Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Right Amount of ‘Straight’

Image courtesy: www.organicbeautytalk.com/your-nappy-hair
I was recently on set with my wife, shooting a TV commercial for a well-known brand of carbonated drink. I wasn't actually part of the cast and crew but this was a weekend shoot and I was there to offer moral support to my wife and make sure that our weekend wasn't a total bust. As always, the cast was a selection of phenotypically perfect individuals: young, vibrant and beautiful in every observable way. The kind of people that I refer to as ‘aquarium fish’ because they’re obviously kept in certain optimal living conditions of comfort that keep them ‘fresh’… so to speak.

There was one particular girl however that caught my eye. Unconventional in her look, in a pleasant girl-next-door kind of way with a visibly introverted nature. Compared to the others, her clothes were less showy, looser and more conservative. What I found most interesting about her look was the wicked Afro this young girl was rockin'. Proper, full-on and unadulterated nappy hair! It was unusual against the backdrop of other girls wearing high-end (and some cheaper) weaves, perms and braided hair extensions. Bold even!

The look incidentally took me back to the previous week, when I’d had a minor Facebook spat with someone about comments I’d made with regards to Black women and their hair. A dear friend had expressed her disgust in a post about Black women relaxing the hair of children as young at 3 years old. Invariably, the conversation shifted from its focus on children to a general debate on Black women and their hair. I got slated for suggesting that the Black woman’s dislike of her natural hair stemmed from a deep-seated loathing of its appearance based on a complex history and subsequent sustained campaign that suggested that their [Black women] natural hair was unattractive and needed to be managed. Some even use the word ‘tamed’. I certainly didn't think that Facebook, being the transient platform that it is, was the best place to have this discussion as it involved a deeper explorative discussion into issues of Black history, slavery, race, gender and identity.

Now anyone who knows me you will tell you that I'm a bit of a know-it-all and will readily take you up on any topic that piques my interest. Now the lengths to which Black women will go in order to change, hide, alter their hair to almost anything that isn't nappy is a topic that always piques my interest. Needless to say that I've had this discussion many times over however every single time I’ve had the discussion about perms and hairpieces with the Black women who wear them; the response has always been the same. ‘It’s [the perm or weave] easier to manage.’ I’ve often wondered about this particular response because it’s never made much sense to me. How could a weave or perm be easier to manage than one’s natural hair? After all, isn't it simple a question of applying the right amount of moisture (via water or product) and combing it out? Isn't it a simple matter of twisting it into a style or braiding it in corn-rows? What about Bantu Knots aka China bumps. Was there something I was missing? After all, I am man and these things, in particular, often seem overly simple to my kind.

But that day on set with my wife and the phenotypically perfect cast brought it to life for me. That was the day that I understood what was meant by ‘not easy to manage’. Okay, so it was almost time for pretty, girl-next-door with the rockin’ Afro to go on camera. Costume, check! Make-up, check! Hair…erm? It wasn't quite right and the Creative Director for the shoot (my wife) asked the hair and make-up artist to do her magic and make the hair look good!

All hell broke loose! The make-up artist approached the nappy hair like it was alive and growling at her. Never mind the stupefied, ‘what the f***' expression on her face, but no equipment in her box of tricks was tailored to deal with and defeat the fabled ‘nappiness’. Worse still, pretty, girl-next-door with rockin’ Afro had not been looking after said rockin’ Afro properly, combing only the edges occasionally and leaving the inner thickness of the hair to manage itself. The result was a thick tuft of hairdressing pain and misery. She tinkered with the hair for long while, twirled a couple of times, approached from a different angle and eventually decided she’d had enough of this hair melancholy. She simply didn't know what to do with this tangled mess of keratin atop this beautiful Black woman's head.

Luckily, my wife had recently ‘discovered’ her own hair and the countless ways it can be managed naturally thanks to www.naturallycurly.com; www.blackgirllonghair.com; etc. This new discovery came after many years of battling with different products and treatments to get her hair ‘manageable’ (code word for straight). The new-found knowledge was invaluable in that moment. Armed with a sachet of pure water and a wide toothed comb, my wife got to work on the hair and well within 15 minutes, transformed the seemingly ‘unmanageable’ hair into a beautiful bouncy Afro to die for. An extra 5 minutes to decide on what style to go for and another 2 minutes to implement the 3 or so hair clips that resulted in a lovely asymmetric hairdo that was eventually used in the commercial.

