‘’Your hair feels like dry grass.” That was one of the first insults that someone hurled at my hair. She would touch my hair and repeat this sentence to all present. I was furious and thus I started my journey into hair damaging at its best by constantly covering it with wigs and weaves and frying it with cream relaxers.
This is one of the first dilemmas that black people face: do I let people touch my hair and under what circumstances? The question, “can I touch it?” becomes one of the most awkward social moments and can break relationships before they even start.
This fascination with the texture of black hair is not new. During slave trade, white women would often hack off the hair of their enslaved female servants because it supposedly “confused white men”. On the other hand, white men themselves hacked it off to spite those they think were too big for their shoes.
Today, black women with nappy hair – that is, natural and chemical-free – are desirable despite the popular discourse to the contrary. It’s not just fashion or trends: throughout history, black women’s hair has fascinated artists and photographers and has been closely linked to radical political movements such as the Black Panthers.
A history of black hair myths
There are two main misconceptions that are worth understanding.
The first misconception is that natural hair is “dirty”. The second is that natural hair does/doesn’t grow (hence the obsession with hair length, hair extensions and braids).
Many black women and men who wear weaves and relax their hair will explain their choice by either saying that their natural hair is “unmanageable” or that natural hair is “dirty”. This is one of the most enduring stereotypes about black hair. Historically, the myth comes from images of the pejoratively named “fuzzy-wuzzy” that British soldiers who were fighting Sudanese insurgents in the Mahdist War sent home. This war, from 1881-1899, popularised the image of the wild Afros that people now imagine when they think of black hair.
These images are misleading for the simple reason that they suggest these Sudanese soldiers did not “dress” their hair or wash it, since in the images it often looks unkempt. Nothing could be further from the truth. Across the African continent, techniques for dressing hair were as varied as the hairstyles that they produced.
The “Afro” therefore is not some kind of standard African hairstyle. It is just one of several hundred ways of growing and maintaining curly hair. So, when a black person decides to “dread” or lock their hair, they neither need nor keep “dirt” in it to make it lock. Our hair (as does all hair) locks naturally when it is left uncombed or unbrushed.
The association of locks with dirt partly comes from the Caribbean where Rastafarianism emerged as a subculture. However, even in this instance, the misconception is that dreadlocks equal Rastafarianism.
Policing black hair
The myths about how long black hair can or should be are as legion as the myths that natural hair is “dirty”. The misconception partly comes out of the concept of measurement. Natural African hair is curly and so to measure it, one would have to stretch out the coils. How would you know – without uncoiling it – how long a black person’s hair is? One black person’s coiffure will look very short because of “shrinkage” and another black person’s locks will look very long because of a loose coil.
The notion that long black hair is or should be cut or trimmed to an “acceptable” length is just ignorance masquerading as “neatness”. No two black people’s hair “grows out” the same.
Conservative institutions – schools, militaries, corporations and so on – have the right to prescribe a dress code. However, these should not be based on partial knowledge where these institutions simply don’t do any research into what some of their prohibitions actually mean and instead rely on “common sense especially on black hair”. Caucasians do dye their hair whenever they wish in so why it should be a problem for black brothers and sisters if they wish to have braids, afro or locs?
Unfortunately, when it comes to black hair, “common sense” is the least reliable tool for decision-making, since even black people are constantly changing their minds about what they want to do with their hair. As an expression of our culture, black hair is as malleable and plastic as our ideas about it. To attempt to fix such expressions in rules and regulations is to deny black people what the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop called our “Promethean consciousness”. As black people, our hair is an expression of the infinite possibilities that emanate from this creative and daring consciousness.
You will be pleased to know I am done frying my hair with chemicals and started on a dreadlock journey. Needless to add my locs are neat, clean and very professional. Embrace whatever style you want but be true to yourself. Let’s learn to accept people as they are.