Tuesday, 3 February 2009

I am not my hair. And neither are you

It took long enough, but it’s finally happening: the discussion of whether Michelle Obama should or will change her hairstyle to one that more ‘accurately reflects’ her ethnicity. Erin Aubry Kaplan writes an interesting piece at Salon.com, considering whether part of our acceptance of the First Lady is tied up in her straight, shiny, inoffensive hair, and whether America would be quite so gracious if she rolled out of the White House one day in box braids or an afro. Aubry suggests that – aided in part by Chris Rock’s recently released documentary “Good Hair” – America might be moving towards a black hair moment, in which white people feel more comfortable questioning and understanding once and for all the mystique surrounding the history and ritual of styling black hair.

I’m not quite as annoyed by the article as I thought I would be. Aubry is right about the various associations black women and others have with different types of hair. Relaxed hair is largely seen by the mainstream as well-behaved and harmless, while dreads are seen as revolutionary. (I say ‘dreads’, ‘dreadlocks’, ‘locks’. Please don’t come in here yelling at me about how natural hair is not ‘dreadful’ because that’s not what it means. The term first originated among the early Rastafari to mean that the wearer lived a 'dread' life, or a life in which he feared God.) I do, however, take exception to the tasking of the women in the Obama family – especially the daughters – with sorting out images of black hair and blackness on behalf of the African American community. While it might be interesting to see the First Lady’s greased scalp peeking out from amongst some corkscrews, what would that really say about her? Would we feel more assured of her blackness, and feel that she was fighting the good fight on behalf of natural hair and images of natural, black beauty? And is it her fight to fight? (I promise that’s the end of the rhetorical questions.)

The only thing the way Michelle Obama wears her hair tells me is how Michelle Obama likes to wear her hair. Perhaps she is embroiled in some consuming identity struggle as all wearers of relaxed hair apparently must be, or perhaps she got tired of breaking combs or spending three hours every day just parting her hair. For goodness sake, just let the woman have her own hair evolution like the rest of us. She’s 45 now, and probably well past the “I’m going back to Africa which as it turns out is very convenient because it takes way too long to straighten my hair in the mornings before class anyway” university days; and the “maybe if I just texturized it I could have that cool black girl vibe and still be able to comb it” phase. But whatever relationship she is still to have with her hair, it is her own, and – and I’m really going to be in trouble now – it’s just hair.

Many of my girlfriends wear dreads. For some, it is the end (or is it?) of a journey in which they experimented with several hairstyles that did not satisfy their wallets or their mirrors or their souls, or all three. And so they began the dreadlock journey and now wear their locks with pride.

For others of my friends, their hair is a crusade; it’s a religion; they are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of hair. My late grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and even though she was the gentlest spirit you will meet, she was always handy with that ubiquitous Watchtower - you have to admire their devotion. But these friends aren’t the gentle types like Dorothy (how great is it that my grandmothers were called Blanche and Dorothy, who are clearly the coolest of the four Golden Girls? Thank you for being a friend!) They are smug and judgmental. I, with my relaxed hair, am self-loathing and brainwashed by Whitey, while they, in all their dreadlocked wisdom, have found The Way. They cannot have a conversation without disparaging some other black woman’s choice of hair maintenance and simultaneously praising their own. I once had a woman tell me, when she learnt that I perform African dance, that I don’t ‘look the part’. I promptly looked down at my arm to see if my pigment was starting to fade. Apparently, I should leave the African dance to the real black people. And the kicker is that some of these are the same women who, on special occasions, take their inspired behinds on over to the hairdresser to have their hair wound around rollers or flattened to death or pinned to within an inch of their lives in order to emerge with neat little drop curls or Victorian up-dos. Steamroll your locks if you must, but don’t then stand in judgment of me when you are aspiring to the same ‘mainstream aesthetic’ as I.

I have had unprocessed hair that I wore ‘out’, braids, weaves, twists, afros, cornrows and relaxed hair. I had a moment back in secondary school when I started reading books on Rastafari and twisting my natural hair, and since I was already a dancehall/reggae historian, my mother – who ordinarily let me be with my various explorations – was all set to call either the pastor or the police. She managed to avoid both after I realized that Rastafari was in fact not the one religion where women were not second class citizens. (Throughout all the holy wars and Reformations, what a thing to still have in common.) And I also once had my dear Jupins, good friend and old roommate in the DR, come into my room and spend two hours helping me part and comb my afro, and massage my scalp that had become sore and tender from the combing. I have the original black girl nappography going on up there, none of that blow in the breeze stuff. But my hair has always been something for me to experiment with. And black women, even the poor, brainwashed straight hair-having ones, have once again shown how when we do something, we do it with style and make it our own.

