Musings on the politics of black hair
By Yana Makuwa
When I was growing up, I wanted a sheet of long black hair. I wanted it to fall down to the center of my back like a waterfall, gracefully cover my face with polite strands when the wind blew, and reflect light like a still dark lake. Essentially, I wanted to be Pocahontas. I cannot describe to you how frustrated I was that the soft curly poof on my head would stay wherever I put it instead of swishing back and forth behind me, and that when I tied it back my ponytail looked more like a rabbit’s tail. I was convinced that my hair was the only thing holding me back from reaching my true potential as a beautiful, popular, and successful human being.
As I entered the early stages of pubescence I did everything I could to wrestle my hair out of spirals and into the straight strands that I desired (although it’s never been quite long enough). I was thrilled when I finally convinced my mother to let me chemically straighten my hair. I felt adult, powerful, and most importantly, on my way to pretty. What I didn’t realize then was that I was making a choice based on skewed and exclusionary conceptions of beauty, and that this placed me squarely in a fraught historical and political context that I would eventually have to face.
To get to the real roots of this issue would require an analytical knowledge of history that my hodge-podge of an education simply didn’t provide. First, this dialogue is situated heavily in an American context. Even if my naïve 12-year-old-self had wanted to think more carefully about the ramifications of what I was doing to my hair, I could never have anticipated the extent that it would matter because the significance is simply not the same in Harare, Zimbabwe. While the country, and consequently its beauty standards, are of course affected by a traumatic colonial history, the absence of a racial legacy of slavery and Jim Crow changes and reduces the weight placed on hair. So in looking to the past for some insight on how I ended up spending vast amounts of time and money thinking about and changing my hair, in the interest of writing what I know this article will focus on the particularly American and particularly female.
Keeping in mind that we are skipping over the hundreds of years of slavery that left a considerable mark on the African-American psyche (how could a collective consciousness not be changed by being completely removed from a cultural context and placed in a world where your identity is prescribed for you and then instantly dehumanized?), we could begin tracing the identity politics of hair in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The turn of the previous century was the moment when altering black hair became not only crucial for admittance into an economic sphere, but also became an industry in and of itself. After slavery, there was a new burden on the black population to participate in an economy that structurally had no place for them. It was crucial for them to present an unthreatening, assimilationist image; they had to bring the house-slave aesthetic with them into freedom in order to make a living wage. In an entry titled “Black Hair Care and Culture, A History” on the website of non-profit organization The African American Registry, Ben Arogundade writes, “Many blacks argue that imitating European standards of beauty and grooming was necessary for blacks to be accepted by white culture, especially by potential white masters and employers.”
In a serendipitous turn of events, this drive to imitate white beauty not only allowed black people to enter the economic sphere, but also created the impetus for the first highly successful entrepreneurial venture run by an African-American woman. Madame C.J. Walker, born Sarah Walker in 1867, founded and produced an entire line of products designed to transform the experience of straightening black hair from an arduous, long-lasting, and frequently dangerous ordeal, into a pampering and, at the very least, comfortable experience. As Cornell Professor Noliwe Rooks writes in her book Hair Raising, Madame C.J. Walker’s business not only placed her prominently in a public and economic space that used to and continues to exclude women of color, but also created an industry where other women could begin making a life for themselves. She left a legacy of black women running hair salons where other black women could go to feel safe, taken care of, and nurtured.
“And as I was realizing this, certain hairstyles on certain women began piquing my interest—women with long blonde hair, but worn in dreadlocks; my gut reaction was a mix of envy, proprietary anger, and disdain.”
The economic importance of hair in black communities continues to this day, with small hair companies like Carols’ Daughter being one of (if not the only) black owned hair-care companies retailed by Sephora, and hair salons being a primary business option for many women of color, and particularly immigrants. There are YouTube channels dedicated to hair, and women establishing what Rooks calls in an interview with ITYC Radio “cottage industries [of] hundreds of little Madame C.J. Walkers who have YouTube videos and websites.” Hair salons are still central to black female communities, and have provided a space for intellectuals like Rooks to examine what it means to be black in America.
On the political side of things, seven decades after Madame C.J. Walker’s game-changing innovation, the social importance of hair had only become more present in the collective African-American mindset. As the Civil Rights Movement moved forward into the 70s, one of the definitive images of the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movements was the afro. In “The Impact of the ‘Fro in the Civil Rights Movement,” Chime Edwards proclaims that “the afro is more than just a hairstyle, it was an incredibly powerful symbol of the civil rights movement.” It is radical in its rejection of the idea that “‘nappy’ hair [is] unattractive and undesirable” and that “possessing nappy hair was negative and shameful.” This article identifies the extent to which wearing your hair in this style was a marker of political affiliation—many women who had afros did so in imitation of civil rights activist Angela Davis: “a black person wearing a ‘fro was dubbed as militant and threatening.” The politicization of black hair was something you could not escape in the 70s, and as much as wearing a ‘fro was a symbol of participating in the movement, not wearing one was by default not participating.
The political nature of black hair didn’t leave us in the 70s. In the same article, Edwards later comments that the movement towards natural hair in our own time, a period of renewed interest in the need for social change around race issues in America, is parallel to the natural hair movement of the 1970s. In a similar (though perhaps less intense) way, wearing your hair natural today makes a statement that you believe that aesthetic to have as much, if not more worth than the “European standards,” and carry a subtle but implicit rejection of those standards. With her light condemning of “abrasive methods” to “alter who [she] was naturally” and hope that “it’s not just a style” for her readers, she clearly points to the unavoidable political affiliations that black women make with their hair.
