The connection between hair and identity |21 May 2022
The world celebrates Africa Day. It is more befitting to delve into one of the hair types that have attracted so much attention over the centuries, and that is the African hair. On behalf of the Seychelles National Institute for Culture, Heritage and the Arts, Christine Ouma tells the story of the connection between hair and identity within the black community.
The connection between hair and identity
It’s amazing the power given to hair in our cultures and society at large. Hair textures, colour, size, style and shape serve as definitive social markers, determining among other things one’s race/ethnicity, charm, beauty, religion, age and so on. Your hair is an integral part of your identity and especially so for women the hair is their crown glory. Being the most elevated part of the body, it is considered the closest to the divine. Your hair health is a window to your overall health. Hair brings a positive body language and confidence. Good hair gives you an extra bounce on your step.
As the world celebrates Africa Day, it is more befitting to delve into one of the hair types that has attracted so much attention over the centuries, and that is the African hair. The evolution has been viewed through the lens of self-hate, defiance, political implications and ideology to self-love, pride, identity and consciousness. Black hair in short has come the full cycle. The black hair has faced centuries old assault, while it may sound absurd now, for decades, men and women with African and Afro-Caribbean hair faced discrimination at the workplace. While most of these attitudes towards hair were steeped in racism, ignorance and stereotyping, there is a growing awareness and acceptance of the African hair textures and styles.
Why is the African hair so misunderstood?
The story of black people’s hair is rooted in Africa, the variety of textures range from deep ebony kinky curls to the loosely curled flowing locks. When it comes to black hair there is much more historical and cultural significance than meets the eye. When Europeans first came into contact with the African natives in the 15th century, they were astounded by the complexity of the styles, textures and adornment of the black hair. Due to the transatlantic slave trade, slave masters shaved off the hairs of the captives to erase their culture. With that the elaborate hairstyles that signified age, religion, marital status, ethnic identity, wealth and rank fell to the ground and distinctive humanity was shorn into anonymous chattel.
What was and still is an evolutionary genius of dense tightly coiled hair (perfect for insulating heads from intense sun) was taken out of context in the new world that African slaves found themselves in. Their hair was used to dehumanise their bodies. African slaves in foreign lands were faced with lack of herbal ointments, palm oil and the combs they used in Africa for the hairdressing. They were forced to use common western household products to achieve certain styles, instead of palm oil they used, grease, butter, axle grease and so on which were not ideal for their hair. With time, the African hair was perceived to be unmanageable, undesirable, unattractive and plainly ugly. The issue of bad hair and good hair became divisive and this was compounded by the skin-shade, hair texture hierarchy of interracial America. Straight hair and light skin afforded substantial economic and social advantage. Light skinned blacks were given less backbreaking works and brought to serve in the white households while the dark skinned said to have bad hair worked the fields. The divide remained after emancipation, so bad was the impact of the slavery era and the decades after that it set the stage for much of the negative stereotyping around how black people presented themselves that still persists today in some societies.
In fact, among the black communities after emancipation the comb test was used to gain membership into some churches and elite groups. The comb had to pass smoothly through one’s hair and if it was too kinky, membership was denied. The misconstrued perceptions about black hair reinforced by such practices and obsessive pursuit of unnaturally straight hair inflicted self-hatred to most black population.
The black hair because of its woolly curls (krepi/sek)and upward growth away from the scalp cannot be combed, styled or washed like hair with a looser texture. Once coiled, it is more susceptible to breakages, every twist in the hair presents a potential stress point hence the curlier the hair proneness to breakage. Yet the coiling makes it more amenable to styles such as braids and dreadlocks due to the curl pattern that interlock and tangle easily. Black hair requires therefore different grooming from other hair types. Hair and sexism ‒ words with derogatory connotations such as ‘nappy’ and ‘kinky’ were used to fuel prevalent ignorance about sexual deviance and undesirability, poverty, slavery, filth, insanity and laziness. Soon ‘taming’ became unacceptable word to use in hair products for African hair yet it had connotations of primitiveness and wild!
Boys and girls with black heritage are indoctrinated into the culture of hair and the black hair lifestyle from a young age. Mothers use the early years to style their daughters hairs and bond with them. For the boys, finding the right person to clip, cut or style their hair is very important.
