Saturday, 1 August 2009

A Sister SoulJah Moment on 'Good Hair*'


Recently I was talking about US comedian, Chris Rock's documentary 'Good Hair' with some of my peoples and we were discussing what hair signifies as a cultural statement about Black identity and femininity. While in America, Black hair is an outward symbol a history of African heritage, slavery, the struggle for civil rights and institutionalised racism, it is also a historical narrative of cultural trends of the 'hip' of a generation was articulated. For me being an African who grew up in Africa my perception of Black hair is informed by my history of traditional customs, colonialism and how global Black hair cultures translated into the African setting. I don't want to take up a historical perpsective but rather paying homage to history by having stated these things from the outset. My intention is not to be in conversation with the the past but remember these roots when engaging with the everyday; the here and now. I feel inasmuch as its important to be legitimated as a historicized subject located in 2009, it is equally important for us to look at ourselves as 'just people', informed and shaped but not always trapped in historical discourse, so we can find a different way of discoursing about Black hair. So from the 'podium of the here and now' I speak my mind.

I am tired of seeing the binaries of straightened/dread = fake/natural; why must it be that being dreaded or having an afro is an automatic signifier of being deep and wise. What is it that is 'natural' about having unprocessed hair, but still living in a modern cosmpolitan world? Is hair the only artefact of 'natural living'? Is having a weave symbolic of being 'mentally shackled' and having aspirations to Whiteness or is having 16 inches of hair weaved down your back somehow 'inadequate for the revolution'? At what point are the intellectual, spiritual and personal qualities of a person chiefly defined by hair? Hair is a social construct - just as a weave is a construct of urban culture, so are dreadlocks, afros, plaits with all their of connotations that are rooted in Semitic religion, traditional custom, resistance to conformity, Black struggle and Black fashion.

Historically hair as cultural practice on the African Continent was a considered thing of beauty and the centering onf one's spirtuality like among the Yoruba of Nigeria. A. Hardraacht writes,
"The hair on the head (irun Orí) is often likened to a grove that must be well maintained to hallow the sanctuary that the physical head constitutes for the Ori Inu, the inner head. This is why Yoruba women have traditionally regarded hairdressing as a mark of honor to the inner head (Araba 1978:8), apart from its social significance" (A. Hardraacht 2001/2)
Further down south, hair is also a cultural rite as among some Shona tribes in Zimbabwe it is customary for hair to be cut when one's father or husband dies as these are the leaders of the home in patriarchal society and their death is mourned and honoured through cutting the hair.

Rooted in ancient traditions such as these, African hair in the modern sense; is as much 'sacred' as it is material and aesthetic in value. Styles of plaiting hair are continually evolving, borrowing from the past and inventing something, its hard to keep up! The art, skill and speed it takes to braid is something to be revered and is a source of income for hairdressers across Africa, in general. Given that the salon is a creative studio for hair art, it is blatant ignorance to suggest that having long braided hair is symbolic of an internal desire for Whiteness when in fact it is not about this; it's a craft very much rooted in the African everyday and that is also reflective of Black hair global trends.

There are also practical reasons why people choose to wear their hair other than fashionable or lifestyle appeal a particular hairstyle can have. And so the defence goes; its for ease of managing hair - if its braided, locked or in a weave its easier than managing kinky hair, but kinky hair means less time and money spent in the salon. But then preference can sometimes outweigh this budgetary practicality. On the dark side of it, having straightened hair that may for some women be symptomatic of an internalized complex about Black while there is also a socio-historical villification of kinky or dreadlocked hair. This prejudice continues to play itself out today when having bongo locks can prevent someone from having a particular job because of the ridiculous view in the corporate world that its inappropriate. It is also displayed in social attitudes and the marketing of images where sheen n straight is beautiful but nappy is not cute and dare I say it 'native' or 'African' (in a derogatory sense). From the snippets I've seen of Chris Rock's documentary the self-hate in US society is entrenched so deep it can cause tensions in families; its an important dimension in African-American life which shows how deep history runs. I find it very sad and deeply troubling, but I don't fully understand it and not having 'lived it', its not my place to 'speak on it'.

Chris Rock's documentary like UK singer, Jamelia's hair documentary aired in the UK also explores, where the hair comes from, and after having watched Jamelia's show and hearing how she decided not to wear human hair because of the controversial nature of how its sourced I also chose not to wear 'human hair' but synthetic hair which is made in a factory. But even then what good is that if the hair factory unfairly pays its workers? And if they do, am I conscious weave-wearer if I still wear clothes and eat food that's not been 'ethically sourced'. And even then, what is ethical about 'ethically sourced' goods when it can only be bought by those that have the money and is it really consciousness or a mindset en vogue? Evenmoreso what does it mean in a capitalist world where profit margins drive the force behind this ideology? In this frame, having dreadlocks is again cast into the spotlight by the market forces of eco-consciousness as a trope of 'ethical living' oblivious to the deeper issues of the kind of class capital this image also articulates. Why not probe that too?

And in this process of exploring; the myth of depthness and struggle in dreadlocked people needs to be deconstructed to stop judging people on their physical apparance. I've known some pseudo-revolutionaries in my time who look the part because its the trend, but they don't read the news, they've never read a paragraph of Frantz Fanon's work, only rhymed his name in the music because it sounds cool. Or the sista, Nefertitti who hardly came to the classes I taught part-time on African literature and on one occassion when she waffled her way through an interpreation one of Ben Okri's poem, she came up to me at the end of the lecture and suggested we study Sizzla's lyrics as African poetry. I had no words. Don't get me wrong Sizzla is one of my favorite dancehall artists, but no, iCan't, iWon't, not ever in this class...

.......As a once dreadlocked now (synthetic) weave-wearing fashion junkie with an Afro-conscious, God-in-heart, revolutionary mindset, the question of hair is more about exploring deeper questions within myself; my self-image and how I see others in a non-judgmental 'ethical' lens and not policing the manner in which we as Black people wear and alter our hair.
*The concept of 'good hair' translates differently in the Africa context; its refers to thick, long hair, having bushy hair is admired as having the potential to become 'good hair' when its straightened, but when its unprocessed it is not looked down upon. However, in the US its fine, straight hair and bushy hair in its natural state is considered 'bad hair'. A small difference among many others worth exploring in a longer piece to come.


Anonymous said...

Whew! You sed more than a mouthful, more than a plateful, you gave us a banquet of knowledge on this subject with enuf leftovers to go into the next week.

I just think hair has a particular significance to all people. As for Africans in the age of Imperialism, hair takes on even more significance. Natural do's (other than the box cut and fade, for men) signify a rejection of white standards, whether the wearer cops to it or not. I have heard people say, with resentment (as if their hair styled itself) "These dreads/braids/etc. never got me a job!" I dunno how Africans can be so naive; post-racialism is only like six to eight months old.

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