Many conversations with my friends and my mother all come back to hair. The topic of hair never gets old and I am blown away by how the conversation takes a different turn everytime we talk. I have had very affirming experiences with hair and I can remember my dad combing my hair or helping me take off my braids; hair became a huge part of our relationship. My mother has contributed a great deal to how I express myself and how much I love my hair, from a very young age I was allowed to choose any hairstyle that I wanted and before we went to the salon for our monthly visits I would dream of my next hairstyle. My hair was the very first thing that I owned and I am grateful to have a mother who facilitated such a relationship with my hair.
After years of experimenting with my hair, I decided to get dreadlocks and I was influenced by my three older brothers who had dreads. My high school had uniform and hair inspections every month or so and I remember feeling so confident that no teacher, especially the white ones, would tell me that my hair was not neat. This constant rhetoric of black girls not having neat hair is one that we are all so familiar with and it is deeply rooted in seeing black hair as dirty and different. My friends who had afros, braids, weaves and relaxed hair faced so much scrutiny for their different hairstyles and after many conversations it was decided that the two black woman teachers would inspect the black girl’s hair. So we had different lines – one for the black girls and one for the white girls. As we went past the teachers they either nodded or pulled us to the side. I don’t remember ever being told that my hair was not neat except for the few times that I had not twisted my hair.
I decided to cut my dreadlocks at the end of my first year and I remember looking at the mirror and not recognising the person I saw in the mirror. I remember seeing the shock on my mother’s face as she walked in on me cutting my dreadlocks off strand by strand. I looked away and carried on cutting, because I had decided that it was time for change and I had also felt restricted by my dreadlocks. I wanted to try different hairstyles and I also wanted to do something symbolic after what had been a year of thinking deeply about my identity, my surroundings and the world in which I exist. I felt different and I wanted my hair to reflect that.
I had never anticipated that cutting my hair would force me to think deeply about beauty and the politics of hair and femininity. After I had cut my hair, many people asked why I had cut my long dreadlocks; some asked for my dreadlocks and some even consoled me saying that I still looked beautiful even with short hair. Having short hair forced me to look at myself without my hair and to claim that beauty that was not affirmed by what I saw in magazines, on television and on social media. I also decided to wear bolder lipstick to make my face bolder, and brighter. I felt that I needed to compensate for the lack of hair on my head and for appearing “less feminine”.
Black hair is political.
Although I have had many affirming experiences with hair and have felt that my hair was the one thing that I could own, I think of how our hair also speaks to how black women’s bodies are perpetually examined to keep in them in check with what is neat and other standards that are set by those who do not understand our hair. Walking through those doors after assembly and being inspected gave me so much anxiety over my hair was good enough and if it was not, I would be punished.
Cutting my hair was the best thing I could have done because although, I had dreadlocks they were long and fit in with the standard of long hair being beautiful. Kathleen Cleaver of the Black Panther Party asserts that: “We’re born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this.” The “black is beautiful” campaign which started in the 60s and not only influenced African American Americans, but black South Africans through the Black Consciousness Movement wanted to dispel the notion that black people’s natural features like their skin, hair and facial features were inherently ugly.
Hair becomes then a canon to talking about racism, ownership, womanhood and black consciousness. These conversations about hair are crucial for our healing and imagining a liberated society