Being weird about natural hair

2009-12-14 00:00

A LOT of South African nonblacks still think it is not offensive to talk about “lovely straight hair”, and they may be right, were it not for a few certain factors. You see, naturally straight hair is truly beautiful because such is nature, but so is any other feature any of us are naturally endowed with. The problem is when certain features that look good naturally on some are made to be the acceptable standard for everyone. Remember Adolf Hitler’s vision of the perfect Aryan nation?

The days when different groups of people had different territories in their country of birth inspired this phenomenon, which includes nonwhites’ obsession with light skin. The texture of hair became an important factor in determining certain privileges. For instance, if a pencil placed in your hair fell out when you shook your head, you were not black and therefore were not going to have a life as bad as the real blacks. I’m not harping on this but just pondering whether black people still have a sub­conscious Utopian belief about straight hair. We really dislike our natural hair.

If you know anything about black women, you know that you must never criticise (or talk about?) a black woman’s hair, so I will not get into the issue of relaxers, which attempt to make their hair look Indian, or weaves and extensions that are sometimes actually Indian hair. I will just ask how severe the impact on young black girls is, of growing up seeing every successful woman with hair that is far from natural. People don’t even care how badly it’s done, as long as the natural hair is covered.

You also do not touch a black man’s head but mine got touched so much I gave up telling people that. I recently cut my hair and I must say I am quite obsessed with its evolution — it grows quickly. My observation is that South African black men’s hairstyles have been influenced by black Americans. The television, musicians and sportsmen were everyone’s connection with the diaspora and in the eighties the Afro was replaced with the slick, oily look. The Jackson 5, The Commodores, Barry White, Cool And The Gang and other black bands started to get Jheri Curls (a perm in South Africa) and it was copied here, while the Afro hairdo got shorter for those who felt it too effeminate to have long, wavy hair.

As a child I didn’t have a say in my hairstyle but I remember getting my hair curled in 1988. This was so I would be more convincing as a “coloured”, as I less-than-legally got into a “coloured” school under an assumed name. If you think an eight-year-old maintained that style, think again. I always had grass all over my hair from playing. It is a bittersweet memory, but I saw myself when I saw Michael Jackson’s music video Bad. All my role models when I was growing up had long hair, including all the above mentioned, but it was when I saw Snoop Dogg getting his Afro braided by a woman, that I knew how I wanted to look. It started in my last year of high school and it was controversial from day one. How can having long hair have such negative connotations?

Initially, it was relaxed because my cousin who did my corn rows found it more manageable that way, but the African-American exchange students chided me for using chemicals so it became natural eventually. The weirdest things were the accusations I got of being gay, and the angry black women I encountered. I used to wonder if it was the texture or the length of it that caused this. I mean, not many black women I knew had hair as long as mine, but all my ­favourite rappers did and they were very macho. Over time, it became accepted, but it is still more taboo to have long, natural black hair than it is to have long white-looking hair.

The attitude towards natural black hair has remnants of black self-hatred and white supremacy caused by oppression, I believe, but as long as nobody but an employer tells me how to wear my hair, I’m nappy and happy.

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