Issue # 1 // March 2014
Imagine a giraffe dodging a bullet. Imagine how its clumsy legs and too tall neck would aid the shooter’s attempt at bringing it down. It’s too damn slow. ‘’Oh no I just mean are you going to do dreadlocks or are you going to leave it like that?’’. I calmed down and took my bullet back. He didn’t intend to be offensive. Sometimes, because my immediate world is shared with artist, writers, musicians and other conscious lefties, I make the mistake of thinking that everyone is like that. We were in Sandton City, the bastion of commercial prowess and the natural habitat of vanilla ambitions.
‘’I’m not going to do anything with it, the plan is to leave it like this’’, I said. And I walked off feeling irritated that I had to explain myself. Maybe it was an innocent question or maybe my instincts were right, to him, my appearance was incomplete. I went to share this moment with my friend, a friend who two months prior, had sat me down and said ‘’No you’re not’’, when I told him of my plans to relax my hair, when I had felt the same sentiments as the giraffe man about my natural hair.
I had asked him as a litmus test of how the rest of my conscious leftie friends might react to me relaxing my hair after 12 years of keeping it natural. In some of my circles, everything is political and essentialism is a salient member of the conversations, conversations that usually interrogate ideas around who we are, here and now. We are black and conscious all day.
Photograph by Antoine Schneck of Burkino Faso Exhibit
Last year I braided a Bumper Curl like hairstyle onto my hair and it ended up looking like a curly weave. My Congolese hairdresser decided it would be a good look for the glamorous event I was attending. On the first day, I Instagrammed a picture of my Bumper Curl Don’t Curr and raked in the likes and complementary comments from my followers, most of whom I don’t know. On the second day, I went to the event as someone’s date and when I arrived, I fit right into the garish aesthetics of Midrand, where the event was held. On the third day I met my conscious leftie friends for brunch and when I arrived, hoping they would say something nice about my hair, they all observed my new look and instead, one of them said ‘’nice dress Mils’’. I didn’t get the validation I had hoped for because the truth is, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this hair myself. I had been blinded by the exblockquotement of being the date of a guy who had told me numerous times that he just wanted to ‘’kick it’’, someone I had very little in common with, someone I was posing as a one night-trophy for.
On the fifth day, I woke up and cut off the hair. There had been a moment of clarity that morning when I couldn’t find a single outfit to go with this plastic mop hat. That afternoon I went to see the same conscious lefties at one of their houses. When I arrived, the others were there. Before I could say anything, they were huddled around the kitchen table, some of them hunched over with their hands on their stomachs, others with their arms outstretched trying to pity hug me and the rest literally running around the table, out of breath with laughter. ‘’What the fuck were you thinking?” was the general rhetoric and as we capsized with laughter, I knew that I was in the right company. That hairstyle truly was the furthest thing from who I really am.
Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua
So it came as no surprise that there would be judgment if I suddenly embraced the creamy crack, as if relaxing my hair would mean relaxing my aversion to pop culture’s promotion of a single type of beauty. ‘’Wow, the system’s got you too?’’ asked my friend, with a perplexed and plea full smile on his handsome bearded face. His response was extreme but I had anticipated it. I had known better than to come without preparing a list of my reasons. I zoned out while he rained on me, arranging my reasons and when he finally asked me why, I gave him my reasons:
I want to try a new look for the sake of the hairstyle
I haven’t relaxed my hair since I was 17. I’ve looped the natural, bald and braided looks since then and I’m bored. I just want to look as fly as Bee Diamondhead for once in my life.
Why can’t I just be free to do what I want? I’m a conscious black woman but why should that restrict my freedom to be cute?
Essentialism is the notion that there is a set of visible qualities that mark and govern a certain group of people or things. In order to be a member of said group, one must possess certain qualities. This is a very simple definition of a very complex concept, one that has been used to try to describe a ‘’collective black identity’’, which in and of itself as a concept, does not exist. That said, there are socio-economic and cultural trends, shared experiences and experience based insights that can be used to apply identity traits to groups of people. For instance, slavery and apartheid succeeded in naturalizing the idea that lighter skin tone and any quality resembling the constructed ideals of ‘’whiteness’’ was inherently superior, pure, intelligent, beautiful and more desirable than anything that was darker skin toned and further away from the constructed idea of ‘’whiteness’’. This was an essentialist notion because it purported that if your skin tone is this way, then you will naturally be all the things that those making the rules associate with that skin tone. Essentialism can be applied to gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation and class. It is essentialist thinking that maintains oppressive ideologies and policies of one group over another. All human beings have used essentialist policies to justify oppression of one group by another throughout history.
Regarding my choice of hairstyle, should I have to keep my hair in an Afro or plait it or braid some typical ‘’African’’ hairstyle to prove that I am black? Black people have had to fight to attain the freedom to exist freely, at least in the past 500 years. We have national and global icons who fought for black people to have the freedom to be. Biko and Mandela lived and died so that I could make choices as a free black girl, not to live a life restricted by the burden of being strong, resilient and hard done by as a black woman. I just want be young and wild and free like the white hipster kids who are perpetually Instagramming photos of themselves partying as if the world will end tomorrow if they don’t party it the fuck up tonight.
