As always, it is an unusual, curious time of flux for African hair. A resplendent cover editorial of a model in a full Afro graces Kinfolk Magazine's 21st issue, her hair a textural, unmissable punctuation mark to complete a modernist tableau of fashion and interior style. Starting around 2014 and continuing with fervour, models across the diaspora stalked the major runways with variations on the same: wild fros, low cuts, twist-outs, and natural puffs a la Lineisy Monteiro, Karly Loyce, Poppy Okotcha, and company are an encouraging phenomenon to see. Wonderland Magazine's fashion editor Julia Sarr-Jamois continues to make her rounds each season with her maxi Afro wafting in the breeze. And although her on-screen TV persona rarely flaunts the look outside the privacy of her boudoir, it is always a soul tingling, heart warming thing to see the actress Viola Davis making her press rounds and accepting awards with her textural, rounded afro cut in all its glory.
Still, in 2016 a girl in South Africa can be banned from attending high school with her own, pulled-back afro which apparently disregards the school's tellingly vague dress-code. A Jamaican preschooler with a bouncy baby fro is outright refused entry into a prep school, the headmistress citing archaic nonsense about his hairstyle posing a cleanliness threat to the other children. And a Trinidadian insurance worker can find himself threatened with immediate job termination and legal action for sporting the standard issue low-top seen on his Indo-Trinidadian workmates. Where their coifs are highlighted in wispy bits, his naturally stands in tight curls at the top of his head, frustrating his superiors with its obvious 'unprofessionalism.'
Worse yet, are the irksome moments of cultural erasure which posits African hair and Afro hairstyles as everything else but. Kardashian 'Boxer braids' in lieu of cane rows (or corn rows as North Americans would say)? Or the debate around Marc Jacobs' recent use of candy floss-coloured locs on the SS2017 runway? The fuss naively revolves around the presence of the look - clearly a take on the hairstyle widely popularized by Rastafarian/Jamaican culture - on fair models and Jacobs' lack of associating the style with either people of African descent or with dreadlocs. All a smoke-and-mirror distraction from the real issue: how the very same style when worn naturally on the average dark-skinned person, becomes a thing of derision and scorn instead of a whimsical, ballyhoed source of inspiration.
Clearly, African hair is a tight, tangled mess of the discriminatory sort. Clearly, onlookers and wearers alike are confused when regarding African hair. Confused by what is acceptable, by what is fact, by what is fiction, by what is changeable, and by what is not. Jacobs' initial comments that his detractors should instead criticize women of colour for straightening their hair [instead of his use of non-dreadlock dreadlocks on the runway] attests to this. Even more confusing, was his recent about face and admission of a certain lack of cultural sensitivity.
Thus, a list of 8 hard truths on African hair to dispel some of the persisting stupefaction that abounds.
01. There is no singular kind of African hair
Tightly coiled. Stubble-like. Wettish and slick. Wooly and dry. Loosely spiraled. Knotted. Tufted. Wiry. Downy. Wavy. Matted. With as many variations on a curl as there are different kinds of people native to the continent, African hair in its untouched state is a splendid, variegated wonder. And this is without considering the multi generational effects of ethnic mixing - of both the forced and chosen kind - that has followed in the wake of centuries upon centuries of inter tribal African conflicts, migration, and most disturbingly, the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Trying to describe African hair according to a system of standardized classifications is akin to counting all the clouds passing in the entire sky on any given day. In other words? There is no way to make a generalized comparison of African hair to the straighter European or Pan-Asian forms without intrinsically changing its very nature. Thus, number 07.
02. Not all matted hairstyles are Dreadlocks.
Fact: all hair types can become matted if left alone for long enough, and the history of mankind has seen many other ethnicities besides those of African descent wear long hair matted in segments. Sometimes these segments are adorned and divided in slender bits, sometimes they are left to clump as they may. Indeed, various African tribes on the continent wear their hair in tightly coiled or loosely formed locs coated in all manners of butters, mud, oils and the like for a variety of reasons. Some Indian deities and sages have been depicted with their hair in a similar fashion, dating back thousands of years. Other Asians and even the early Europeans have all had moments in their history where tribal members are purported to have worn their hair in matted sections.
