The Alleged Curse of African Hair
“Why did you cut your hair?……I don’t like it.”
“….tell your hair to grow a little bit”
These are some of the recent comments that I have graciously received this week, in between others like:
“I like that you cut your hair…it makes you look very young”
“You mean you can just cut your hair and still look good!”
To hilarious ones such as:
“You look like a BOY!”, exclaimed my boss’ kids…. then in chorus they repeated:
You look like a B-oOoo-Y!!!!!!!”.
So yes….that decision on the evening of 17thJanuary 2013 to pick up a pair of scissors and cut 93% of my hair off, has come with mixed reviews.
I can’t say I did not expect it.
I psychologically prepared myself for the critics (including myself for the first few shocking hours). I also prepared myself for the compliments- the genuine ones and most importantly, the fake I-don’t-like-it-but-I-will-pretend-I-do ones.
That is the funny thing about being a female with African/Afro hair. It is (almost) viewed as community property; almost as if you have to ask for permission to do certain things to it.
It is as if everyone in my life had shares in the company called my Hair. I call it a company since once this kind of hair is relaxed/chemicalized/permed(whatever you want to call it), it becomes a lifelong Business.
Over the years I spent much money, time, effort and emotions in manipulating it: straightening it, stretching it, braiding it, ’burning’ it, patting it, sowing it, cutting it, trimming it……. etc. The closest people around me shared in all the joys, frustrations and/or burdens that came with it. Then one day-suddenly-I decided to close shop. I took a pair of scissors and liquidated the company.
Mum, I understand your pain.
Why did I do it?
Well, I wanted to break free from the alleged ‘curse’ of African hair (and secretly get the exciting chance to taste the stigma that a boy cut would bring :p )
If a Gene Genie appeared to any woman with 75-100% of the quintessential African genes, and asked them what three things they would like to redraw on their genetic blueprint, am certain one of the choices (if not the first one) would be to have ‘better hair’.
We have all ( I hope, ) watched Chris Rock's ‘GOOD HAIR’. Everyone thinks flat, smooth, shiny hair is the best kind of hair. Everyone wants this kind of hair majority of the time.
If you ramage through the long winding HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HAIR, you will understand why it is such a huge discussion in the US. The African slaves who were shipped there centuries ago had to (as sad as it sounds) conform to straightening their hair in order to get ahead: get promoted, respected or move higher up in the ranks. Yes- higher in the ranks of oppressed people where they would be slightly less oppressed (and this is perhaps subject to an entirely different blog post).
After slavery was abolished, they still had to conform. They were in a foreign land where they were the minority.
Then we have the Africans.
Those whose previous generations escaped any form of slave trade but lived through the oppressive decades of colonialism.
Kenyans (to my understanding) did not need to straighten their hair to ‘conform’. It was their homeland. The white man was the minority on this side of the world.
Then came the spread of the American culture. The media worked overtime on this one. Whatever the African-Americans did, Africans did.
When they embraced the huge afro in the 60-70s as an image of the civil rights movement, so did my mum and dad’s generation. And ironically, some African leaders were AGAINST THIS??
#$^% ^%& ^%*E#R$% !!
When they embraced the Jheri Curl in the 70s-80s, and thanks to Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, so did Africans. Though I understand why this fad had to die fast! That awkward wet look and then the propensity for it to catch fire (even ‘invincible’ Michael Jackson’s hair- RIP)…like really…what were they thinking back then?
Then came the mid 80s. Same period when I got dropped into this ‘big bad’ world.
I found a Kenya already plagued with the craze of the straight hair relaxer; And my oh my, by age 10, my hair was relaxed.
Natural, my hair was a maze. I could hide a whole VCR tape inside it. It was huge (100 hair strands per 1 millimeter squared of my scalp) and kinky! Still is… by the way. So I understand why my mum had to relax it. Otherwise it was soon to become Kenya’s next tourist attraction. I get her reasoning.
However, in general, what I do not understand is the reasons for Africans to conform to the straight hair craze when nothing was forcing us to.
Every other female in our midst has ‘kinky’ hair- if not visible, somewhere hidden. So why would we need to conform? And conform to what? To standards set by whom? The celebrity on TV? The woman on a magazine?
The way I see it, the ‘problem’ began with one person.
In my case, that first female in Nairobi who decided to relax their hair. They began this vicious cycle. Their hair looked ‘neat’. Then the word ‘neat’ changed meaning when it came to a female’s hair. They made everyone else want to have the same ‘neat’ hair.
When more people did it, everyone else who didn’t had ‘untidy’ hair.
Then schools decided that ‘untidy’ hair was and will continue to be a punishable offence.
And so, to avoid punishment for having hair that can’t lie flat, you had to do it too. You had to relax it.
It doesn’t end there.
You finish school and try to look for a job. If your hair is not ‘neat’ or ‘tidy’ you may not be hired in a ‘big’ company. Even if you are totally qualified. True story.
If you are 'crazy' enough to put dreadlocks, you are a ‘rastafarian’ or a struggling ‘musician’ or ‘artist’ or just that ‘rogue’ person no one knows what to do with. You can’t possibly think of being a normal professional member of the corporate society with that ‘dreaded’ hairstyle. Sad.
On TV, hardly any black person we see has their natural hair; so you must be ‘crazy’, ‘backward’ or ‘poor’ if you still have it.
Company HR executives might even go as far as telling you that you should do something to your hair otherwise it will be a bad show for clients since it will seem as though you are not being paid enough! (A close friend of mine was actually told this!)
If you cut your hair into a boy cut you are trying to prove something. If you shave it bald, then you are clearly a ‘nutcase’.
What world is this we are living in? Is this the world our children are supposed to come into?
One where we will tell them to accept themselves as they are but not explain why we are not doing the same?
How many times does India Arie have to sing “I AM NOT MY HAIR” for everyone to get it? ( Aint trying to preach… though :p)
If you ask me, this ‘curse’ of the African hair is not one that we were born with. No one cursed the African race with unique hair. Unique because no other race has such hair. We are the ones who curse ourselves.
We allowed it to be relegated as ‘bad’ hair. It is a curse we continue to propagate everyday when we refuse to accept this hair for what it is- either on our own heads or other people’s heads, through comparison and negativity.
When I held the scissors that day, the only thing I was trying to prove was/is that I can accept my natural hair for what it is; That I can have hair that I can control. Not one that controls me or my life.
No need to feel paralyzed if I don’t have an umbrella below thick rain clouds or when I really want to go swimming on a whim. It also frees me from the shackles of constantly going to a hair salon.
For me, it is about freedom.
I am not saying that everyone should go natural, I am just saying that everyone should acknowledge that this natural kind of kinky, coily hair on my head or anyone else’s head can also be ‘good’ hair and one that is worthy of acceptance, ANYWHERE.