Locally, a beautiful hair story is narrated by Marie Flora BenDavid, executive director of Lakademi Kreol who recounts her visit to China’s Great Wall in September 2011. She describes a conscious awakening and an embracing of and love of self. During her excursion a Chinese lady approached and touched her skin and hair asking: “Is it your hair? Is it real hair?” While this would be enough to put off most people not for the strong will Mrs BenDavid who invited the lady to run her fingers through her hair to feel the textures. In her words this was a moment of self-realisation and affirmation of her uniqueness, not that her hair defines who she is as she quickly affirms, she is not her hair! Her love of her hair stems from the fact that it’s her signature and personal statement of her world. She oozes confidence and pride in her African heritage and freedom to be her authentic self.
Hairstyles in Seychelles ‒ a brief history
An account of the hairstyles in Seychelles by Mrs BenDavid posits that due to the mixed races from Madagascar, Europe, mainland Africa, Asia the hair styles predominantly spotted in Seychelles were traditional plaits, pin on, trendy swoop, sleek low buns and its varietals (pennyen kanboul). The afro, braids, weaves, twists, bantu knots came from Africa while from Eruope came French bob cut, pin on haircut, chignon (pennyen sinyon), jumbo braid pigtail and so on.
For the male counterparts the styles echoed mirrored Victorian times (pennyen Lakolet) from the classic to the crochet. Accessories were also used as decoration or protective styles. Hair wrapping turbans, hats, scarf, wigs, hair pieces, sew-in in combination with other hair care trends and styles discussed further below. The hair types mostly prevalent in Seychelles include: long, short, matte, glossy, silky blond, straight, curly, wavy, coily and a fusion either combination.
Role of the media
Until recently, the otherness of natural hair had no meaningful representation in popular media, most lifestyle magazines, and advertisements from early years did not acknowledge the uniqueness of the African hair as it did not conform to the mainstream and Eurocentric definition of good hair.
Black women beauty was depicted as negative and most of the imagery from the 19th and 20th centuries reinforced straight hair as the epitome of beauty and as a consequence many people of colour opted to “play it straight” thus venturing into chemical and thermal options to straighten one’s hair. The photos below depict advertisements from the 1980s both of which promoted straight hair for men and women of colour as being glamorous and sexier.
It’s noteworthy that straightening hair and skin lightening were promoted by white-owned companies as the only way of affording persons of African descent class, mobility and acceptability.
Dark and oily skin was considered dull while lighter skin was fair and lovely. While perception on skin bleaching has changed and the practice even frowned upon, hair straitening has taken a tenacious hold.
Hair as a social status determinant
For black women particularly, long styles that imitated their white counterparts were considered well-adjusted by white society. On the other hand, black men who grew out their facial hair were considered uppity and wild. The desire to conform was thus used to dissociate from the slave class or what was considered ‘primitive’ and emulate modernity.
To the black woman the straight hair became the preferred look to signal middle class status. Natural hairstyles such as cornrows and plaits were thus disdained as they represented traditional order of things.
Hair and politics of resistance. What’s hair got to do with it?
With heightened frustration over racism, futile efforts to fit in just to survive, cultural shifts and political awakening in the 1960s, personal appearances became political statements. Hair became a way for blacks to reclaim their identity and defy the Eurocentric presentation of beauty.
Black is beautiful and afro hairstyles became a source of pride, agitation and an identifier for people embracing new ideologies. The resistance to the European aesthetics on hair grooming led to appropriation of dreadlocks that required no combing at all (I am not going to straighten my hair anymore) by Ethiopian warriors and Rastafarians, Maori warriors among other native groups. So powerful was the black is beautiful imagery that, Black Nationalist leaders such as Marcus Garvey said: “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!”
To the white supremacist, however these African hairstyles were misunderstood as a sign of masculinity and militancy.
Hair and religion
Many religions place hair at the centre of their doctrines. In Islam for instance women are encouraged to cover their hair as it is considered tempestuous to their male counterparts. On the other hand, male Muslims outgrow their beard and trim moustache to gain an identifiable look and masculinity.
The Sikhs consider hair as sacred and do not shave their hair and wear turban to cover it.
The book of Leviticus has instruction on Christians not to round the corners of their hair. Interestingly, there are arguments that the image of likeness of Christ has been altered and blondified to an extent that doesn’t promote acceptance of other hair textures.
