Moving beyond white femininity Black hair and identity

Panashe Chigumadzi
Panashe Chigumadzi

‘Who am I?”

A question familiar to anyone who has suffered through teenage anxiety.

Although I’m not quite past those concerns, despite being well into my twenties, I had seldom heard that question expressed as earnestly as it was last week.

I was listening to poetry being recited by the girls of the Gayaza Secondary School in Uganda.

I was visiting Uganda for the first time as a participant in the Writivism Literary Festival held at the National Museum in Kampala.

During the day, the museum is a hive of schoolchildren. In this traffic of ankle-length dresses, khaki shorts, white socks and closely cropped hair, I was struck by the appearance of a particular group of school girls.

The first thing that caught my attention was that the girls quite literally wore the best uniform I had seen.

Theirs was a well-fitted short-sleeved dress, which could be worn in the girls’ choice of an assortment of bright colours – red, yellow, green, orange, pink, purple and blue. The girls’ dark skin sung against the brights.

Lift your eyes from their bright uniforms, and their heads were crowned in an assortment of beautiful natural styles and Afros. Some were short. Some were medium-sized.

Some were round. Some were square-shaped. Some were pulled into buns. Some were just left to be.

As a product of the rainbow nation’s schooling system, which gave me unflattering uniforms (like my high school’s kilt-inspired skirt) and exposed my hair to sodium hydroxide, I found myself staring and, to be quite honest, emotional.

This was a glimpse into the future. The girls’ uniforms and hair exuded a kind of rainbow-ism designed with black bodies and black hair in mind.

One that does not subsume blackness, but elevates it.

During the festival’s schools outreach, I learnt that these girls were from the country’s oldest girls’ school.

When it became time to introduce myself, I tried to express how happy I was to see them, that I couldn’t stop staring, and I asked if I could take their picture.

Neither the other African writers nor the girls understood it. Another southern African writer and I tried to explain to them why their hair was noteworthy to us.

We were unsuccessful. Not for a lack of words, I am a writer after all, but rather a lack of context.

That every girl had natural hair was nothing to write home about. What else would I have them do with their hair? What else was there to do with their hair?

They couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss, because that to them was the default.

Eventually, we came to a sort of understanding about this hair issue, but it was mostly an intellectual and not a visceral or emotional understanding of what it is like to aspire to – and fail to meet – the standards of white femininity.

A little frustrated at first, I had to remind myself that when we become accustomed to reacting and to fighting, we sometimes lose sight of the future.

Having survived South Africa’s Model C and private school systems, I have long known that I have no desire to send my own unborn children to schools that demand assimilation, that there is a need to create new schools that centre on blackness.

Of course, this cannot be the solution for a systemically racist, exclusive schooling system.

Those historically white schools should be forced to decolonise, because their infrastructure was subsidised by Bantu education, and they are historically indebted to the very black children they continue to marginalise.

I am left thinking quite seriously that, should we not yet have succeeded in creating a decolonised schooling system when my own unborn children are of school-going age, I will ship them off to Uganda, rather than face the racist patriarchy of our schools.

Of course, the school has its fair share of colonial hangover, as with any elite mission school on the continent.

A poem recited by one of the girls, supposedly written by “a friend”, which extolled the virtues of a young woman who had dreamt of her wedding since she was a child, was a throwback to the school’s 1905 founding purpose of educating girls, especially the daughters of Buganda chiefs, to become “better wives” while having Christianity entrenched in their formative years.

Still, more than a century later, as we listened to the teen-angst-ridden and teenage-love poems composed by the Gayaza girls with their Afros, I was struck by how they were as carefree and confident as young womanhood allows.

I saw a future vision for our unborn black daughters.

A future rainbow-ism that elevates black girls so that they are free to stumble and fall, free to ask, “Who am I?”, without the fear of having to measure up to the false standards of white femininity.

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