There is a great deal of creative energy behind many styles of relaxed hair: from the Mohawk warrior do which see the sides shaven and the crown fiercely upright, to the blues and oranges worn like plumage. I don’t believe in punishing hair in the name of style – if your plumage is staying behind on the bathroom floor it may be time to look into some braids or an afro – but it’s a fun accessory to play with. And it really is just hair. I am no less black because I’ve made it straight. And if I feel like shaving one side and wearing the other blue, which I might do, and then stand next to Ms. Dreadlock Earth Mother with her drop curl locks, who is likely to look more revolutionary?

But I won’t do that, because I refuse to contribute to this spirit of competition – tacitly encouraged by men - which constantly pits women against each other. I love all black hair (or should I say most because sweet fancy Moses who is styling the weaves in London and why are they so bent on uglying us up?) I love the dreads, the afros, the straight, pink hair and the corkscrews, because they are all expressions of blackness by different people with different things to say. I’m not saying we don’t have issues as a community with loving our blackness. There was a reason my mother pulled my nose up when she gave me a bath, and why as a child I put a yellow towel on my head and flicked by ‘blonde hair’ about while singing into a hairbrush in the mirror. But while we keep the dialogue open and reassure our children that they are beautiful, women have to have their own journey, and their reasons for how they style their hair as adults are not yours to approve. So, you do your hair, and I’ll do mine.

The dreadlocked beauty above is Kali-Ahset Amen, featured as a DivaSoulSista 2006.
The picture of Michelle Obama is among those featured in a Vogue spread by Annie Leibovitz, 2007.


  1. Yeah. The way a black woman wears her hair may say something about her...or not. There is definately something to be said for sistas who can sport their coifs au natural and look fabulous doing so. Having been there myself, I can tell you that dealing with natural black hair is a labour of love. And when I say LABOUR...LOL. You girls have a mega dose of patience and determination. God bless you.
    It makes sense that a "conscious" black woman who is sensitive to how mainstream culture can, and does impact our self-esteem, might chose to wear dreads or a fro. But I've met many who just think its simply a fabulous low maintainance hairstyle. They couldn't find Africa on a map.

    I've been through everyhing from perms and weaves to natural twists and Afro puffs, and there is definately no correlation between the degree of kink in my hair and my love of roots and culture. Rather, my hairstyle on any given day is a reflection of how much time I am willing to spend in the mirror. I didn't quit wearing my hair natural because I lost respect for Garvey and de bredren, it was the carpal tunnel I was running from. And no one could possibly mistake me for a white woman because I used some Mizani last weekend.
    Regardless of how we decide to style our tresses, most women just want to look attractive and feel good about themselves when they walk out the door.
    Black is beautiul...end of story.

  2. Queen Ifrika has said it all too. You need to take this stance to the hair baiters in Bim.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I have held on to having my hair texturized for so long so that I could always revert to the (consistently less thick, structured) curls after a vigorous wash. But right now i'm feeling a straight weave, a mean pair of GHD's and a scarf every night to keep the frizz at bay. I've never been able to go back to what has always been portrayed as 'the dark (read: chemically straightened) side' even though it would make this weave wearing stint (usually employed during winter) much easier. There is some tacit guilt associated with it that until now has not been clearly articularted or brought to the surface. Perhaps it's wanting options that are easier to employ (and less expensive) than constant trips to the stylist and straipsing through Brixton looking for still more weave and then a talented stylist who (a) won't run screaming at the sight of a weave in my head or (b) isn't running a braid and weave sweatshop which cares little for the health of the natural hair.
    Here's to choice and exercising options without judgement mongoose! Well said.

  4. It is all about searching for something. People who are looking for something or trying to prove something need to have symbols to validate this. If you know who you are and where you come from and don't suffer from an identity crisis, then how you wear your hair simply becomes a hairstyle and not a social commentary about your beliefs.

    My hair has been natural for years and I keep it like that because it works better for my lifestyle. I have wanted a change from time to time and relaxed it but then I always go back natural cos it is easier for me. When it is long it is indeed a LABOUR of love ( well said Claire!!) so I keep it short because I am lazy and don't like spending time combing and styling it when I could be doing other things! End of story , no deep searches going on here. LOL

    Hair is there to be styled so let's celebrate how versatile black hair can be and the many ways we can wear it.

    Keep mongoosing :)


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