Hair Your Way: The Politics of Negro Gals’ Hair

Chika Oduah 1

The author, Chika Oduah

“Spiritual” is what he said my hair makes me look. Then, he said “Chika,” Nigerians would “be a little afraid of you.”

Chimamanda Adichie was right. Discussing her latest novel, Americanah, in an interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News, the award-winning, natural-haired Nigerian author said, “Black women’s hair is political.”

“By walking in with my hair like this, people make assumptions…if my hair isn’t straight, people can assume that you’re either, you know, they might think you’re an angry black woman or they might think you’re very soulful or they might think you’re an artist or they might think you’re a vegetarian.“

Socioeconomic conditions, historical realities and cultural misconceptions jostle back and forth in a dynamic and often cruel game of power that has become the politics of negro gals’ hair. It’s a game in which women spending thousands of dollars for a strip of weave to be stitched to their foreheads becomes the norm, and it is not disconnected from the social experiment in which children point to a white doll in preference to the dark-skinned one.

This brings me to a place called Nigeria, where I was told that people would “be a little afraid” of me and my wooly tresses.

My new life in Nigeria has exposed me to the various superstitions surrounding locked hair (dreadlocks or ‘dada’, as they are also called here). I have heard lively stories of children who go to sleep at night and wake the next morning to find their hair matted or tied in rope-like threads. Some say the spirits of ancestors are at work, twisting the hair of the sleeping child. Others say nocturnal demons mark children as their own, with the hair as a signifier.  I have heard that children with locked hair may undergo an exorcism during which the hair is cut in a spiritual ceremony.

I see curious gazes when I walk on the streets and buy fruit at marketplaces. Often in those gazes, a hint of admiration seeps through. Then, there’s the initial exclamation.

“Is this your hair? Chineke!”

The question that usually follows hints at a surprise that ladies are paying money [it costs me a hefty $500 to lock my hair, but guess what – it’s my hair] to “manufacture” a hairstyle often perceived to develop on its own, simply by not washing or combing the hair for several months.

“So you made your hair this way?” The question typically goes. They want to touch it, tug and yank the strands to see if it’s a super-glued weave. Better yet, they want to get it on their own heads. I’ve become a spokesperson for sisterlocks, the trademarked hairstyle designed by San Diego State University associate professor of Africana Studies and French Dr. Joanne Cornwell. Cornwell created sisterlocks to give women with natural hair an alternative way to maintain a healthy head of long, easy-to-style hair. Her revolution is a growing one, and more and more women in America are discovering sisterlocks, adoring it and making the often life-changing decision to go natural. (Frequently Asked Questions about sisterlocks).

“W-W-W dot sisterlocks dot com,” I tell the Nigerian girls standing around me with wide eyes and fascinated expressions. Yes, black women can have long hair without the use of weaves and potentially-harmful chemicals.

The longest strands of my layered hair reach to the middle of the arch in my back. Each caress of my hair on my cheeks, shoulders, neck, forehead reminds me that I am that negro gal with wiry tufts of hair that bend in a never-ending twirl.

A cocky nigger, they would have branded me at a slave auction. But more than a “cocky nigger” I am a living, breathing homage of the wonder of the bended hair, the negro gals’ hair. And if that is a political statement, so be it.

Politics never scared the woman we know as Angela Davis. The Alabama-born activist made the afro cooler than cold, and her iconic style continues to inspire ladies around the world who want their kinky hair to stand up, to go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round like hers did. The scholar/feminist still rocks the natural.

Women of African descent often have a complicated relationship with their hair. The relationship may begin in childhood when

South African music icon, Miriam Makeba

South African music icon, Miriam Makeba

many, especially in the Western world, are likely to get what’s colloquially known among African-Americans as a “perm,” technically, a relaxer, a chemical process that permanently “relaxes” the tension in curled hair. The ritual continues throughout most of her life, regardless of the chemical damage done to their hair and scalp.

But another standard of beauty emerged when the Civil Rights Movement kicked off in America. A beauty of thick coils, threaded tresses and braided adornments on the head came into the public space. The sultry Pam Grier, the musical genius Nina Simone, songstress Roberta Flack, Judith Jamison, the sister who could twist her limbs with an ethereal grace and jump as high as any prima ballerina in the Russian National Ballet and other high profile American women of African descent gave natural hair an identity…a public platform that had never existed before in the Western world.

When Miriam Makeba burst onto the international scene at the time, her hair – the braids, the headscarves, the afros – defined her as the African woman that Westerners seldom saw. Miriam Makeba became a symbol of the contemporary natural African woman in the minds of many Westerners. She was charming in her simple elegance. Not only that, she was alluring. And she was super fly.

