The Playfulness and Politics of Black Hair

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Black hair is political. From Angela Davis’ ‘fro to Rastafarian dreadlocks; black hairstyles are weighted with the cultural histories and struggles of the liberation of black people. As a black woman, I’ve come to learn that our hair will often be a bone of contention; something to ogle at and discuss at great length. Whether braided or wearing a twist-out, my hair is one of the ways in which I can convey my wonderful complexities and pride. It’s also sometimes not that serious.

Wearing your hair in its natural state garners immediate assumptions, some of which are offensive. The recent case of black hair outrage features Zendaya Coleman, who dared to wear dreadlocks to the Oscars. Commentators asserted to millions of viewers that they thought she probably “smelt of weed." The negative has been laboured on to my hair too many times to mention! In contrast, I often receive warm murmurs of “yes sistrin” or appreciative nods of solidarity at the sight of my natural hair. Black women have yet to earn the privilege to wear their hair without the need to defend it. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie succinctly puts it; “If Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barack Obama would not have won.” The black community itself has struggled with its own characterisation of what it deems “Good Hair,” as Chris Rock’s movie of the same title explores.

It’s rather myopic to merely see the negative, given the vast open conversations that are being had about black women’s hair. Movements like #teamnatural, bloggers like Natural Belle and websites like Thandie Kay now contain feeds dedicated to the communal celebration and education of a myriad of curl patterns, ethnicities and shades that make up the black community. The theme of playfulness dominates quite prevalently within these communities; they understand the historical context of hair but, rejoice in the freedoms and irreverent nature of simply having fun with different styles. Furthermore, black female run businesses have sprung up offering pomades, oils, wigs and weaves; all of them in some way taking ownership of their identities.

The media too is embracing a more authentic depiction of black womanhood. A recent example of this can be found in Shonda Rhimes’ ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, in which we see Viola Davis’ character remove her wig and make-up on screen. Demystifying the black woman; intimately depicting her natural beauty; presenting her as a fully-formed person is essential to the collective black self esteem and an imperative education for those who fetishise us.

As Chimamanda so elegantly addresses in Americanah, hair has become a catalyst for discussions on the multifaceted layers of blackness, womanhood and playfulness. It is imperative that this irreverent playfulness, often overlooked in discussions of black hair, is highlighted. We have been afforded the wonderful gift of playing with hair in an almost sculptural format and soon the discussions surrounding it will become more abstract and fantastically normal.


Bwalya Newton