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Minna Salami

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Hair-Raising Conversations

Posted: 06/08/2012 00:00

Hair may be seen as a woman's crowning glory, but in African heritage societies it is much more than that. In all its variations: extended, plaited in an endless variety of patterns, decorated with cultural adornments, locked, naturally loose, sparkling with oil or carefree and frizzy, black hairstyles and particularly women's are not only a question of style and beauty but also of culture, politics and history.

The hair conversation-so common amongst black women that it is tiresome to others and to some black women themselves-is actually one that I believe is not only desirable but also important.

When black women discuss hair, we are talking about aesthetics but we are also in often-subtle ways discussing political, socio-cultural and historical events.

Implied in our conversations are a myriad of stories, historical and contemporary. From the vast numbers of Afro-wearing black women who until this day are harassed by police or airport security to the 'good hair'-phenomenon to beauty ideals.

When we talk about hair, we are also analysing career choices; coming to grips with whether and/or why it is still considered unprofessional in some circles to wear an Afro or locks.

We are reassuring each other that we won't judge each other by how we wear our hair. As singer Erykah Badu, whose career has seen her both in many hairstyles as in hair controversies, said, "Everyone with locks ain't for the cause, and everyone with a perm ain't for the fall".
We are posing questions.

Straight hair is polished and curly hair is wild, is that a fact or a lie? Why is it that in the 21st century, relaxers and weaves are standard hairdos for a majority of black women with the sales of home relaxers totalling approximately $50 million a year in the US alone?

Why are black women who wear their hair naturally seen to be non-conformist and radical?

Why are black women with straightened hair more visible in the corporate world, in pop culture, as broadcasters, in the White House?

When we ask our friends and acquaintances how long they have been natural, or cropped, or locked, their answers also tell us other things; they reveal how society has reacted to various hair choices.

A study in 2006 conducted by the University of Alabama, showed that hair texture was perceived as even more important for society's approval than skin colour, which indicates that a dark complexion person with straight hair might at times have an advantage over a lighter skinned person with tight curls.

"If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed," the comedian Paul Mooney said in the documentary "Good Hair". "If your hair is nappy, they're not happy."

Anyone who thought such preconceptions were outdated or irrelevant in contemporary western society would have been reminded otherwise by such events as Glamour magazine's editor saying in 2007 that Afro hair and locks were a big "no-no" in the do's and don't of corporate fashion, or, the negative reactions by some Republicans to Malia Obama's hair twists last year. One thing seems certain, as mane-queen Diana Ross said, "Hair has always been important."

As in other politics, where you have a spectrum of voters who debate, agree, disagree and share some values, black hair politics, too, is contrasting.

Not everyone finds implied profundities lurking underneath the conversation. Some find it to be superficial and exploitative. Why are black women so vain about their coiffures, they wonder? Are they simply more obsessed with their follicles than other women? They roll their eyes in a here-we-go-again manner as soon as the topic approaches.

Of course, the black hair conversation doesn't always escape shallowness, but more often than not it goes beyond vanity, it's something to bond on because it contains a shared cultural experience.
After all, we can't just go from believing that black hair is unruly/ugly/unprofessional, you name it, to loving our hair without some sort of discussion about the transitional process (literally).

There is a lot of pent up emotion wrapped in conversations of hair. Regardless of the style they choose, many black women still feel the need to continually justify it. When the complex social and political concerns that have to do with black hair aesthetics are no longer part of our social fabric, then I reckon the conversation will gradually fade out.

 

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