- Category: Commentaries
- Written by Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
It is easy to point fingers and dismiss the artificiality of a discussion on hair. One has to however understand that this issue has a long history and is very much related to the negativity associated to the other African traits: thick lips, wide nose and dark skins. I have encountered West Indian women for example who are very offended if you tell them that they look African, not realizing that you, the person complimenting them are African yourself.
First of all the definition of “looking African” seems to vary depending on who is talking. A Windsor-born, Detroit-raised, African Canadian author told me that I looked like a regular Detroit girl. He told me that he would have never guessed that I was a continental African. Yet many Africans will see me and know from my demeanor and mannerisms that I am African.
When I lived in Cuba, all the Cubans I met refused to believe that I was African. They were convinced that I was a Cuban masquerading as a foreigner in order to take advantage of the benefits that Cubans were not privy to. Then I moved to Canada and most people I talked to thought I was born here.
Back in the 1700s, in order to justify slave trade, Europeans had to devise ways of dehumanizing Africans. It was done by maligning all things African, and all things that made the slaves identify with Africa.
The easiest target was to attack their looks and consequently their self esteems. Thick lips, wide noses, dark skin and kinky hair were demonized to the point where many slaves started believing that they were unworthy. Then the lowest blow was to take away their sense of identity, the ties that bonded them to Africa by successfully making the word African and all it stood for derogatory, displeasing and shaming. We see the result of this in many of our communities with all the jokes about “dark-skinned brothers” with “dark-skinned tendencies”. We also see this in Cuba where blacks are called negroes and mulattos but never just African-Cubans. There is also Haiti where there is a division of shades into mulattos octaroons, quadroons and going to the extreme of determining who is ¾’s or 1/32nd black. Usually at the bottom of the pyramid are the blackest looking, most ‘Africanized’ blacks.
Hence, despite the fact that they had encountered Africans socially structured, politically, spiritually, and economically organized, artistically wealthy with kingdoms, chiefdoms, military armies, traditional wear, elaborate hairstyles, dances, complex trading systems and varied architectural styles, in the slave masters’ eyes, the foreign born slaves were The civilized ones. The more of their African nature they shed off and replaced with European traits, the more ‘civilized’ they were. Divide and conquer always worked in favour of the slavery propagators and later on with the colonialists who just copied and pasted most of the methodology that had worked in the West Indies and America to Africa.
But unfortunately for the masses, long term negative portrayal has taken its toll. Africans were called ugly, monkeys, darkies and other more humiliating things. Like their counterparts in the Caribbean and in America, their physical features were made fun of, including their hair. It did not take long before many Africans were seeking out European enhancements in order to look better, appear acceptable and “modern”.
The conditioning of Black people, to accept European forms of beauty, as the model to strive towards started hundreds of years ago and has been intensified as the years progressed.
Black women’s hair is a multi-million dollar industry. The fact that certain chemicals are damaging is of no concern to companies, when the dollar is the bottom line.
Finally I want to dispel the myth that natural hair is a time consuming affair. Show me any hair that is not. Our ancestors walked about with it, styled it elaborately, plaited their daughter’s hair, and washed it all without modern technology. What did they have that we do not have? What I believe is many black women simply do not know how to take care of it. They are not to blame. How would they know if their hair has been permed from childhood? How would they know if everyone around them has a perm or a weave? How would they know if they were not taught the basic hair care lessons?
Black hair is not as complicated as it seems. Just as a black person with skin problems would go to a dermatologist that is an expert in black skin, it would also make sense to use products that embellish natural Black hair. One African secret that our ancestors used was black soap for the hair and skin. Then for the hair, and skin as well they used shea butter. Understandably the slaves were not able to carry these with them and it seems like there is a missing link when it comes to passing down the natural hair care tips but it is not too late to revert back to what God gave us generously in an unadulterated state. Being kinky haired is very much a part of being black. Short of saying with our actions that the creator made a mistake by creating us that way and we would like to re-create ourselves according to our own model, permed hair is destructive to our scalps and to our whole body.
I would love to go natural, but it takes so much time some would say. Well, here is an extensive list of simple styles to try: Afros, sister locks, yarn locks, wet sets, plaits, cornrows, Bantu/Zulu knots, finger coils, comb coils, two-strand twists, afro puffs, dredlocks (dreadlocks), and locs to mention a few. Just look at Alicia Keys. She could teach you a thing or two about variety.
Whatever one does with their hair is their own business. But there are some Black women who have been conditioned to believe that the only way to have their hair is the permed way. Some of them cannot even say that they do it because it is their preferred style. It is just what the world dictates. It is the only acceptable way. There are also many Black women who are tired of perms and weaves. They are tired of panicking every time mother Africa makes an appearance faithfully in form of growth that contrasts so much with the straightness on their heads. Many are contemplating going back to their natural hair. Why not? I say
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