I was in the 7th grade the first time I learned about the Soweto Uprising, the 1976 protest of South African high school students against the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. My music teacher, a staunch pan-Africanist, had us watch “Sarafina” over a few classes, pausing at the most pertinent parts to discuss the social and cultural implications. When I reflect on the most meaningful moments during my primary education, that one tops the list. “Language is the hallmark of a culture,” Mr. Charlo told us. He continued explaining how forcing oppressed people to communicate in the language of the oppressor was the one of the most effective tools in forced assimilation.
At 12-years-old, I sat in the middle of that classroom and cried. My parents had taught me about Nelson and Winnie Mandela. I knew what apartheid was. Earlier that same year, I had watched the news as Black South Africans clambered to the polls to cast their historic votes for Mandela. This was the first time, though, that I understood what apartheid, and in hindsight racism, really meant. It was the systematic erasure of Blackness, demonizing everything about our kinship and cultural heritage – language, art, skin, features, familial structures – in order to break us, like mules, and consequently construct a society where we accept and participate in our own subjugation.
I had never thought much about Black people in this country speaking English. I suppose it made sense – whatever sense can be made of colonialism and indoctrination – that Black Africans transported from Africa to the Americas and Europe would be forced to learn a new language. But Soweto was in Africa. I had always imagined that, for whatever invasion and colonization that plagued the motherland, it was still a symbol of uncompromised Blackness. That day I learned that white supremacy infects and flourishes, even when engulfed in Blackness.
I was reminded of that lesson this week when news that Black South African girls, students at the private Pretoria School for Girls, were protesting because they “were forced to chemically straighten their hair and not have afros that were deemed untidy.” The all-girl school, founded in 1902, only began admitting Black students in 1994 with the official abolishment of apartheid. The school’s Code of Conduct states that “cornrows, natural dreadlocks and singles/braids (with or without extensions) are allowed,” but notes that “cornrows must run parallel from each other from the forehead to the nape of the neck. No patterned cornrows.”
Pretoria high students take stand over school wanting them to relax/straighten their hair because it looks 'untidy' pic.twitter.com/SZY0SxZmrW
— Samira Sawlani (@samirasawlani) August 28, 2016
Despite the school’s documented policy, Malaika Eyoh, a student in grade 12 at the school, penned an essay detailing several instances of Black students being targeted, reprimanded and humiliated for their hair. In her disturbing recounting, Eyoh describes the school’s pattern of discrimination toward its Black students, stating, “There are more incidents than pen can put to paper, but all of those experiences are valid.” She outlines an instance when one of the students was told she had “kaffir hair” (Kaffir is a racial slur in South Africa akin to the n-word.). Another student was told that she had to “fix” her hair before she would be permitted to take an exam. According to Eyoh, such instances are common, occurring on a “weekly basis” at Pretoria School for Girls. Seeming to corroborate Eyoh’s claims, one student tweeted that one girl’s “dreadlocks were cut in front of everyone during assembly.”
How do Black people need permission to wear Black hairstyles in a country where they were born and are as natural to the environment as any flora or fauna? How is it that Black hair isn’t even acceptable in Africa, the birthplace of Blackness? Why would there be a need to explicitly permit Black hairstyles, calling them by name, in a place where they naturally exist? These are riddles only answered by the inexplicable and pervasive audacity of white supremacy, with its limitless reaches and cancerous domain.
Black women and girls all over the world are punished for the hair that grows from our scalp. We often spend four years in college learning to embrace our kinky, curly or coarse hair, only to enter a job market that hasn’t learned to do the same. Black girls are being suspended from school, literally missing instruction, for wearing their natural hair. We are accused of being unkempt and neglectful when adorned with healthy, full afros that we spend hours maintaining. Braids we sit half a day to have installed — each part perfect, each braid uniform — are deemed ghetto and unprofessional. And then, after we’ve spent years being ridiculed and penalized for our styles, non-Black women come along and copy us, feigning originality with rebranded names, only to have their unflattering imitation labeled “edgy” or the “hottest new trend.” Or even when the names are preserved, the Black bodies attached the Black hair that perfected the styles aren’t good enough.
Regulating Black hair is regulating our identities. Our hair is our cultural currency. We negotiate kinship through it. We establish who we are with it. It is one of the most universal markers of who we are. Yet, still, even in a country where our Black bodies and the hair that comes from them belong indisputably, Black hair is othered and disparaged. When there’s a fight for Black hair to exist even in Africa, then it’s safe to say there’s nowhere safe for it.