Such styles, however, are not dreadlocks. They are their own things, with their own cultural, ritualistic, spiritual or historical significance, and their own names, perhaps. Some are only worn by men of a certain age or group, others might be only worn by the women. However, when one refers to 'dreadlocks', or locs, or dreads, one is calling upon the specific, aforementioned Jamaican Rastafarian imagery and Afro-Caribbean culture that popularized the look in our era, aided in no small part by the rise of Bob Marley and conscious reggae music. Although contemporary takes on dreadlocks - and certainly those maintained by formal hairdressers - tend to be neatly sectioned and tightly wound, the style is generally marked by hair that rolls upon itself in a loose, circular form that might taper off in a pointed tip, or end in a coiled, blunt edge. Further classifications exist; natty dreads are usually those with hair rolled in a very free form manner (think of the Jamaican singer Jacob 'Killer' Miller), whereas bongo dreads might be the sort of locs which take on a more architectural dimension of its own, with more than one loc intermingling with each other to form wide, flattened sections or towering, tree-like bits, not unlike the remarkable dreadlocks of Steel Pulse's David Hinds.
03. African hair is not inherently dirty
When it comes to personal grooming, people can be dirty. People can also be clean. This is true across every culture, country, ethnicity, and socio-economic bracket that currently exists. The same can be said of different kinds of hair - some people maintain clean hair, some have filthy hair. But to ascribe the label of 'dirty' to people with African hair at large, is not only erroneous, it is downright foolish and myopic. In fact, because African hair tends to be quite fragile and can tangle easily (hence the locs), it needs to be regularly cared for, washed, oiled, aired out, and such. This is especially the case for those with dreadlocks. Generally a fuss free hairstyle, locs have to be maintained to at least a minimal level of care with regular oiling of the strands/scalp, routine washings and a thorough drying, lest they begin to rot and fall out, en masse. As such, most people with dreadlocks, even the staunchly fundamentalist Rastafarian types, will have pleasantly smelling, clean, and healthy locs for life as part of their general embrace of cleanliness and a natural, righteous lifestyle.
04. African hair is political
Apart from the instances of trade migration and cultural exchange prior to the 1600s, the existence of African descendants in the New World is largely due to the aforementioned Slave Trade and the latent effects of its dissolution. Indeed, much of what we now consider to be the great advances of Western modernity would not be achievable without the innumerable gains afforded at the expense of millions of enslaved Africans forced into labour across European colonies for well over 400 years. The intricate process of defilement, denigration, subjugation, and debasement required to maintain that system as a lawful, societal norm immediately resulted in an unending devaluation of most things 'African.' Especially as they occur on the African body. Hair, of course, is is the most visible of such things, and coincidentally, the easiest to tame and oppress into something less African.
05. African hair is a disturbance
Following from the above, to wear one's hair in its natural, African state without gross manipulations is to directly - and publicly - flout such devaluations. Even for the apolitical, African hair left to its own devices sends the clear message that subjugation will no longer be accepted. Natural hair is a disruptor that immediately forces society to either face or deny its own prejudices and stereotypes about people of African descent. As such, making a conscious choice to wear the hair naturally is also a recognition of the dangerous unknown; one can never be certain if life's opportunities repeatedly pass them by because they, "look unprofessional with that dirty, 'da-da' head." Conversely, wearing natural hair is an almost foolproof assurance that whatever advancements made, friendships gained, and successes earned in life, no guises or attempts to assimilate were needed.
06. African hair is a statement of acceptance
Consider the fact that a global, multibillion dollar perm, weave, and haircare industry was built solely to coax African hair into 'behaving better.' Or, in other words, to completely transform it into the best approximation of the more acceptable, straight and/or loosely curled European hair. Consider that, in the years before such an industry was built, enslaved and freed African women on some colonies were often required by law to tie their hair away from sight in kerchiefs for the purpose of appearing in a genteel and properly groomed manner before European eyes filled with disgust. Consider the equally disapproving and painfully judgmental gaze of those within the African diaspora who are viscerally disturbed by the sight of natural, African hair, and seek to reprimand the wearer by withholding social opportunities or interactions whenever they can. Consider, by extension, the many elders, parents, relatives, and friends who strongly caution their loved ones against wearing their hair naturally, because doing so will 'keep them back' in life.
