze.
Right before Frederick’s debut at the 2016 Olympic Games, her boyfriend (and coach) helped her pick out a new wig at the beauty store. He said purple fit her fierce and vibrant personality.
I told her via Skype in October that she could be the new Storm in the next X-Men movie—the character who can control the weather and levitate through the skies with her silver hair and black sorceress cape.
“No,” Fredrick replied. “I want to be my own superhero. I want to have different powers and kick ass.”
Frederick champions individuality above everything besides her Catholic faith and lives her life by creating her own unique narrative. She hopes to win an Olympic gold medal for Antigua and Barbuda, even though she’s never lived on the islands of her ancestry. Her Dominican mother raised her in Queens, N.Y., and she went to a Catholic school in New Jersey. Her Antiguan father was hardly home, yet his blood swirled through her veins, carrying ladders of his DNA. But where did those ladders lead?
“There was a part of me I didn’t know,” Frederick said.
[More from Excelle Sports: Gymnasts and the controversy caused by Gabby Douglas’ hairdo]
Throughout middle and high school, Frederick was bullied for having glasses, braces and coarser, curlier hair. She found friendship with the theater kids and had her hair relaxed, just like her mother. With relaxers, Frederick says she didn’t have to worry about sweat ruining a press when she playing volleyball and running track at school. Plus, for a time, it made her feel pretty.
While Frederick found confidence through acting in her school’s theater program, the high jump provided an even grander stage—one where she called the shots.
“When it comes to track and field, I have this, ‘I don’t care what people think’ kind of attitude,” she said. “Track is a numbers game. It’s not politics. It’s not favoritism. It’s all on me. I’m strong, I’m confident.”
After college, Frederick started wearing wigs, which allowed her to keep her hair natural, saving it from harsh relaxers and dyes. Wigs were super low maintenance and, better yet, Frederick could change the color whenever she wanted. Since her latest discovery, she’s competed with blond hair, white hair, coral hair and other shades.
A post shared by Priscilla (@priscilla_frederick) on Feb 22, 2017 at 4:57pm PST
As a high jumper at St. John’s University in New York City, Frederick qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, where she finished seventh, missing the cut for the London Games. The American field was competitive, and with the 2016 Games on the horizon, Frederick began to consider whether she could compete for the Dominican Republic, where she had citizenship through her mother, or Antigua, where her father was born.
Fredrick may not have had a close relationship with her father, but as she grew as an adult, she formed a closer relationship with him and kept in contact here and there, she said. When the Dominican team didn’t answer her call to try out for their national team, Frederick’s father offered to help her apply for her Antiguan papers. Shortly before the 2016 Summer Games, Frederick became a dual citizen and quickly jumped the highest Antigua had ever seen, setting new national records in the event for indoor and outdoor track.
And when she stepped on to the track last summer in Rio, Frederick’s lilac mane shocked the world.
[More from Excelle Sports: Is this the real reason why African-Americans don’t swim?]
“When I walked out at the Opening Ceremonies, everyone was noticing my hair,” she said. “I got on [celebrity] blogs and Twitter, and people were like, ‘What country does she represent?’ Antigua and Barbuda. That’s what I wanted. I wanted people to see my personality, my country, my teammates and all of our hard work. It was humbling.”
In Rio, Frederick finished 28th overall, and when she missed her last jump, she danced away the error with Broadway flare and struck a few poses to signal the end of her grand finale. She wore her nation’s colors like a costume of pride. After the Games, she became known throughout the track world as the Antiguan high jump “baddie” with purple hair.
A post shared by Priscilla (@priscilla_frederick) on Oct 2, 2016 at 8:00am PDT
But despite all this, African American women have criticized Frederick for hiding her “real” hair with wigs.
“It’s not like I’m ashamed of my heritage or my hair,” Frederick said. “It’s never been anything like that. People say that’s how society has raised me, but it’s what I like. If people say that I’ve been brainwashed because of all the things that I’ve seen, well then, OK. I like my hair like this.”
Purple hair, don’t care.
That’s the hashtag you’ll find on Frederick’s Instagram. That free-flowing spirit is what flows through her life and her jumps. It’s the carefree spirit that made Flo Jo loud, fast and proud.