Not yet uhairu!

2014-04-06 14:00

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Milisuthando Bongela has decided relaxing and weaving isn’t for her. She’s joined the Hair Police. Here’s why:

‘So Mili, what’s the plan with your hair?” asked the man who I’d only known for a  few hours. “What do you mean?” I asked tensely. “Oh no, I just mean, are you going to do dreadlocks or are you going to leave it like that?” he clarified timidly.

“The plan is to leave it like this,” I said, and walked off feeling irritated I had to explain myself to a stranger. Was my appearance inadequate because I have chosen to let my hair be its natural self – short and curly?

While I was upset, the man’s sentiment is the “norm” and my natural hair is a political “exception” to the rule that governs modern ideas about black beauty.

Two months before, I had shared the stranger’s sentiment when I told a conscious black male friend I wanted to relax my hair. His response was minced but the meat of it was an emphatic “no”, because then “the system would have got me too, as it has got so many black women”.

Of course, we know how to respond to a conscious black man about why we relax or weave our hair. We all chime in: “It’s my choice.”

We like to think we exist in a democratic, “anti-essentialist” culture, the cornerstone of which is individual choice to express who you are, what you want and how you want it.

Black hair is blessed with versatility. Entire books have been dedicated to the art of African hair, yet an alarming number of black women have made a stylistic choice that leans towards the foreign aesthetic of long and straight hair.

Not so long ago, it was normal for black women to lighten their complexion with chemically destructive products to adhere to a dominant culture that was antimelanin. While skin lighteners are still selling out in countries like India, China and Nigeria, in South Africa, we’ve come out of the dark age.

Or have we? Aren’t relaxers and weaves a 21st-century appropriation of the same self-hate?

Since that conversation with my friend, I have delved into the politics of black hair for days on end and my position has changed drastically.

It’s no secret chemical relaxers are physically injurious. I now believe those relaxers and weaves are just as injurious to our self-image.

Last year, I braided a bumper curl hairstyle on to my hair and it ended up looking like a curly weave. My Congolese hairdresser decided it would be a good look for the glamorous event I was attending.

On the first day, I posted a picture of my new bumper curl on Instagram and raked in the likes and compliments from my followers, most of whom I don’t know.

On the second day, I went to the event as someone’s date and when I arrived, I blended right in with the garish aesthetics of Midrand, where the event was held.

On the third day, I met my conscious leftie friends for brunch and when I arrived, hoping they would say something nice about my hair, they all observed my new look and instead, one of them dismissively said: “Nice dress Mils.”

I didn’t get the validation I had hoped for because the truth is, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this hair myself.

I had been blinded by the excitement of being the date of a guy who had told me numerous times he just wanted to “kick it”, someone I had very little in common with, someone I was posing as a one-night trophy for.

On the fifth day, I woke up and cut off the hair. There had been a moment of clarity that morning when I couldn’t find a single outfit to go with this plastic mop hat. That afternoon, I went to see the same conscious lefties at one of their houses.

When I arrived, the others were there. Before I could say anything, they were huddled around the kitchen table, some of them hunched over with their hands on their stomachs, others with their arms outstretched trying to pity hug me, and the rest literally running around the table, out of breath with laughter.

“What the f**k were you thinking?” was the general rhetoric and as we capsized with laughter, I knew I was in the right company. That hairstyle truly was the furthest thing from who I really am.

Why are we the only race that chooses to sew the hair of other races into ours in order to be beautiful, sexy, successful and desirable?

It’s difficult to blame us when the majority of  the white-owned global media machine attributes more beauty, success and sexiness to light skin and straight hair.

For a long time, I was on the fence about this natural-versus-synthetic hair argument because the Hair Police are extreme and essentialist, but today I’m making a conscious choice to join them and wear my badge – my natural hair – with honour.

I would be willing to throw away my badge if Africans were at least getting as rich as Asians, Brazilians and Europeans in the business of black hair. But we’re not. Or if we weren’t living in denial about how psychologically damaged we are as a result of the spiritual, cultural and economic war against us. But we are.

Let’s not kid ourselves by saying that wearing a weave is purely a stylistic choice.

I understand our hairlines have been chewed by the system so we need to wear wigs and straight weaves to feel beautiful; that a lot of us don’t know how to look after our natural hair because most products in the shops are for relaxed hair; that many of us are too hungry to focus our energy on a mission to self-actualise.

The question then becomes: who is responsible for teaching us and our children the opposite of what the system posits? Is it the same system that subliminally tells you that your are too dark, too violent or intellectually inferior? The same system that referred to your hair as “k****r hare”?

Of course not. Black people are responsible for reimagining black beauty. How will I teach my daughter her natural hair is beautiful if she only ever sees her mother in weaves and chemically straightened hair?

We need to sell to ourselves and to the world the beauty of braids, dreadlocks and Afros as an ideal. We need to make the bulk of the profit that black hair makes. We need to truly believe ourselves when we say we are beautiful.

It’s no longer enough to sit on the fence about this. Now, more than ever, the Hair Police need to come out of the closet and expose their badges.

When the time comes that our brothers and sisters of other races are wearing Afros and braiding their hair the way we love weaves, then it will mean nothing to wear a weave as a black woman.

But we’re not there yet. It’s not yet “uhairu”.

For more black hair debate, check out the author’s blog at

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