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.