Since my official entry into the natural hair world in 2010, this question has seemed to highlight the ongoing debate between naturals and non-naturals… Asian weaved and loc wearing black women, with many refuting that there is any hidden meaning or message in the way that black women choose to wear their hair. After all, in the words of India Arie, “I am not my hair”. Yet, mainstream media, TV ads, beauty magazines and the like, seem to highlight the ongoing opposition between straight hair, versus the contrary; the contrary being whatever else grows from the rest of our heads.  We thus, after years of being surrounded by images of straight haired individuals washing their hair with ease, their hair flowing in one silky stream down their back in the shower, followed by the easy towel dry, detangle and pony tail, begin to view our afro textured hair, with its aversion to the forces of gravity, which must be sectioned into four woolly chunks for ‘wash day’, which, once touched by water makes detangling an event, as a primitive, unnecessary hassle. And although we naturals boast about the freedom of no longer having to run from drizzles, we like cats, still view being drenched from head to toe as a hair nightmare!  So, whether weaved or natural, black women all seem to share a special preoccupation with hair that straight haired women do not.

trad-hairWhy? The answer seems to lie in our African history. A subconscious connection with an ancestral heritage that seems to have transcended time and space. Contrary to popular belief, our African ancestors did not run wild through the jungle with their hair uncoiffed and matted oblivious to the notion of grooming. They believed that, since the head is the most elevated part of the body it was closest to the divine and therefore it had to be well styled at all times. The further belief that a person’s spirit resided in the hair, made the significance of hair and hair styling and the necessary time dedicated to this activity even more profound. Hence the importance of ‘hair day’ traditions, and special attention being paid to importing the best spices and ornaments, for the many intricate African hairstyles. These very same hair traditions have survived a spatio- temporal rupture, and exist even today in our western societies in the forms of hair salons, barbershops, and weekend hair combing at the feet of a sister or matriarch, where we await the transformation that is the beauty of black hair styling. But the importance of img-20160911-wa0004this heritage lies not only in the final product, but also in the spirituality of the exchange, the almost religious catharsis and therapy that comes from the interaction that goes on in these hair spaces. In our sacred consistency in getting our hair weaved, braided, cornrowed or shaved, we partake in the sanctity that our ancestors originally ascribed to hair.

 

Yet, in our quest for what seems more convenient, by main stream standards, we have branded the attention that our natural tightly coiled hair needs as cumbersome, while transferring our time and energy into maintaining the ideal ‘straight’ hair texture. What message does this send to a society which has from the onset labelled our difference, as a mark of inferiority? It seems to me that our rank as black women in the racial beauty spectrum rests greatly on our hair texture, with those with looser coils ascending one step higher on the ladder of beauty, one rung closer to that straight hair ideal.  Skin colour compounds this even further, since as one friend put it: “How can one be dark skinned, and have hard hair?” the combination translating to social and career suicide.

Apart from skin colour, our hair is definitely an indicator of our ‘difference’ as a race, as there are indeed other straight haired races with skin hues just as dark as ours, but who seem to rank higher in the beauty spectrum because they have straight hair. Christopher Columbus highlights this very nicely in his letter to Luis de Santangel, Keeper of the Purse for Queen Elizabeth, the precursor to many of the images about the New World that exist in European consciousness. In it Columbus makes some very interesting initial observations about the Amerindians:

 “In these islands, I have so far found no human monstrosities, as many had expected, on the contrary, among all these people good looks are esteemed; nor are they Negroes, as in Guinea, but with flowing hair…” [1]  

This to me is the answer to our question, and leaves me unable, even if I believe in the adage ‘to each his own’,  to see our natural tightly coiled hair as anything less than a marker of our difference, a difference which, in the mainstream, automatically translates to inferiority. What then are we saying of our perception of ourselves as a race, when we choose to wear the ‘flowing hair’ of another race, or even to make our hair like it?  To me, the way that we choose to wear our hair as black women, carries more significance than it being ‘just a style’. Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we choose to accept it or not, the fuss about hair lies on the surface of some perennial racial issues that have finally begun to surface and that I hope can be once and for all, fully uprooted.

 

Sources:

Byrd, Ayana D and Lori L Tharps. Hair Story, Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Document.

[1] Palencia -Roth, Michael. “Mapping the Caribbean: Cartography and the Cannibalization of Culture.” A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages: A History of Literature in the Caribbean. Vol 3 Cross Cultural Studies. 1997: 4-27. Document.

Picture 1-“Danseuse de la Région de Mobaye – Moyen Congo – AEF” | Vintage postcard; publisher HOA-QUI. Sango dancer, photographed by Bernard Lefebvre, in 1941 in the district of Poto-Poto, Brazzaville.

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