“The child is taught directly or indirectly that he or she is pretty, just in proportion as the features approximate the Anglo-Saxon standard. Hence flat noses must be pinched up. Kinky hair must be subjected to a straightening process—oiled, and pulled, twisted up, tied down, sleeked over and pressed under, or cut off so short that it can’t curl, sometimes the natural hair is shaved off and its place supplied by a straight wig…Now all this is very foolish, perhaps wicked, but under the circumstances is it very natural.”
—Martin H. Freeman, Anglo-African Magazine, 1859
If you follow natural hair news, you’ve probably heard about how a Brazilian civil court fined Sony Music $1.2 million for distributing the kinky hair-hating hit song “Veja os cabelos dela” (“Look at Her Hair”) because it violates the country’s hate speech laws. Here’s an excerpt of the costly ditty by politician and former circus clown Tiririca, translated from Portuguese:
“Look, look, look at her hair/It looks like a scouring pad for cleaning pans/I already told her to wash herself/But she insisted and didn’t want to listen to me/This smelly negra (Black woman)…”
While I don’t trust courts of law to regulate song lyrics, I admit I’m intrigued by the idea of a major corporation actually losing money for selling hateful messages about Black women and our hair. After all, more than a century after the end of chattel slavery and some 50 years after the decolonization of much of Africa, conventional wisdom still tells us that tightly coiled hair is an ugly, shameful, unprofessional, unclean, thing to be “fixed.” The complete story of how we got here is too long and complicated for a blog post. But I think it’s important to highlight a key reason why hair is so important to us. And no, it’s not because we want to be White.
In Hair Story, the definitive popular history of our strands, authors Ayana D. Byrd* and Lori L. Tharps break down the significance of our hair before we were enslaved in the Americas and colonized in Africa:
“In the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. The citizens of these societies—including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba–were the people who filled the slave ships that sailed to the “New World.” Within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community. In some cultures, a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle. The hairstyle also served as an indicator of a person’s geographic origins.”
For some 20 million enslaved Africans and their descendants (many of us, FYI), the destruction of our hairstyles and hair-care techniques wrought holy havoc on our sense of identity. Byrd and Tharps continue:
“One of the first things the slave traders did to their new cargo was shave their heads if they had not already been shorn by their captors. … Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons, but the effect was much more insidious. The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair. … Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.”
After the twin evils of slavery and European colonialism officially ended, a host of White supremacist laws, customs and media continued to dehumanize Black men and women in the African Diaspora.
For example, in Brazil—home of the world’s largest slave economy and the last New World site to abolish human bondage—the government created a post-slavery policy of “Whitening” that flooded the country with European immigrants, encouraged racial intermixture to “civilize” the nation, and systematically demeaned African traditions and features. In the Dominican Republic, which teems with the ancestors of African slaves but doesn’t include “Black” on its ID cards, hatred of Blackness is linked to its one-time occupation by neighboring Haiti. Brutal longtime dictator Raphael Trujilo defined Dominican nationalism through the lens of Whiteness and hair that isn’t kinky. Today, Dominican nationality literally rests on having straight hair.
So it’s no wonder that many Black women who wear their hair natural face street harassment. Listen to Carolina Conteras, a Dominican-American natural hair blogger who grew up in Boston hearing that she had “good hair” but now lives in Santo Domingo, where hair relaxing is considered good hygiene:
“Here, if you don’t do it you’re considered dirty. People you don’t know you will come up to you and call your hair ‘Brillo pad,’ ask you what voltage you’ve touched and say really mean things like, ‘You must be broke. We’ll do a telethon so we can take you to a salon,’” says the 25-year-old who blogs at missrizos.com. “To wear natural hair also means that you’re the weirdo in the room. It’s hurtful to live with this every day.”
Nearly 5,000 miles away from the Dominican Republic, Nigeria hosts its own form of kinky hair hatred. Africa’s most populous country gained independence in 1960, but many of her people judge their strands according to the standards of former colonizer Great Britain and the United States (arguably the world’s most powerful cultural exporter).
“We use pretty much the same terms as people in the U.S. The only difference I can think of is that we call hair that is closer to European ‘finer’ than our natural hair. That means ‘more beautiful’ in the local parlance,” says Natural Nigerian, a Lagos-based natural hair blogger who withholds her name because she works in a conservative environment. ”Even within the natural hair community here, there is a definite affinity for soft curly hair textures like 3b or 4a, which most Nigerians do not have.”
When I asked the 34-year-old mother of Igbo descent why a country with a Black majority would still subscribe to anti-kinky sentiment, she cited class and a supposed connection between tightly coiled hair and poverty:
“We live in a heavily class-ranked society where certain markers are used to define those that are in the ‘desirable’ classes. It is rare to find a working or middle class female wearing just her natural hair. She may be asked if she is ill or if she is having money problems. I’ve had close relatives say that it’s hard to believe that I am a college graduate because of my hair, and others have questioned my financial standing because they don’t understand why anyone who can afford a $10 tub of relaxer would rather go the ‘difficult’ route of leaving their hair natural. My personal hygiene was even questioned by a colleague.”
After hearing these stories, I’m tempted to think that African-Americans are more accepting of kinky hair. But in the United States, where having “one drop” of Black blood and telltale “naps” meant being vulnerable to lynching and unchecked rape, mass murder and false imprisonment, voter disenfranchisement and crazy-making Jim Crow segregation, that pain remains despite the brief respite of Black Power hair politics.
In 2012, we’re living in a Black hair funhouse where Nicki Minaj—a pop superstar who rocks ombre pastel Bride of Frankenstein wigs—spits lyrics like, “I’m the Terminator … These little nappy headed hoes need a perminator…” for screaming White fans. A place where we’re more likely to see Wendy Williams pull a Post-it note out of her lace-front on live TV than we are to see a Black female host wear her hair as it grows out of her head.
Even more disturbing to me is the sheer uniformity of Black women’s hairstyling in media. In hair color and weight-loss commercials, fashion spreads and model competitions, romantic dramedies and sitcoms, reality shows and music videos, about 90 percent of us are wearing some variety of bob wig or a long wavy weave. Sure, we can rationalize it as “protective” styling, but there is something fishy about how often we opt for looks that are biologically impossible for us.
After subjecting you to this treatise, I would love nothing more than to cite a cure-all. Sadly, I haven’t found one. What I can do is encourage you to read, think and talk about the roots of kinky-hair hatred, experiment you’re your hair as it grows out of your scalp, and take advantage of the thousands of natural hair blogs and vlogs that offer hair-care tips, styling advice and positive messages that transcend hair texture. As missrizos.com’s Conteras says, “Women are starting to question things, to love ourselves more whether our hair is kinky or straight. We’re making better decisions for our bodies and ourselves, and that helps us love ourselves—just as we are.”
*Full disclosure: I co-edited the anthology Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts with Ayana Byrd.
Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .