African hair: Sto­ries of re­silience and cre­ativ­ity

Lesotho Times - - Leader - Ros­abelle Boswell Boswell, Pro­fes­sor of An­thro­pol­ogy and Ex­ec­u­tive Dean of Arts, Nel­son Man­dela Metropoli­tan Univer­sity

UNTANGLING the racial politics of hair has pre­oc­cu­pied ca­sual ob­servers and so­cial an­a­lysts for cen­turies.

Cut­ting edge an­thro­po­log­i­cal analy­ses sug­gest that con­tem­po­rary hair styling is about “fash­ion­ing fu­tures ” since African iden­ti­ties are “works in progress that refuse to be im­pov­er­ished by di­chotomies ”.

How­ever hair is also about the past and, specif­i­cally, cul­tural her­itage. It is both tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble, a pal­pa­ble thing that has long term sym­bolic value. As a change­able part of the hu­man body, hair has long been mod­i­fied for aes­thetic and other ends. But skewed power struc­tures en­trenched by racism and sex­ism have meant that women, and par­tic­u­larly women of colour, have borne the brunt of stereo­typ­ing and prej­u­dice. Even so, hair re­veals the di­ver­sity of hu­man his­tory and cul­tural cre­ativ­ity.

Pro­foundly po­lit­i­cal

The politics of hair has deep roots. Ri­tu­ally cleans­ing them­selves, an­cient Egyp­tian priests would shave their bod­ies and pluck their eye­brows ev­ery other day. In an­cient Ghana, his­tor­i­cal hair groom­ing in­volv­ing hair combs and pins re­vealed lead­er­ship and sta­tus , while in nine­teenth cen­tury Mada­gas­car the Tsim­i­hety did not cut their hair, pre­sent­ing their tresses as a sign of their in­de­pen­dence. Amer­i­can slave traders, on the other hand, shaved their cap­tives’ head s sup­pos­edly to cleanse them. For many Africans, that act fur­ther stripped them of their dig­nity and sym­bol­ised cul­tural death.

In Europe and around the same time that the slave trade “boomed”, elab­o­rate hair­styles flour­ished. This led to changes in Euro­pean hair her­itages. In­creas­ing num­bers of Euro­pean men and women wore wigs and heavy makeup to sig­nal their new­found wealth and sta­tus. Pow­dered and care­fully coiffed, the wigs con­cealed un­de­sir­able odours and emerg­ing ail­ments. En­tire ret­inues of peo­ple were re­quired to de­sign, main­tain and style the wigs.

Euro­peans pro­moted and en­trenched racist dis­courses in slave and colonial so­ci­ety. In Zanz­ibar and Mau­ri­tius the short hair of African de­scen­dants was de­ri­sively de­scribed as pep­per corns or sugar, ma­jor crops of the slave colonies. In South Africa, racist ref­er­ences to kort kop (short head) links short hair with in­fe­rior in­tel­li­gence. The as­so­ci­a­tion of short hair with de­fi­ciency even makes it into song “jou hare kan nie pom-pom nie” (your hair can­not be tied in a bun).

Hair ac­quires new mean­ing

But hair­styles are ac­quir­ing new mean­ing. In Mada­gas­car women wear “braids of love” to sig­nal (from afar) a woman’s sole in­ter­est in mar­riage. At mar­riage, a woman will ask her sis­ter-in-law to braid her hair to sym­bol­ise the strength­en­ing of the mar­i­tal bond be­tween the fam­i­lies.

Many Africans liv­ing in Amer­ica to­day (and many African South Africans) wear their hair in dread­locks to pub­licly val­i­date the nat­u­ral tex­ture of their hair and sym­bol­ise a re­turn to roots. Women ev­ery­where are relin­quish­ing “white crack” — chem­i­cal re­lax­ers.

In­creas­ingly, peo­ple are de­lib­er­ately set­ting out to show that they don’t as­pire to “western” ideas of beauty. The Himba peo­ple in Namibia braid and colour their hair and body with but­ter, fat and ochre. The mix­ture beau­ti­fies and pro­tects their skin from the sun. Himba women may take up to 12 hours to do their hair.

In­nu­mer­able vari­a­tions of corn­rows and dread­locks in South Africa, Malawi, Le­sotho and Botswana also show­case the di­ver­sity of hair her­itage in south­ern Africa.

As a black woman who has done some in­ter­est­ing things to her own hair, I would say that hair her­itage is pro­foundly gen- dered. It re­flects not only racism but the im­pact of pa­tri­archy in so­ci­ety. Many rit­u­als of wom­anly beauty, in­clud­ing hair styling, in­volve mak­ing a woman look younger. Ful­fill­ing a pa­tri­ar­chal de­sire for youth­ful­ness, women have en­dured the chal­lenge of ac­quir­ing longer hair. Any­one who has had their hair braided in sin­gles or corn­rows knows about wait­ing for the “tight­ness” to sub­side and the fact that the pain might drive you to find a tooth­pick to loosen those un­happy baby hairs.

Clearly then, there is more to hair politics than hair straight­en­ing. What about the as­so­ci­a­tion of hair­less­ness with fem­i­nin­ity in the “Brazil­ian”? Women of all colours rou­tinely re­quest a “Brazil­ian” or a “Hol­ly­wood”, rit­u­als of in­ti­mate de­pila­tion and pu­rifi­ca­tion. Con­tem­po­rary women re­gard­less of colour are mod­i­fy­ing the hair they in­her­ited. Bil­lions sub­ject them­selves to pluck­ing, wax­ing, tint­ing, elec­trol­y­sis, crimping and perming.

In­ter­est­ingly, the rise of man­scap­ing sug­gests that women are not alone in this hair styling frenzy. Long held mas­cu­line hair her­itages and hairy re­asser­tions of man­hood seem to emerge in times of cri­sis.

The role of glob­al­i­sa­tion

Pre­dictably, im­mi­gra­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion are di­ver­si­fy­ing hair her­itages. Moroc­can bar­bers have im­ported male nose and ear wax­ing to South Africa. The in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar mixed mar­tial arts trend, mean­while, is en­cour­ag­ing an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of beard grow­ers.

Given the rapid pace and in­ten­sity of glob­al­i­sa­tion, global trends may over­come lo­cal prej­u­dices. The rise of met­ro­sex­ual mas­culin­ity might well en­cour­age more rit­u­al­is­tic wax­ing of backs, cracks and sacks. Un­til then, things re­main un­equal.

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