A Road Trip Through Former "Sundown Towns" Made Me Rethink My Bantu Knots

bianca lambert in bantu knots

@bianca__lambert

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I think about my Blackness a lot—now more than ever, given everything going on in the world and my community. For as long as I can remember, movies and television have been my source of inspiration, education, escape, and community in respect to my Blackness. In the '90s, my childhood was filled with programs like Moesha, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and any show on UPN. Each one gave a sense of belonging and reaffirmed my Black beauty was worthy of airtime. 

As Black creators are finding new ways to tell our stories, even the exceptionally emotional ones, and thus I see myself on-screen in a new way. It's all forced me to take a hard look at what it means to show up fully as a Black woman in America. HBO's Lovecraft Country, in all of its sci-fi and historic glory, has taken up a lot of space in my head. The scenes from the first episode were especially vivid before a recent trip to the mountains of North Georgia.  

The first episode of the series follows Leti, Uncle George, and Atticus on a road trip. Uncle George's character is inspired by the work of Victor Hugo Green, who wrote and published The Negro Motorist Green Book from 1936 to 1966. It was for Black travelers to share safe places to stop on road trips across America. Early in the episode, the trio stops at a diner once owned by a Black woman. However, they learn the diner was burned down by the white townspeople and quickly realize they're in danger. 

As Black creators are finding new ways to tell our stories, even the exceptionally emotional ones, and thus I see myself on-screen in a new way.

As they jump in the car, an angry mob starts to chase them and they manage to get away. Just when the audience thinks they're safe, they're stopped by a sheriff and threatened with the "sundown law." This refers to lynching. That scene and the ones that follow kept me up at night, leading me to research "sundown towns" at length. I asked my parents, who grew up in the South during the Jim Crow Era, if they were familiar—to which they both said yes. My parents always warned me about traveling at night. I always thought it was because I was a young woman, but now understand their additional concerns. 

Growing up in Atlanta, I never thought much about what my Blackness represented or the sheer fact that my brown skin, hair, and existence are threatening to some. I always felt accepted and safe. However, the deaths of Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black women at the hands of the police are a reminder that even growing up in the "Black Mecca" doesn't exempt me from discrimination or violence.

As I planned the route for my upcoming trip, I realized I would be traveling through a historically documented sundown town, Forsyth County, which gave me pause. I even reconsidered my hairstyle. For the last few months, I've been styling my hair in Bantu knots as a protective style. I love the hairstyle so much and it quickly became my signature look. But, I had to wonder, would this hairstyle make me a target as I drive up the windy backroads of North Georgia—a place littered with flag posts and car bumpers emblazoned with the confederate flag? The mere consideration of erasing a piece of myself for this reason saddened me, especially as someone who is continually striving to normalize Black beauty in my work. 

All of the mental gymnastics I did before my drive is a reminder that while the rest of the world appropriates Black features without a care, I will never be afforded the same luxury; the luxury of simply existing without fear.

woman with type 4 curls
@bianca__lambert

I kept them in. But, as expected, when I stopped for gas just 50 miles outside metro Atlanta, I got stares. Looking back, this could have been because I was the only Black woman in these lily-white spaces. Or, it could have been my hair, which is an extension of who I am. It's hard to say. The one thing I know for sure is hair is and always will be political for Black women. Even if I'd worn my 4-type curls wild and free, that would have been just as threatening as my Bantu knots, if not more.

Someone once asked me, "Do you think white people wearing Black hairstyles could normalize them and make them more acceptable?" My answer to that is a hard no. It is and will always be an erasure. Further, why should someone else have to wear a protective style to make it more palatable? All of the mental gymnastics I did before my drive is a reminder that while the rest of the world appropriates Black features without a care, I will never be afforded the same luxury; the luxury of simply existing without fear. I am not the first or the last Black woman who will think about changing their appearance to make themselves "less threatening" in their personal and professional lives—and the gag is, even assimilation still doesn't save us from the brutality and mistreatment this world burdens us with every single day. I'm glad I wore my Bantu knots that day, though.

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