22 September 2017

Hair Is Political

Assembly in a Zimbabwean Primary school. Boys hair was inspected, it was supposed to be combed and short. Today we call it a brush cut back then I just knew it was the rules. Girls had to have their hair short as well or plaited against their skulls. No afro's, no fancy braids hanging down to their necks and definitely no dreadlocks. I hope you understand that by this I mean the black boys and girls. Different rules seemed to apply to the white children. What did I know of the politics of hair back then? Almost nothing. What do I know today? Just a little bit more.

“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Americanah"

Think about it though. When was the last time you saw Michelle Obama with natural African kinky hair? Or Oprah? Or Beyoncé? Why is it such big news when they go out with their natural hair? I remember my shock when I learnt that Oprah was wearing a weave. I stared gobsmacked at my mother as she explained how other peoples hair was weaved into Oprah's natural hair to make it appear like that. The question my mother had been answering was my innocent query on why no other people that I knew in real life had Oprah's hair. My mother had laughed and said, "That's not her hair!"

“Later, she said, “I have to take my braids out for my interviews and relax my hair. Kemi told me that I shouldn’t wear braids to the interview. If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional.” “So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” Ifemelu asked. “I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.” 
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Americanah"

But why I thought? But then the answer seemed obvious to my young brainwashed mind. It was prettier. It was more "white", more "modern", more "fashionable". No wonder all the rich black women of the world go through all that trouble. I mean after all isn't that why my Primary School had sought to discipline our African hair. Keep it in a cage, in a prison where it would behave so that when we were grown, boys would know how to crop it and girls how to weave it with that of Brazilians so that we can appear 'normal'. As a Zimbabwean think about it, what hairstyle do our leaders sport? Which other hairstyle besides short and cropped is any person outside of the arts permitted to wear in Zimbabwean public life? Perhaps in Africa men and women have it easier than black women living in the Occident but are we really free from this prison? 

"Black women's hair is political. By walking somwhere with my hair like this people make assumptions. They are immediate assumptions. If my hair isn't straight people can assume that you are either, they might think you are an angry black woman, or they might think that you are very soulful, or they might think that you are an artist, or that you are a vegetarian. I mean they are all kind of things.... But you know I mean I am just interested in hair as a means of talking about other things. What does society tell us is beautiful? Cause you know you look at women's magazines, these things matter... What does society tell us is beautiful? It's straight hair!"
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Interview on Channel 4

And so it was a rude awakening when I read about South African pupils standing up to the standards of beauty set for them by their school. Refusing to let their hair be policed by standards of beautiful set by men in Ivory Towers on another continent. At first I scoffed, laughing at these snowflakes making such a huge fuss about nothing but a certain something had been awoken in me, seeing those girls on SABC refusing to go to school until the Minister had heard them out. I thought back to days when we had all unquestioningly followed the standards of beauty written for us by someone else. Dictated to us by someone else. 

“But race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair.” 
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah 

I will not wade into a debate and issue declarations about who should wear weaves or who should not. I will not tell you that some people are brave for wearing their hair natural. I will just leave you with the spectre that we live in a world where this somehow all matters. 

It shouldn't. 

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