When black hair dares to bare

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Berenice Paulse
Berenice Paulse

The recent crowning of Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi sparked a spirited debate about natural black women’s hair – whether it upped her chances of winning and what going au naturel on top represents in the competitive and highly westernised beauty industry.

This represents the first problematic issue to me: Why is natural hair for black women considered a statement of sorts when for white women it is, in fact, the converse. A white woman needs to do something additional or extraordinary with her natural hair in order for it to be making a statement – such as dying it another colour or shaving it off completely. When styled in its natural state, white hair is not a statement, it just is. When you are a black woman, it just gets a whole lot more complicated when you dare to bare.

Unlike previous Miss SAs where the media coverage focused on the newly crowned pageant queen’s background, upbringing and what she wanted to achieve in the year of her reign, the coverage on Tunzi was invariably headlined by her hair ... hair and more hair.

25-year-old Zozibini Tunzi from Tsolo a small town
25-year-old Zozibini Tunzi from Tsolo a small town in the Eastern Cape has been crowned Miss South Africa 2019 at Time Square in Pretoria. Picture: Rosetta Msimango/City Press

Which brings me to another concern: It is as if the person of Tunzi really became an afterthought, eclipsed by the commentary about her hair. Enough already!

I am reminded of a scene from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, when Viola Davis’ character, as a precursor to confronting her husband about an affair, sits in front of a mirror and strips down, wig and make-up gone, revealing underneath – her own matted mane. American viewers were spellbound. Afterwards the scene was described by someone as a “great moment in TV history”, while others commended Davis for her bravery. How bizarre that affirming natural black hair is perceived as a symbolic act of courage, or even subversion. About Davis’ television moment when she sheds her wig, I came across one article claiming that “after the wig came off, nothing else mattered”. Mmm. (How I wish I could insert a sceptical looking emoji right here.)

In 2009, when comedian Chris Rock co-produced and narrated the documentary Good Hair, based on the billion-dollar hair industry, there was a backlash from some black women who accused him of exposing their hair secrets, effectively reducing them to laughing stocks.

Long before the documentary, jokes about black women and our weaves have been abundant, often delivered in stand-up comedy by black male comedians. Really, what Rock’s documentary did was to shift the conversation from “insider” jokes to a wider (including white) audience, and these days anybody and everybody feels themselves an expert able to weigh in on the conversation; hence black women levelling the accusation against Rock that he sold out. Even our own celebrity comedian, Trevor Noah, before he achieved international celebrity status as the host of The Daily Show, entertained his local audiences with tales about black women’s weaves. To the delight of his captured and gleeful audience, Noah claimed that he preferred natural hair over the weaves sported by some black women.

So this as an aside: Judging by the jokes about black women and their weaves made (very often) by black male comedians (the insiders), why do so many black women, when we dress up our bodies, twin it with dressing up our hair? And how many of these celebrity insiders were recently snapped with a black woman on their arm, who was sporting natural hair (including not chemically treated)? The subliminal messages to black women are clear in this type of double-speak. If money talks, it would appear that too often it seems to be summoning long, flowing tresses.

So, back to Tunzi, I see the value in affirming a woman who dared to defy racial stereotypes about beauty, but she is so much more than her hair.

As a woman whose hair is styled in what I call Afro locs (commonly known as dreads or dread locks), I often experience a sense of being obscured by my hair when strangers comment on it to each other, or when they make assumptions about my beliefs or lifestyle (that my hair is some kind of statement – either as a practising Rastafarian or a very angry feminist). For the record, I am a feminist, and sometimes a very angry one at that, but one simply cannot know that by my natural hair.

I occasionally encounter strangers – who would in the normal scheme of things never contemplate initiating a conversation with another stranger – who, without a qualm, ask how I manage to keep my hair clean, or whether it hurts. The really audacious ones, to date exclusively women, enquire whether they may touch it. My hairstyle apparently makes me a public asset and, therefore, not entitled to the same consideration or courtesy that would normally apply.

The purpose of this article is not about taking a position for or against natural hair, it is simply to argue that black women are more than their hair; be it a natural style, weaves or anything else. I am sick of the jokes about black women and their weaves, which reduce us to objects of ridicule; or patronising, yet half-hearted platitudes about being “natural” when big men in big cars, with even bigger expense accounts continue to have their hands in long silky strands.

I love my natural locks, not because it is statement with political intent or because I believe in Jah, but because I like how my scalp feels when my hair has been freshly washed and my scalp treated. A close friend of mine prefers her wigs because it takes her less time to get ready in the morning; another friend has braids; another’s hair is shaved close to the scalp. It is just hair; it does not define us, but neither should the obsession with it make us invisible as unique individuals in the broader debate about diversity and affirming black bodies in the racially biased entertainment or beauty industries.

Paulse is a researcher with an interest in social justice


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