Sign of ancestry or fashion statement? The natural hair debate

Illustration: Beatrice Herman
Illustration: Beatrice Herman
Illustration: Beatrice Herman

There has been an increase in the number of black women choosing to wear their natural hair in recent years. This revolution has been fuelled by a resurgence of self-love, self-acceptance and a reawakening of racial pride. Not all black hair is the same, curly hair can be tightly coiled or loosely coiled or not coiled at all. Black hair which has very little curl pattern, is often described as “nappy” or “natty” and tends to clump together, afro hair which has a kind of zig-zag pattern is described as “kinky”. Black hair which is straight, with defined curls or a loose Shirley Temple like curl is often dubbed “white-girl hair”, “mixed-hair” or most revealingly “good hair”. In recent years a plethora of terminologies have arisen to describe and categorise black hair in all its wonderful diversity. One thing is certain, both within and without the black community not all these vast textures are valued equally.

There is a prevalent mentality which posits black women with looser curls or straighter hair above black women with more quintessentially negroid hair, due to their ability to conform more easily to a Eurocentric ideal of beauty. This ideology which divides the black community like a split end, largely has its roots in slavery. In the US in particular, it was a common practice to place slaves who more closely resembled Caucasians, usually being the product of interrelations between slaves and their “owners”, within the house – giving them different duties and higher status’ than field slaves. Though the institution of slavery has long since been abolished, many of the mind-sets concerning black hair remain.

For the majority of black girls their kitchen at some point doubled up as a beauty salon, where “hot combs” were placed on top of the kitchen stove until they were hot enough to soften hair and scold skin, they did both… often. This strenuous and time consuming procedure did not last very long and if your hair came into contact with a single rain drop it would spring back into its natural form like a slinky. Consequently, when the ‘cure’ for black hair finally hit the market black women were drawn to the “creamy crack” throughout the world. Relaxer, is a chemical hair straightener which was loved so for its permanence, as it is the only thing that can keep black hair straight long-term. “Natural hair” refers primarily to hair which has not been chemically straightened by Relaxer, other measures taken to straighten black hair are not considered “unnatural” as the hair will always revert back to its natural form, unlike with relaxer. But like any drug of choice, relaxer has its draw-backs and the chemical lye, is known to scold your scalp, your eyes and irreparably damage your hair. So it is quite unsurprising that many women in the 21st century have decided that the price of assimilation is just far too high.

Professionals from school teachers to employers, clump natural black hair with taboos such as tattoos and piercings and infer from what is on our head, what is in it. In the 1960’s for many women natural hair became a symbol of black strength and resilience for organisations like the Black Panther Party and the Black Consciousness Movement. In reality “hairism” (I just made that up… but it’s real) just like its correlates racism and sexism, attempts to infer so much from so little. Hence, it is important to note that not every black woman who wears her natural hair shares in the political motivations of the likes of Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. Some women want to be unapologetically how they were made, some women see their afro as fashionable, some women refuse to damage their hair any further and some women just couldn’t get a hair appointment until next week and that cousin who does hair in her bathroom wasn’t picking up. For me, my choice was initiated by a quote from Kathleen Cleaver, who responded when asked why she wore her natural hair “there is a new awareness amongst black people that their own natural appearance… is beautiful”.

Every woman goes through a journey to find the beauty in her own appearance and once I found mine, every strand of my – bushy at the edges, curly on the ends, kinky and the roots and truly very nappy at the back – head of hair stood out to me like a halo above my head. A consciousness awoke in me and I noticed every natural who I passed and she noticed me, I am stopped and told “wow, I love your hair” or “that style really suits you”. In recent years, women such as Lupita Nyongo whose beauty was acclaimed not despite her dark skin and short nappy hair but because of it, as well as Beyoncé’s visual-album Lemonade which upheld many women shamelessly wearing their afros in all shades and textures. Nonetheless, when non-black women do so, it is met with stark animosity. The difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation can be as small as the semantics. Miley Cyrus’ dreadlocks and Kylie Jenner’s cornrows are just a couple of the cases of cultural appropriation which has angered many, and were styles upheld as edgy and new. Despite the fact that they have been condemned when worn by black women for centuries.

There are three components of being black: the good, the bad and the ugly. One simply does not exist without the other, nor do they fight against each other like a tug-o-war but rather the good is born out of the bad and the ugly. Black hair is inextricably knotted into the black experience, to divorce it entirely from that experience and that narrative and present it as no more than a sojourning fashion statement is to undermine the depth of the cultural identity and experience that is entangled in this kinky hallmark of our African ancestry. Why is black culture and hair so heavily castigated on black women and not interracially? why does ghetto become edgy? Why does trashy become trendy and why do black features finally get their praise only when they have been ripped from the black woman and adorned by another? And to the woman who garnishes herself with black culture and who eats from the fruits of black labour, when you get a taste of the bad and the ugly, do you use your elevated position to shout out to the masses against the injustices which intersperse the black community or do you take flight whilst your stylish cornnrows unravel as you go?

Natural black hair is seen as uncontrollable, unruly and unprofessional, consequently the women who wear it are defined in the same way. The angry black woman stereotype, has too often been used to degrade and humiliate black women, reducing our educated and informed opinions to an “attitude”. Invisible signs are posted throughout the aesthetic, corporate and professional world, reading: Beware the angry black woman is loud, she is undisciplined, and she is irrational and her kinky-curly hair sprouts in all different directions from her head. She is a caricature of the real black woman who expresses many emotions other than anger but who holds anger in her repertoire of emotions for when she is provoked. Undeniably, speaking for myself alone, there has been times when my attitude has reared its head and rolled its eyes when the discussion could have done without it. Nonetheless, my views and opinions as formed by my experience as a black woman are valid.

I concede that maybe my natural hair is unruly because it certainly rebels against any constraint I try to impose on it, pulling away more and more throughout the day, so that by the end of it, it might seem to the naked eye as though I haven’t made any effort at all. Many black professional women, chose natural hair styles which allow them the kempt-look and versatility that corporate jobs often demand. Ironically these natural styles, such as braids, Senegalese- twists, cornrows and dreads, come with a whole different kind of discrimination. One West-African consultant tells BBC News of her experience: “A few years ago I had my hair styled in cornrows and I was asked quite blatantly by my boss how long it would be before my hair was back to ‘normal’. When I had my first taste of the corporate world in the summer of 2015, I went through the manual with a fine-tooth comb and there it read in the only specification regarding hair: “not to be dyed in any unnatural colours”. It became clear to me then and there that whilst the rule for everyone else was nothing “unnatural”, for black girls like me, “unnatural” was the expected norm.


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