Does straightening my hair mean that I’m subconsciously self-loathing?
Black hair is versatile for a reason. There may be some people out there who wear weaves and wigs because they have an inferiority complex about the way they look, who may not see the beauty in how they were naturally created. There are others who are simply doing what their hair allows them to do, which is to try different styles for the sake of fashion and style. I’ve been wearing my hair naturally, with braids and plaits from around the continent. I now simply want to exercise the right to choose. Where does one draw the line? Have we not reached a time when relaxing has actually become part of the identity of black beauty? How many other races relax their hair the way we do? It started off as black people adhering to the popular white ideals of beauty but 90 years later, surely people have different reasons for straightening out nature’s doing/mistake.
I love you but who are you to tell me what to do with my hair?
The Hair Police have some good points to make regarding their observations about a white ideal of beauty being socially and economically preferred over other types of beauty. This is not a mistake. It is deliberately designed by a system that depends on making everyone feel like shit in order for it to survive. But I know the workings of ‘’the system’’ and I’m making an informed choice, not because I’m blindly following hairstyle trends. Winnie Mandela wears a wig. If this is about all black women in, does she of all people not deserve to wear whatever hair she likes?
The system my friend was referring to is the well-oiled machine that has for the last 400 years relinquished ‘’blackness’’ of value and instead, institutionalized the meaning and connotations of ‘’black’’ to equate to dirt, incompetence, lack of intelligence, poverty, the undesirable, underdeveloped, lacking, bad, corrupt, criminal, violent, overly sexual, beastly, animalistic, ugly and every other disparaging word one can fish from a pool of constructed negation.
The system is responsible for black South Africans normalizing the use of such terms (most of which are in Afrikaans) as ‘’kaffir hare’’, ‘’kroes hare’’, ‘’Bushman hair’’, ‘’steelwool’’ ‘’peppercorns’’ and other terms that deem the texture of hair undesirable. No one has ever said ‘’Oh that’s such nice kaffir hare you have’’.
The system is responsible for black South Africans problematizing their hair, thinking that their hair needs to be constantly worked on in order to be beautiful. I’m not the only one who used to think that I was ugly unless my hair was relaxed or something was done to it. Combing the type of hair that I have, type 4b, the hair that most indigenous Southern African ethnic groups have is like sticking pins in a sponge and trying to remove them simultaneously using vertical or horizontal strokes. Good luck. Historically, the Tsonga and Xhosa for instance, kept narrow combs stuck in their hair as a way of storing their snuff spoons, which were on the other end of the combs. Isn’t the severe pain that comes with combing natural hair an indication that maybe it doesn’t like to be combed? Evolution and mixing with other cultures is a good thing and I’m not advocating for people to walk around without grooming and with things sticking out of their hair, I’m simply saying let’s check ourselves.
The system is responsible for politicizing black hair, for causing Twitter wars between the Pro Weave and Anti Weave brigades, for polarizing black women’s choices according to hair type, for immersing the world in limited ideals of beauty and radicalizing the resisters.
The system is responsible for the widespread trend of transactional sex in urban metropolises like Joburg and Durban. Weaves are big part of attracting a certain type of man for young impressionable broke black girls. I have been told by such girls that they go to a club like Hush or Cocoon with hungry purses, show up dressed up with their weaves bellowing through the smoke and they make a bee-line for a fat pursed male target. Said target will invite the girls to his table, he will supply drinks, cigarettes and other accouterments and at the end of the night, someone with a sexy weave will pay the real price. These relationships continue, maintained by airtime, transport, money, holidays away, whole apartments, schoolbooks, cellphones and computers from the man in exchange for sex and company from the girls. The scale ranges from the airtime and data hungry amateurs to the Mini Cooper driving pro’s. Those guys are not looking to hold on to an Afro during meaningless sex, they are looking for sexy weaves to validate and hold onto their brand of masculinity. This story is so old and clichéd I wish it wasn’t still so relevant. And obviously this is a very generalized observation. This does not apply to all men and women who go to such clubs.
Photograph by Misha Taylor for Kisua
The question then becomes, are our choices really individual choices when we live in a world still largely dominated by white ideals of beauty? When the standard of beauty speaks to one type of aesthetic? What price are we actually paying for our flared choices? For the millions of little girls and boys who inhale popular culture and see long straight hair as sexy, successful and desirable, who is responsible for showing them that the opposite is equally sexy, successful and desirable? Is it the one-eyed media machine? Or is it us who have gone through the system that eats at our pride, the one that chews our hairlines? Is it ok for us to eat our freedom to such an extent that we unwittingly promote a perception that results in us looking the extreme opposite of what we actually look like?
There are no straight yes or no answers to these questions. Like all matters relating to identity, myriad complexities prevent the use of blanket rules for everyone. Nobody should tell you how to style your hair if you are a grown person – whether it’s your boss, a partner or your friends. That said, it’s important to make informed choices. It’s important to be able to discern between a funky fashion trend and subliminal negative messaging against your person, no matter who you are. Our current problem is that the majority of black people are singularly focused on the stylistic and trend related side of our choice and are oblivious to the ubiquitous agents of the system that exist to oppress them from the inside out.
Then I kind of changed my mind a few weeks later. Here’s the latest about #TheHairIssue