Black History Month: Who is actually perpetuating the politics of Black hair?

Stacey Abrams
We have not seen the last of Stacey Abrams and I’m here for all of it. Image courtesy of Stacey Abrams Facebook.

When I found out Stacey Abrams was running for governor of the state of Georgia, I was all in. I wrote this article about her candidacy. I volunteered on her campaign. I bought a t-shirt. And I made sure to get myself and as many others as I could down to the polls to vote for her each and every time a vote was required. I was incredibly excited to support a candidate with her credentials. I also loved that she was someone who had been working for quite a while to encourage more voter engagement and participation among underrepresented groups throughout Georgia.  I was, of course, super geeked to support a woman of color who could potentially make history as the first Black lady governor in these United States of America. However, I never once thought about her hair.

Yes, I noticed it—just as any person with sight is able to notice the physical attributes of anyone he or she sees.  But the fact that she wears her hair naturally never held any bearing as to what level of support I had and still have for her. Her with an afro, a wig, a weave, box braids, a fade or any other style would not change her record, her platform, or her potential in any way. Her hair was not going to be giving speeches or crafting legislation or seeing to the needs of her constituency. But not everyone has this similar view.

Last week, I was sitting and speaking with a group of women of various races, ages and backgrounds and one of them shared this:

“Many of my Black friends feel that Abrams could have won if she wore her hair differently.”

My immediate reaction was a dizzying eye roll. But then I thought more deeply about this revelation and I can’t say that I was shocked.

Honestly, living in Metro Atlanta is by-and-large not a realistic representation of the national American Black experience.  Atlanta today is very much akin to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance; peak Blackness is happening here all day every day. We’ve got hella Black colleges and universities. Hella Black-owned businesses. Hella Black celebrities. Hella Black wealth. Hella different types of Black people from all over the world. And hella Black cultural events and attractions all year long. Hence, having, wearing and rocking natural hair is no big whoop at all. We even have a huge two-day Natural Hair Expo each year in April—and it’s been happening for more than 20 years.

But I’ve lived in other parts of America where, even in large communities of color, natural hair is very much an anathema. While in Los Angeles, I used to rock a natural fade and one Black guy seriously asked me, “So, you just decided to do your hair that way or did your hair fall out from a bad perm?”  When I initially started growing locs, my least favorite aunt made a concerted effort to point out that I resembled Topsy and needed to do something about my “twigs.”

After moving to Las Vegas, those same locs had grown to reach halfway down my back.  I tucked them into an updo for a job interview and ended up getting the job. Later when I wore my locs down and visited the front reception desk, the older Black lady working there said, “I had no idea your hair was like that. You’re such a pretty girl. I know you’d look very nice with a perm or a press and curl.”

My natural hair styles have turned heads coast-to-coast from Pier 39 in San Fran to Epcot Center in Orlando—and definitely not out of approval. In fact, all of the disapproval I received was specifically doled out by my own people.  Which is crazy, because we get enough of this madness outside of the culture.

Think of the now-retracted ban on Afros and natural hairstyles in South Africa. Or the Floridian teen who was told that her hair was a distraction by a high school official.  Or that the U.S. Navy just recently began allowing natural hairstyles to be worn by its servicewomen.   Or the young wrestler who was forced to cut his locs for nothing.  Or the Mississippi Newscaster who was fired because her natural hairstyle was deemed unprofessional.  And oh God, I have neither the will nor enough padding on my fingers to hyperlink all of the other instances of natural hair discrimination that has happened in just the past five years let alone throughout the history of Black hair in the Western world.

Undoubtedly, there is far-reaching ignorance as to the mechanics of naturally coily and curly hair, so please allow me to shed some light….

Naturally coily, curly hair is the most fragile of all hair types because of its many twists and turns. The twists and turns, which I consider beautiful because of the rich, full texture they give to the hair, make it difficult for nutrient-rich natural oils secreted by sebaceous glands in the scalp to travel the entire length of the hair strands—thus making the strands more susceptible to damage. Those with naturally coily and curly hair supplement these naturally-secreted oils with other forms of nutrient-rich moisturizer such as coconut oil or shea butter or castor oil to keep their hair healthy, soft and damage-free. Another useful way to manage the health and wellness of such hair is to place it in a protective style such as braids, locs, twists, or updos. Wigs and weaves are also considered protective styles. Those styles which do not resemble straight hair are neither unprofessional nor unseemly. They are simply alternative looks which are every bit as attractive, alluring and intriguing as any other hairstyles worn by any other person regardless of color or hair texture.

Before people of African descent were brought West, and before European hegemony took root in Africa, natural hairstyles were as common and varied as the people and the languages of the great Continent. According to a book that EVERYONE should read, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps:

The variety of hair textures from western Africa alone ranges from the deep ebony, kinky curls of the Mandingos to the loosely curled, flowing locks of the Ashanti. The one constant Africans share when it comes to hair is the social and cultural significance intrinsic to each beautiful strand. In the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. The citizens of these societies—including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba—were the people who filled slave ships that sailed to the “New World.” Within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community. In some cultures, a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyles.

There weren’t any relaxers, Ya’ll. There was simply our curls and kinks and culture. And all of it was celebrated and admired and accepted because it was all beautiful and stately and awe-inducing and worthy of respect. So much so, that visiting Europeans from the 1400s on into the 16th century wrote home about it, Ya’ll.

The book goes on to explain in very vivid detail how Africans caught in the slave trade had their hair cut off as a way to erase their identity. It also discusses how naturally curly and coily hair came to be viewed as negative as it automatically denoted African heritage. Then finally the book talks about how Blacks strove in every way imaginable to adopt hairstyles that closely resembled White hair in order to be deemed more acceptable in American society and actually get a job. Yeah, the roots of this insanity run far too deep but I believe that we all ought to wash both our hands and our hair of it.

Natural hairstyles aren’t an affront to American or any other society. It’s simply what curly and coily hair naturally does. It’s simply what allows those of us with naturally curly and coily hair to maintain the health, fullness and vibrancy of our hair. For those of us who have a problem with what naturally grows out of our heads, we need to get over that…like yesterday. For those of us who know what’s up, tell a friend.

And also, Stacey Abrams, natural hair and all, is the bomb. #StayWoke

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