This brings us back to the present, to a younger me thrust into the realization that in America (the magnified and intensified college-campus version), the way I wear my hair carries a very particular and very heavy weight. The ten cornrows my mother learned how to plait across my head are from a centuries-old African tradition that used to express kinship, status, religion—a tradition that then moved through American history, picking up traces of devaluation, critique, and eventually empowerment. My relaxed hair wasn’t just something I decided to do when I was 12, it was me participating in one of the first industries led by and for a marginalized and excluded social group.
In my new collegiate context I started to work through all of this new information. I had to come to terms with the history of women of color in America. I had to learn what new codes applied to me now that I occupied a new social space. I realized that I could no longer be blissfully ignorant of the fact that even if I do my hair based on a whim, it will always carry the history of people with hair like mine.
And as I was realizing this, certain hairstyles on certain women began piquing my interest—women with long blonde hair, but worn in dreadlocks; women braiding thin cornrows into their straight dark hair, fixing them with beads. Every time I saw them, my gut reaction was a mix of envy, proprietary anger, and disdain. At first I tried to quash my negative knee-jerk response to these hairstyles, telling myself that judging other women for their hair choices was participating in the practice that I fell victim to. Maybe they weren’t thoughtlessly following what they assumed was a fad, or callously assuming wearing their hair that way gave them cultural capital. Perhaps they know more about the importance of the hairstyle than I; who am I to judge a prominent scholar or devout Rastafarian based only on the color of their skin or texture of their hair? But try as I might I couldn’t wrangle the anger into a generous benefit of the doubt.
I existed in this limbo for ages, feeling anxious about how my hair was perceived, about how it was and wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and anxious about what I thought was irrational anger. I spent my time resenting that anxiety, and searching for a way to tame my mane while in Ithaca (my daunting experience of trying to find a place to get my hair done as a freshmen in this town is a story for another time). And then I started hearing grumbles from corners of the Internet that I stumbled upon during my hair research. I read about Bo Derek, a white actress, who is famed for popularizing cornrows in 1979 when Cicely Tyson had been wearing them on screen in the early 70s. I read about how Madonna wore an afro in the 90s as one of her many “out there” looks, and how Lady Gaga did the same with dreadlocks in 2013. I read about magazines like Elle and Marie Claire touting Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry as trendsetters of styles like bantu knots and baby-hairs which had been black hairstyles without fanfare for ages. And it all came to a head with the outrage surrounding Kylie Jenner’s cornrows in July of this year.
I read about all this and I decided that I was right to be angry. Something within me was reacting to what I knew was fundamentally unfair. I realized that the reason I wanted to look like Pocahontas so badly that I was willing to sacrifice the length and health of my hair was because she was the only princess who looked even remotely like me. Meanwhile, these women grew up with a wealth of princesses to choose from (Cinderella, Belle, Snow White, ad infinitum), and now they were casually choosing hairstyles that I had to fight against society and myself to accept.
I am angry because in addition to the media-abetted whitewashing and fetishization of this intensely personal and political aspect of my life, society still manages to punish black women for how they wear their hair. In 2013, a Florida school threatened to expel 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke for wearing her hair natural. Describing it as a “distraction” and in violation of dress codes, the school asserted that students must conform to a white norm, regardless of the effects that may have on the health of the student’s hair or psyche. In September of the same year, a school in Tulsa, Oklahoma sent home a seven-year-old because in their policy, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” This language, taken directly from the US Army’s regulations on black hair which also refers to dreads and twists as “faddish” and “exaggerated,” reveals white America’s deeply rooted misunderstanding, devaluation, and exoticization of black hair. It is attitudes like these that lie beneath E! News senior reporter Giuliana Rancic’s description of Zendaya’s dreadlocks as smelling “like patchouli oil. Or weed.” Her later apology for sliding into offensive and damaging “clichés and stereotypes” does not change the fact that even amidst a time of reclamation of natural black hair’s beauty and value, it remains charged with real and tangible negative connotations.
“There is the knowledge that how you wear your hair announces you, and carries a certain politic and a cultural weight to both a white and black gaze, whether you intend it to or not.”
It is ridiculous that white celebrities continue to be congratulated for adopting styles that are deemed inappropriate and low when worn by the people who conceived of them—styles that decades ago were worn in protest of the aesthetic ideals that those white celebrities embody. It is ridiculous that people should rise to the defense of any public figure who irresponsibly misuses their position in the spotlight and lacks the sensitivity to acknowledge criticism from a member of the appropriated culture.
What it boils down to is this: lying behind the style, convenience, or comfort that motivates each individual black woman’s choice about how to wear her hair is the pervasive message, overt and covert, that white hair is more beautiful than black hair. There is the need to adjust hairstyles to overcome a barrier to entry to the white economic sphere. There is the knowledge that how you wear your hair announces you, and carries a certain politic and a cultural weight to both a white and black gaze, whether you intend it to or not. And unless you are white you do not have the luxury of wearing these styles in ignorance of all this.
Black women did and do their hair to participate in an economy that wouldn’t make room for them beyond keeping houses that weren’t their own. Black women did and do their hair to take ownership of their beauty and identity in a media context that doesn’t represent them. Black women think and talk about their hair to build a community that helps them process issues both complex and mundane.
What makes me riled, what underlies the perhaps disproportionate rage that overcomes me when I see white women with dreadlocks, is the knowledge that those people who comfortably sit on America’s narrow pedestal of privilege can blithely adopt the hairstyles of those who have always been kept off the top.
Nothing can change the fact that they get to choose whether or not their hair defines their politics and aesthetics, and I do not.