Jewish men wear an identifiable cap over their head to show humility and identity, while some Hassidic women cover their hair. Many traditional practices also consider hair as sacred and can be shaved and offered to gods for cleansing while majority of African tribes shave their hair following death of a loved one. Babies’ hair is also shaved in some culture as a ritual to transition to another stage. In general, hair as a symbol in religion served to increase devotion and reminder to oneself.
The manner on which the hair was styled in traditional African families sent a message about a person. In some ethnicities, people shaved their hair clean after the loss of a loved one. While in some, men wore their hair in particular styles going to war to signal they were ready to die. Girls and women wore their hair in particular styles to signal sexual availability or not.
One of the most important people in the society to date are hairdressers. In traditional settings hair braiding sessions were a time of shared confidences, laughter or avenues for passing generational knowledge as a circle did each other’s hair. The salon chat has been known to help men deal with their psychosocial problems and who can deny the feeling of a good haircut?
To cut or not to cut for women has to do with taking control and starting over. Colour has been used liberally to signify personality. Naturally, the colour of ones’ hair is determined by the amount of melanin. The higher the amount of pigment in the hair the darker the hair becomes and with less pigment the hair becomes brown and blond.
To cover or not to cover was partly influenced by the narrow parameters of Eurocentric beauty standards that cast black peoples as not being beautiful. Black women therefore went from loving their hair, caring for their hair to covering up their hair altogether.
Because of the adaptability of the African hair, women such as Mrs BenDavid have been embellishing, adding length and styling in various ways. She cautions people to avoid the hair police trap, as she opines, straightening or relaxing her hair doesn’t mean she is abandoning her roots and does not deserve condemnation but rather is a reflection of a spirit of confidence, self-exploration and ability to style her hair in myriad ways. Her sentiments are powerful for black women in Seychelles and all over the world to not feel the pressure to adjust and fit in the mainstream Eurocentric confines and narrow lens of beauty. It’s suffice to say the natural hair movement has come of age and thanks to social media, people are getting more creative with several hairstyles. So, let’s get styling.
Historical events have influenced natural hair care and use of hair products. In the early 19th century, some of the procedures used to obtain straight hair included heated metal combs, relaxer kits, pomades, curlers and various chemicals. These procedures were time consuming and often painful, further most products caused harm with itchy scalps, hair loss and blisters. Hairpieces (wigs) later came into circulation and gained large acceptance that was before the weave industry took off by the late 90s. The ‘Jheri’ curl hairdo would later develop but abandoned due to the cost of replacing lubricant stained pillow cases, shirt collars and furniture.
Attitudes towards black natural hair has since changed and most people have continued to embrace and reclaim their culture and identity by wearing their hair natural – love yourself love your hair. From early celebrities like Mohammed Ali to majority of lasses on the streets of Victoria. The move to live a more Afro-centric life is a step towards self-determination. Mrs BenDavid decries the ignorance among most non-black people on the maintenance needs of African hair. In her words “we spend money and time to create the look that best expresses our identity”.
Tapping into this awakening are businesses that now offer a wide range of products for natural hair. The natural hair products is a multi-billion sector.
Natural hair at workplace
Hair styles shape how people see you before you even open your mouth. A study in 2016 called ‘The Good Hair’ study measured perception towards natural hair and astonishingly, the results echoed the concern that biases still exist against natural hair. The study showed that on average, black women felt more anxiety about their hair than white women and spent more time and money on grooming rituals and hair products.
They also perceived a level of social stigma due to white beauty standards, conversely white women in the study also rated natural hair as less beautiful and less attractive and less professional than straight hair.
Black hair today and hair policing
The conversation around black hair, styles and popular trends today has become politicised as societal standards of ‘normal’ hairstyles continue to exclude black people. The implication is that black women and children are particularly being punished/discriminated for their hairstyles be it at work, school, army or sports. At a personal level, it is important not to judge people by their hair and to contextualise hair styles fairly and in a more reflective manner rather than reactionary.
Noticeable in the USA legislation through the Crown Act (Creating Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) prohibits racial discrimination on the basis of a person’s hair. In the wake of global awareness against racism and Black Lives Matter movement, it is important that legislations and the society at large recognise that discrimination is not just based on someone’s skin colour. The African hair has come full cycle and however more awareness is needed to empower black people to show up to work and schools as their most authentic selves.
By Christine Ouma
For Seychelles National Institute for Culture, Heritage and The Arts