Yes, I know this example over-simplifies the debate and I certainly don’t expect all Black women to go around sporting different types of Afros. I’m (in an overly-simplistic way), trying to address the ‘difficult to manage statement’.

Let me be absolutely clear about my position on this debate. I believe that every Black woman has the absolute right to wear their hair however they choose to, whether naturally or chemically altered. I am not the hair gendarme and don’t intend to coerce or guilt anyone into conforming to any particular style or other based on MY belief system. YOUR HAIR IS YOURS TO DEAL WITH HOW YOU PLEASE. However, I am a black person and whether you like it or not, the way Black women wear their hair is of huge significance, politically and socially to me, my family and Black people in general. Especially when I get people commenting on the texture of my children’s hair (one having visibly softer hair than the other) and somehow insinuating that the one with coarser hair is less fortunate. So before you blow your top at the atrocities I’m spewing…take a Valium and chill!

I think one of the many problems; especially in this part of the world is not just a perception of unmanageable hair but also one of a lack of knowledge about how to properly manage black-people’s natural hair. Standard training for hairdressers does not include the proper management of natural black hair, with the proper products and techniques. Once the hair has been chemically altered and straightened, only then is it manageable.

One doesn't have to look too far and for too long to find countless articles and blogs about the history and politics behind Black women and their hair. The discussion is a heated one but despite which side of the fence one stands, the history behind Black women’s hair remains the same. It’s a shame that in Sub-Saharan Africa, history in schools is taught in an extremely narrow-minded and myopic way, exploring only the events and dates rather than a more holistic way to include the subsequent effect of slavery on the collective persona and image of the black person. An image that explores how 400+ years of abuse, subjugation, brutality etc. has forever changed the perception of the black person about himself. Slavery, its effects and aftermath in modern Africa are so much more far reaching than the dates we’re taught to memorize in order to pass exams.

Just to touch on my Facebook incident a little. This continental African who now found herself in America living the dream took offence to the fact that I suggested that Black women expressed a fair amount of self-loathing where their natural hair was concerned. While this is in no way the case for ALL Black women, there is a healthy body of literature and research to suggest that majority of Black women genuinely believe that they don’t have ‘good hair’. Good hair, simply meaning hair that appears straight and silky in nature. In other words, hair that looks Caucasian in nature. Rather than go into a long thesis about this issue, I’ll rather refer you to people who have studied and written about this much more eloquently than I could ever achieve.

'We have more disdain for our hair and do more to change its natural state than any other culture as a whole.'

‘Many African American women still think that the natural state of their hair is cumbersome, unsavoury, or even disgusting'

I can throw countless other references at you but I'll assume you get the point.

No doubt, before the imposition of the White man in the Black consciousness, Black women had so many styles they could achieve with their hair. I’m certain that as far back as hair has existed on the heads of Black women, they have found interesting ways to manipulate it for the sake of enhanced beauty and cleanliness. That was never the argument. What I am stressing in this case is the relentless need to chemically alter the appearance of one’s hair in order for it to appear straighter so as to conform to a standard of acceptance or beauty of a race other than one’s own. This dear reader, in my opinion, is a direct artifact of slavery.


So to the Facebook girl who offered me ‘several seats’ while she attempted to rip me a new a**hole with an inane and ill-directed argument, why don’t you take back one of those seats and sit right beside me so that I can educate you about your history. Of course, you, and every Black woman are and should be free to do whatever you want with your hair but also do yourself a favour…know your history, ALL of it!
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I want to know my hair again, the way I knew it before I knew that my hair is me, before I lost the right to me, before I knew that the burden of beauty-or lack of it - for an entire race of people could be tied up with my hair and me…

Before I knew that my hair could be wrong-the wrong colour, the wrong texture, the wrong amount of curl or straight. Before hot combs and thick grease and smelly - burning lye, all guaranteed to transform me, to silken the coarse, resistant wool that represents me.


I want to know once more the time before I denatured, denuded, denigrated, and denied my hair and me, before I knew enough to worry about edges and kitchens and bur- rows and knots, when I was still a friend of water - the rain's dancing drops of water, a swimming hole's splashing water, a hot, muggy day's misty invisible water, my own salty, sweaty, perspiring water…’


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