Who taught you to hate your hair

2014-11-24 12:49

Ten months into my research and critical analysis of the history and politics of black hair, I remember the day I sat down at my dressing table and consciously felt my hair for the first time.

I didn’t know anything about it. I remember parting my short curls with my fingers and clenching tufts of dry hair in my fists, irritated, ignorant and defeated by the nature of this material but determined to learn to accept it, to even like it. While I embodied the burdens that come with having black hair, at the base of which was the lifelong reinforced message of being a genetic error, I was interested in the materiality of this cushion that is as old as human life.

With each new discovery about my hair – the basic information about what hair type, what to moisturise it with and why I have this hair and not those of other races, whose hair naturally falls to their shoulders – I began to water the fissure between the hatred of it and my acceptance of it.

We of this type of hair in South Africa have still not come up with an apolitical or, at the very least, a non-offensive description for our hair. According to hair stylists, human hair belongs to those whose hair grows straight, and can be packaged and sold, while the most educated and beautiful black people still casually or unconsciously call their natural hair “kaffir hare”. I have settled on calling it hair. Not black hair. Just hair.

Why is my hair this tight, this short, this way? I wondered and was surprised to discover research that suggested the reason European and northern hemisphere ethnic groups have long, straight hair is because during the Ice Age, the descendants of the Grimaldi, the Africans who had migrated from Africa to the north, evolved to grow long, straight hair to protect the main arteries located at the back of the neck, which take messages from the brain to the rest of the body, so their necks wouldn’t freeze. Their noses became narrower to let less cold air in so their brains wouldn’t freeze.

The people in the hot continent of Africa have shorter, curlier hair because they didn’t need to protect the backs of their necks, they needed them cooled from the heat. Their noses are wider to allow more air into their nostrils to cool their bodies. In this biological theory, I found a respite that would shake the foundations of ignorance.

One book led to another, one hair blog led to hundreds of others and I soon found I was a member of the global community of black women learning to love their hair by understanding how it works. Entering the world of black beauty practices, where chemically straightening the hair of three-year-olds and wearing the hair of other races to be socially mobile is “normal”, led to me thinking about Malcolm X’s famous question, “Who taught you to hate yourhair?” and more. I went from wanting to learn about co-washing (shampoo-free hair washing) to accessing black identity politics and realised that hair consciousness is a gateway to political consciousness.

The divisive nature of the hair discussions online has kept Team Natural and Team Choice from building bridges of understanding and a unified defence against the system that “others” all of them. Afros and dreadlocks were used as politically mobilising agents against a system that negated everything African and they worked beautifully until they filtered through the mainstream and became fashionable apolitical hairstyles themselves.

This is why one can’t assume that a person with dreadlocks is politically conscious. Furthermore, as “natural” hairstyles, they require the same, if not more cultivation and work, as synthetic hairstyles do. So are they really natural in the African sense?

All hair is worked on to some degree. The discussion needs to evolve beyond the inversion of negative Eurocentric views of what black identity is or isn’t, into a less polarised, less essentialist and more nuanced discussion that allows for multiple black identities to reimagine themselves independently of old ideological injuries.

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