The trend toward natural hair in America over the years has given rise to an appreciable degree of acceptance of non-relaxed hair, especially within the African-American population where Solange Knowles, Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu rock the cutest kinks.

Nonetheless, natural hair for women of African descent is still a mystery, to say the most, challenging to say the least. What do I do with it? How do I keep it moisturized? Why does it keep getting tangled? The dismal number of black woman who know how to manage their natural hair keeps a large majority rolling in the cycle of touch-ups and sew-ins.

The case of Rhonda Lee who was fired for defending her natural hair sparked a social-media frenzy. African-Americans rebuked 2012 Olympic gold-medal-winner Gabby Douglas for her “unkempt nappy” hair. Right-wingers did the same to Malia Obama for her twists, and got their knickers in a twist over First Lady Michelle Obama’s hair. Anyone still think a negro gals’ hair isn’t political?

But even as the degree of acceptance of non-relaxed hair continues to grow, most women of African descent still succumb to the pressure to keep it straight. Gabby now wears a different look, and women are flocking to Dominican stylists to have their hair straightened on the cheap.

In Latin America, coarse-textured natural hair is a no-no, and there, too, the Dominican blowout and perm are the recommended go-to methods for obtaining the straightest hair possible. In Brazil, the myth of racial democracy remains nothing more than nationalized propaganda, a distortion of the reality on ground for a huge chunk of the population. Blacks still get passed over for employment, few climb to the top levels of corporate management or hold government positions, and, notably, black women are particularly disadvantaged. According to one study, ‘black women earned 70 percent less than white men, 35 percent less than black men and almost 18 percent less, on average, than white women.’ The South American country has the highest population of black people outside Africa, however, the enduring stigma of dark skin and coarse hair in Brazil has shaped the reality of millions of Afro-Brazilians.

The absurd and dehumanized notions of blackness in Brazil’s history objectified the black woman, characterizing her as a highly sexual being. A move to “un-blacken” one’s hair, then and now, may be understood in this context. Brazilians tend to see their multi-ethnic population as a melting pot where enslaved Africans, Europeans and the indigenous American Indians left their mark in the country’s ethnic demographics (see ‘Brazil’s Racial Identity Challenge’). Some anthropologists suggest that because many in Brazil have a multi-ethnic heritage, ethnic identities are not as straightforward as they are in the United States, where a man with black Kenyan father and a white American mother is labeled black. Thus, in Brazil, the hair says it all. Kinky? Straight? Wavy? Fine? African? European? Indian? Look at the hair. See ‘Black in Brazil: Race, Hair, and Privilege’.

Bringing the conversation back to the motherland, the natural hair culture varies across the continent. In southern Africa, it’s not uncommon to see women wearing natural hair. Dreadlocks are the rage in some parts, so much so, that folks – as we reported a couple of months ago – are literally stealing locks right off peoples’ heads.

But here in the Africa’s most populous nation, weave-ons, extensions and wigs dominate the hair scene, with most salons actually charging extra to wash and style un-relaxed hair. “Aunty, relax your hair,” is what hair stylists are bound to say when a “nappy-headed” customer approaches. Buying the ultimate weave has driven some women to have sex for money. In this context, the appeal of my own locks to Nigerian women is no surprise. My long, skinny sisterlocks can be mistaken for micro-braids.

I doubt that sisterlocks is the end of my hair journey. I imagine that in time, I will cut them off and grow an afro as big as is possible, not only for me, but for the Nigerian girls and women I see everyday paying thousands to hide their hair under the hair that was scraped off the head of an Indian woman.

For millions of women who go natural, India.Arie represents natural beauty; her song, I Am Not My Hair, is still our anthem (personally, I believe I am my hair). We, natural-haired sisters are an evangelical bunch, and we can sometimes be downright dogmatic in our condemnation of “the perm.” We like it when Beyonce stands before a crowd with an afro, though we wish it weren’t a wig. We want more African women to honor traditional hairstyles and ditch the weave. We like it when men want a ‘natural sistah.’ We see hair relaxers as akin to crack cocaine. No, we do not like the creamy crack. We shun the legacy of oppression that manifests in women of African descent desperately trying to make their hair look “less black.” Because last we checked, black is still beautiful and, by now, the negro gal really ought to be comfortable with what grows out of her head.

By Chika Oduah | Published in This Is Africa on Thursday April 25, 2013

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7 responses to “Hair Your Way: The Politics of Negro Gals’ Hair

  1. Girl, I’m natural myself and I’m in love with your locks! The self hatred is shameful but we’ve got to tell other sistas it’s ok to rock your natural. The only thing about being black I’m ashamed of is that I don’t know who I am , b/c I’m (black American), a slave descendant. I wish I knew my tribe b/c it makes me feel like I’m not a real African.

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