Consider the many negative terms for natural hair: picky, nappy, too-too plaits, da-da head, kinky, dutty, gollywog, mop head, greng-greng, and the like. Consider the negative associations that are stacked against people wearing their hair naturally or in predominantly natural styles: drug dealers/weed smokers, wotless/worthless, wild/crazy, dangerous, ignorant, uneducated, hippie, artsy-fartsy, gangster, low-class or 'ghetto,' dumb, vagrant, smelly, dirty, filled with lice... The latter assault - an oddly common one vaulted at people of African descent over generations - is particularly confounding, given that lice can indeed find its way into natural African hair, but this generally tends not to be the case, again because of the regularity and cleanliness of African grooming habits, oils used, and the general texture of African hair.
Consider the fact that many hair dressers the world over simply are not trained to approach African hair with anything other than a perming kit or a hot iron. And by extension, consider that natural hair care products were not readily available to the average consumer until fifteen or so years ago. To consider all this, and to witness someone who chooses to wear their hair naturally, is to be in the presence of a person who accepts their own self and form in a fundamental way, societal scorn be damned.
07. The processing of African hair is tied to social integration
With all of the above levied against people of African descent who choose to wear their hair naturally, the choice to process African hair into a more European form is inextricably tied to assimilation and integration. Notwithstanding one's personal right to present themselves however one chooses, the fact remains that centuries have passed where Africans and their descendants were (often violently) barred from enjoying social advancements and accessing basic human rights because of their natural form and culture. The manifestation of this varies across the diaspora, but in all instances it led to a belief that the less 'African' you look/talk/act/behave, the better your already slim chances of escaping subjugation, and as is often the case in parts of the world, (and most frighteningly, in the USA) incarceration or death.
Hence the need for pomades, curling rods, heating combs & irons, cold-set curls, weaves, and such over generations. The reasons one might give for choosing to process their hair are often as varied and as complex as the process to maintain said hairstyles. Some say it is just a matter of personal preference. Others cite a desire to avoid being subjected to the discriminatory slights on a daily basis. Many wish they could wear natural hairstyles every day, but fear swift reprisals and setbacks in their careers. Individuals are often wary of being classified as a 'rootsy,' militant, Afro-conscious instigator because of their natural hair. Depressingly, a few even believe themselves to be less attractive with natural hair. And then there are the masses who simply do not know how to care, furthermore to style their own hair, so they choose to sport what seems to be more practical, albeit processed, options. In each instance, the reasoning stems from a need to simply get by in an embattled world that allows little equity for those of African descent - a way to belong, to get on with life without being singled out at every turn due to one's natural appearance.
08. The processing of African hair does not guarantee social acceptance
For all the attempts to change the appearance of African hair to something believed to be more stylish, normal, manageable, versatile, or professional, processed hair guarantees nothing by way of social acceptance and advancement. The sad truth is that although people of African descent with processed hairstyles may indeed 'get through the doors' where their dreadlocked, cane-rowed, or afroed cohorts are turned away, they often find themselves inevitably facing the same level of discrimination meted out to African descendants across the board.
They too, find themselves wondering if they are being passed over because of their ethnicity in a Eurocentric world or pigeonholed into the narrow, one-dimensional Afro roles. And they too, are ostracized in non-diverse group settings, quite literally the black sheep of the bunch. They routinely find themselves facing odd levels of dismay when their fairer, flaxen-haired cohorts eventually realize their cool Afro friends are still, well, distinctly African. And, like many primped and weaved women of colour discover when they treat themselves to a high end purchase in the nice part of town, they will be profiled and trailed around the store right alongside the questionable characters with the 'rootsy' hair.
Ironic, isn't it
EDIT: Within minutes of publishing this article, someone alerted me to this timely Wall Street Journal report on employees not having a right to wear dreadlocks to work.