Several years ago, I noticed a newly-elected Charlotte City Councilwoman named LaWana Mayfield. What caught my attention was that she had long beautiful Locs. Charlotte prides itself on being the progressive city of the “New South”, but most of our elected officials look more like slightly modern versions of characters from The Andy Griffith Show. So how did LaWana Mayfield become the first Naturalista and first openly gay person to serve on Charlotte’s City Council?
After conducting an interview and photo shoot with Councilwoman Mayfield, I quickly found the answer to my question. I didn’t feel like I was interviewing a politician, it seemed like I was having a conversation with my big sister. She was very direct, straight-forward, and didn’t dodge any of my questions. During the photo shoot, we spent so much time clowning and joking, it didn’t seem like we were working. Several times during the photo shoot, we were stopped by her supporters asking “What’s going on?,” and complimenting Councilwoman Mayfield on her appearance. After Mattie, our photographer, began taking photos, Mayfield had convinced all of us that she had some prior modeling experience. Councilwoman Mayfield’s energy and disposition was as natural as her hair. Below, are Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield discusses natural hair journey and the role it played in her first political campaign.
Phillips: Did you ever relax your hair? If so, when did you go natural and why?
Mayfield: Yes, when I was seventeen years old, I got my first relaxer. During my childhood, I didn’t have a relaxer because my mother didn’t believe in putting chemicals in our hair. My mother and I never had a conversation about getting a relaxer, but based on her behaviors, I could tell that she thought my sisters and I didn’t need a relaxer. She was very big on braiding and platting our hair. My mother’s views have definitely stuck with me because it concerns me when I see parents who are relaxing their toddler’s hair. I can’t say that I agreed with her back then, but now I am so thankful that she didn’t allow me to relax my hair back then.
On Sunday afternoons, our kitchen became the beauty salon because that’s when my mother had the time to press, plat, or braid our hair. I didn’t really have to worry about how to style or manage my hair because my mother was my stylist. During my sophomore year in high school, my mother passed away. That was a very challenging time for me. After taking time to reflect on your question, I think part of the reason I relaxed my hair was because of the loss of my other mother. I didn’t know what to do with all of my hair and I didn’t have her here to help me.
A year prior to going natural, I began to notice African-American women who dyed their hair blonde, putting in ridiculously long extensions, and putting a hair texture in their hair that they didn’t have the means to maintain. So in a silent protest, I promised myself that I would not spend money on hair weave. At the same time, I begin to notice the beginning of the natural hair movement. I saw more women in movies, on television, and in the general public with natural hair. So during the fall of 1996, I began my transition to returning my hair to its natural state. It was time for me to love my hair and love myself which was my form of protest against lack of self-love. I let my relaxer grow out, braided my hair, and then I started the process of Locing my hair. As my Locs grew out, I cut out the braids.
Phillips: When you decided to run for City Council, were you concerned about your hairstyle affecting your ability to get elected?
Mayfield: When I decided to run, my Locs were mid-way down my back. Often times, I would have my Locs pulled up in a bun. I wasn’t concerned about my Locs but I did notice some of the seniors in my district would make suggestions on how I should style my hair. It was shocking and interesting that conversations about my hair were taking up time that we could have been discussing serious political issues. So then the rebellious side of my personality kicked in and I began wearing my hair out so that everyone could see my Locs. I wanted to break the ice and end the stereotype of how you have to look to run for office. I wanted to let the public know that you don’t have to dress conservatively with pearls, bland colors, or look like a 1950s public school teacher to run for office. I wanted the voters to look past my hair and listen to my message.
Phillips: Recently, The United States Army created regulations banning Afros, most Braids, and Twists. Does the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Charlotte Fire Department, or any other City of Charlotte department have similar restrictions for its employees?
Mayfield: No, we do not have any regulation prohibiting women from wearing their natural hair. If your readers aren’t aware, we have female Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department [CMPD] officers who wear Locs, Twists, and a variety of other natural hairstyles. We also have female CMPD officers who by choice wear extensions. Our CMPD officers have the ability to wear their hair as they please. The only issue may be one of safety and in that case they may be asked to pull their hair back or to put it in a bun. The issue of banning hairstyles has not been an issue and isn’t an item on the agenda for Charlotte’s City Council or Charlotte’s City Manager. On behalf of the City, I feel confident saying that we don’t plan on creating policies or rules that prohibit women from being their authentic selves.
Phillips: Does your natural hair communicate anything about your political views?
Mayfield: Initially, my response was, “No, my hair doesn’t communicate a message about my political views,” but after taking time for self-reflection, I had a change of heart. So with confidence, my final answer is “Yes. Yes, my hair does communicate my political views.” I don’t embrace the out dated view that women have to look a certain way, be a certain size, and chemically treat their hair to hold public office. The message that my hair communicates is that I am an authentic person and that I’m comfortable with who I am as a person. Because I am comfortable with myself, I think it makes it easier for me to serve the public because my self-identity and my ego aren’t going to get in the way. When I say that I’m comfortable, that doesn’t mean that I’m perfect, just that I accept and embrace who I am. Looking back, I think that’s the message that my mother was trying to teach us, that we should accept ourselves for who we are.
Phillips: In light of former Mayor Cannon’s recent criminal activities, what can be done to restore public trust in local government?
Mayfield: We need more transparency and I’m referring to transparency from the community. The community can’t just show up when it’s convenient for them. The community expects their elected officials to be present and engaged at all times. Well, the same applies to the community too. These allegations aren’t anything new. There have been allegations for 15 or 20 years but our community (specifically the communities of color) is so loyal that we don’t want to bring down one of our own. Often times, we feel like we have to protect our leaders because the establishment is out to get them. But what if your leader is the problem? At what point does his or her responsibility come into play? When do you check your leader and say what you are doing is going to affect not just you but our entire community? After the community makes appeals to the leader to correct the inappropriate behavior, when does the community step in and shut the leader down as opposed to waiting for federal authorities to investigate? I have a concern when our community gives leaders passes as opposed to addressing inappropriate behaviors that need to be checked.
Currently, there are 775,000 residents in Charlotte and all of the citizens may not agree with my decisions. I am not going to make everybody happy nor will I attempt to make everyone happy. I choose to make the best decision based on the available information. If I am stepping way outside of my lane then the community needs to pull my coattail to let me know that I am out of bounds. Unfortunately, former Mayor Cannon didn’t have people in his circle to pull his coattail and what we now have are the results of a leader who went unchecked.
Phillips: Any closing comments?
Mayfield: Get Involved! The City of Charlotte has boards and commissions and we are always looking for citizens with expertise to help our city grow. I encourage all of your readers to review the qualifications, find the board or commission that matches your interests, and apply for a position to improve our world-class city.