Pic copyright: www.nymag.com
Sidenote: For my less melanin affiliated friends reading this who might not be au fait with black hair, this link gives a good 3 minute synopsis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTP96_61sGc
There are a few hair moments that stand out to me over the 24 years I’ve had this coily, curly, kinky sponge on my head. I have great memories of sitting in between my mum’s legs on a Sunday evening watching Mr Bean, a pot of Dax hair oil balanced precariously on the arm of the sofa, and a comb stuck in one side as she braided my hair. I remember wash days where my Mum would use the shampoo to shape my hair into crazy cones or Mohawks or quiffs in front of the mirror, and I would perch on the landing as she blow dried into an even bigger ball of cotton like fluff. I remember year 5 when some of the girls who bullied me at school took my hair out the band, let my coils spring in all directions and pinned my arms behind my back, pushing me across the playground for my schoolmates to laugh at me. I remember my hair being braided by a friend’s Mum, and being secretly pleased at her asking me who in my family had Indian in them, because the back of my hair was ‘soft’. I remember being aged 11 and begging for a relaxer. Age 14 I wore my afro on the bus on the way home from school and mocking schoolboys would throw up black panther esque fists at me. Over time, I realised that the conversations that surrounded my hair weren’t the same, or even as frequent as my white friends. My hair was political.
It’s apparent that hair is important to all women, regardless of race or ethnic background. Sit down with any group of women and mention hair – and there will be some sort of conversation. We’re all invested in keeping the hair on our head looking good, and getting rid of the hair anywhere else. Having said that, I think it would be fair to say that the black community (and I use that term to broadly encompass people across the diaspora, of African descent, including those who choose to identify themselves as mixed race) especially value hair. Within that broad community there are different textures, different standards of beauty and different narratives about the way our hair is worn, but one thing is certain – black hair is political. Regardless of whether we want it to be, it is.
The past few years have been interesting because of the ‘natural hair movement’ that seems to have swept across – well, pretty much anywhere where black women live. Type ‘natural hair’ into Youtube and there will be women from the Caribbean, South Africa, the UK, and of course the U.S offering tips Along the way, there are ongoing conversations, lines drawn in the sand, and questions raised about how we wear our hair, why we wear our hair the way we do, and the implications of those choices. In fact, the natural phenomenon has been big enough to garner attention from so called ‘mainstream’ media, including CNN and the BBC.
CNN aren’t doing exposes on the fact the ombre is the latest (or was) hair fad. The ebb and flow of non-outrageous hair fashions aren’t significant enough to catch the eye of most mainstream news outlets outside of their fashion section.
Black women’s hair, however, isn’t ‘just’ hair. We might want it to be. And for some of us, the decision to go from weave to natural to relaxer and then back again is based on nothing more than flight of fancy or the particular ‘look’ we’re going for that year. As a group though, the decision for as to whether our hair is political or not has already been made for us. Our hair carries the weight of slavery, colonialism, civil rights movements and questions about whether we are ‘mixed’ or not. Hair could could be used to spot a runaway slave who was light enough to try and ‘pass’ for white. Hair told some high class blacks at the turn of the century whether you were right type of black to be admitted into their esteemed company. Hair is used by some to determine whether we’re the type of black girl who listens to Erykah Badu and drinks vegan water, or the type who watches Real Housewives of Atlanta. Our hair can be the type that we can wear to work, or the type that we feel we have to straighten to fit into a corporate environment. Our hair can be the baby-mama type hair, or the type that makes men question whether their babies will have ‘good hair’. Our hair tells others whether we are down for the cause, or on course to be a video model.
We cannot ignore the pathology in our community that meant that until recently, 80% of black women used sodium hydroxide, at the expense of possible chemical burns, alopecia, and hundreds of pounds, in order for their hair to be straight. We cannot ignore the fact that unlike white women, the vast majority of black celebrities refuse to wear afro textured hair – whether their own or a replica. We cannot pretend that our hair choices exist in a vacuum, devoid of any form of social pressure or historical suggestion.
It’s true – not every woman wearing a relaxer or donning a head of synthetic weave desires to look white. In fact, many black hair styles that are ‘straight’ are a world away from the hairstyles of their white counterparts. They are straight, but they are uniquely ‘black’. So it’s not primarily about wanting to look like a white woman – that would be an oversimplification.
Despite this though, there is still a beauty hierarchy that has at its root the notion that kinky, West African (I note that not all black Africans have this hair), won’t –allow- a- comb- to- pass- through -it hair, is something to be fixed, tolerated, or hidden. I’m not saying that everyone has to wear an afro. I’m not saying that weaves are from Beelzebub, or that perms are the mark of the beast. I am saying that when we make choices about our hair, we should be cognizant of the possible reasons as to why we make those choices. It’s not just hair.