Tangled: The Politics of Black Hair

Black hair is political.

Many black women have vivid memories of being a little girl with hair as thick as wool that you couldn’t wait to ‘do something with’. Depending on the type and texture of hair you had, it wasn’t uncommon to be teased for being a ‘tough head gyal’, for having ‘kaya’ or ‘picki-picki’ head and the many other variations of the basic concept of bad hair that we accepted to be true, for the most part.

Most of us would get a perm somewhere between 12 and 16 years old and oh, the joy! The joy we felt at having straight, soft hair! A perm was somewhat a rite of passage for adolescent girls. Now you were beautiful, with the flowing, lustrous mane of a goddess to show for it.

Of course, ideas about beauty and our internalization of them are embedded in our psyche through centuries of colonial and elite domination. The denigration of the black body as unattractive, primitive and unworthy of love and respect is and has been a systematic undertaking. We learnt early that in order to be seen as beautiful and to attract boys we must aspire to Eurocentric ideas of femininity. A lot of the choices women make about our hair are subconscious and were fed to us before we had the ability to question and deconstruct them.

Personally, a great deal of my identity is linked to my hair. As an undergraduate at UWI studying Political Science and Africa and African Diaspora Studies, I embarked on a journey of self-acceptance through black consciousness and realized that I internalized Eurocentric ideas about beauty that weren’t in line with how I naturally looked. It took a lot of unlearning and relearning but at that point I decided to cut my hair and grow it out. I initially wore my hair for a number of years in an afro before I decided to get locs, which I have now been sporting for three years.

The reactions I got when I had my afro ranged from “yuh naa comb/do sumn to yuh hair?” to people saying they didn’t know I had ‘pretty hair’. By pretty hair they meant I had mixed heritage. The concept of ‘good hair’ peeves me and I usually ask what makes it good. For many who I asked that question it was an awakening because they had never stopped to think about why they held these views and what it means for themselves and black people generally.

We have seen institutional prejudice against natural black hair. It is treated as disdainful and women who dare to challenge the status quo and wear their hair the way it grows out of their heads are labelled untidy and unkempt. In Barbados, for example, an elite secondary school has banned its students from wearing twist-outs as that hairstyle was deemed inappropriate by the principal. And we all know of the state-sanctioned persecution Rastafarian men and women face(d) because of their hair throughout the region, and especially in Jamaica.

Fortunately, there has been an increase in the number of black women who are now embracing their natural, nappy/kinky hair. The natural hair movement is steadily growing and black women are forming communities – both virtual and physical communities – in an effort to provide support and encouragement for each other in the process of reclaiming their right to love their hair. This is a step in the right direction.

On the flip side though, these communities are often plagued with issues. Unsurprisingly, all black/nappy hair isn’t created equal and the politics within the natural hair movement as it relates to the hair types we celebrate often set us a few steps back. We tend to celebrate the loosely wavy and curly varieties while tightly coiled hair tend to still be the least desirable.

A lot of black women make excuses that their hair is unmanageable and that’s why they perm or wear extensions and wigs. I believe it is generally a cop out. Black women have been caring for their hair for centuries and if we want our natural hair to work then it can.

To be clear though, I am a proponent of women doing whatever the hell they want with their bodies and I do not negate the fact that many women want variety and to be able to do different things with their hair. That is perfectly okay, but if it is that the variety is everything except wearing your natural hair, then there are underlying issues that we must begin to unpack and deconstruct.

There is no denying that we are still walking around with a lot of the baggage that we were left with after slavery and colonialism. Our internalization of the supposed inferiority of nappy/kinky hair and our subsequent contempt for it is one such baggage. We must begin to untangle the roots of our oppression in order to forge our own path to self-love and acceptance.

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10 thoughts on “Tangled: The Politics of Black Hair

  1. One of my favourite topics to discuss considering I recently went back natural after having relaxed hair since I was 7. I remember the day after I chopped off my creamed ends after transitioning for a couple months. A long time family friend expressed “how yuh head look suh?” with very little remorse for the tone that was enlisted. Another person said “A weh yuh do to yuh head? Weh yuh hair deh?”. Last year during Christmas dinner at my home, I rocked a bomb-ass afro only for a “friend” to express “Lawd man. yuh cya comb yuh hair?” laced with disgust, to which I responded with some…choice words. It’s amazing the vitriol you get for not subscribing to chemically straightened hair and then the backlash for not having loose, silky curls. A complete resocialization of black hair is needed.

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  2. Indeed! I have come across many women with similar stories, many of whom actually revert to processing their hair because they cannot/don’t know how to deal with the harsh criticisms and unkindness from others about their hair.

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  3. Good for you! I’m glad you’ve started this journey, it is a fulfilling one and you’ll grow from it.

    Re your worst comments coming from other women, it is sad but true that we are often the hardest on ourselves and other women. As the commenter above said, it will take a lot of resocialization to fix these problems.

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  4. I’m completely in agreement with you. The politics surrounding natural black hair are incredibly pervasive. Most of the people supporting the ’embrace your curls’ prerogative are people with straighter, lighter hair which makes it SO much more difficult for the sisters with kinkier, tightly coiled hair because there is a derth of support for those kind of hair struggles.

    I do want all women to embrace their curls, but I see my friends struggling with how to style and neaten this untamed beauty and I wish they weren’t having such a hard time. In my profession we can’t really rock afros, for health reasons, but what else is there to do? The main reason I chose to loc my hair was so that I wouldn’t have to deal with combing it, but that’s not an option for everyone – do you have any suggestions for taking care of natural tightly coiled hair?

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

      You are right, there are a lot of problems within the natural hair movement itself as some hair types are more acceptable than others. As it relates to hair care, I myself am a minimalist. I let my hair do what it wants and I don’t fill it with hair products all the time. There are also natural hair ‘support groups’ online where people share their hair care regimens and give advice to each other. I’d suggest becoming a part of one of those. There are lots of Youtube videos around with this kind of support as well.

      Good luck!

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  5. Would love to see your take on women accepting their gray hair versus coloring their hair. It may be even more political!

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  6. You want black women to go “natural”, OMG are you smoking season spliff Geddoudahere! You talking about black woman hair being political? No. It is economic. You think all those vertical integrated Chinese bringing all\l that false human and donkey and artificial hair going to allow that? You think the hairdressers, much less all those hair dressing schools going to allow that? Follow the money!

    https://satanforce.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/unbeweavable/

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