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All About Afro: untangling the politics of black hair

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sue omar

London-based hair and beauty journalist Sue Omar is hell-bent on celebrating the black woman's crowning glory: her hair.

She will be exploring the mystique of Afro hair in a special six-part series for stylist.co.uk, kicking off here with a dedicated look at the politics of black hair.

French existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote in her feminist manifesto, The Second Sex, that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. If we decipher this ideology, it can be deduced that feminine beauty is a social construct as oppose to a direct result of one’s biological nature.

Living in a selfie-obsessed society that is laden with the pressures of filtered beauty, de Beauvoir’s existential notion of self-creation surprisingly doesn’t seem that far-fetched. It’s undeniable that we are more self-conscious about the way we look physically, now more than ever before.

As a Black-British woman with a Somali heritage, my naturally curly Afro hair has always played a major role in defining my own feminine beauty, and perhaps even my womanhood (if I side with de Beauvoir’s argument, that is). From as far back as I can remember, I have always struggled to understand the strands that shoot out from my hair follicles. After 25 years spent on this planet, the struggle is still very real.

Hair is a woman’s glory, and you share that glory with your family, and they get to see you braiding it, washing it, it’s a glory. But it’s not a good thing or a bad thing, its hair.

 - Maya Angelou, Good Hair

As much as I would love to blame the digital evolution for subconsciously helping me paint a picture of what ‘good hair’ looks like, it would be unfair considering that the internet wasn’t even a thing during the most influential stage of my so-called ‘becoming’. Growing up, I vividly remember wishing that I had super silky-straight hair that would dance beautifully in the wind as I hop-scotched my play time away.

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'I remember wishing I had super silky-straight hair that would dance in the wind as I hop-scotched at play time.'

Often, I would sneak into the girl’s toilets to unravel the braids that Mother had spent hours carefully crafting on my crown the night before. I guess I naively believed that if I let my locks loose, I would fit in better aesthetically with the other girls in school. However, unlike the girls that I aspired to look like, my thick, curly Afro hair couldn’t quite be tamed without my mother’s Midas touch. Looking back, it wasn’t worth the embarrassment or sabotaging my mother’s labour of love. What an epic fail.

Good hair means curls and waves, bad hair makes you look like a slave. At the turn of the century, it’s time for us to redefine who we be.

- Singer/songwriter India Arie, I am not my hair

It’s undeniable that black hair is a political topic that is heavy with historical connotations of slavery and black identity. According to the authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair, Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, the “shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves' culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair.”  

The act of shaving off the slaves signature hairstyles meant that the “Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.” Post-slavery hair relaxers straightened up the natural curvature of Afro hair, thus arguably representing a form of femininity that was closer to the ideals of European beauty.

Beyoncé celebrates black identity and Afro Hair on The Formation World Tour

Beyoncé celebrates black identity and Afro hair on The Formation World Tour

Moving on from the politics of black hair to popular culture, in 2014 Brookyln-based petitioner Jasmine Toliver created an online campaign to urge Grammy Award-winning mega-star Beyoncé to comb her daughter Blue Ivy’s hair. Toliver accused the songstress and her hip-hop tycoon husband Jay-Z of child negligence and allowing their daughter’s hair to allegedly suffer from a “lack of moisture”, causing the development of “matted dreads and lint balls”. Not one to sit out on a conversation about black identity, or women’s rights for that matter, Queen Bey unapologetically addressed the haters on her second visual album, Lemonade.

Formation was the first single released from the chart-topper’s sixth solo studio album and the hard-hitting video was set in a flooded New Orleans, just months after the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the music video, the Houston native makes several references to the Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to bring an end to police brutality.

Killing two birds with one stone, an image of Blue Ivy is flashed in the Formation video as her multi-million single selling mama delivers the punchline, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afro”. Targeted at scrutinizers such as Toliver, undoubtedly. 

Blue-Ivy in the Formation video

Blue-Ivy in the Formation video

Although Lemonade tackles topics such as infidelity and gender equality rather abrasively, it is in fact Beyoncé’s allusions to black hair that have popped open a can of worms, that of course sent the BeyHive (Beyoncé’s fans) swarming with suspicions. On a song titled Sorry, Queen Bey introduced her fans to an unidentified woman as she urged her cheating partner to “call Becky with the good hair”.

While the BeyHive try and figure out who this ‘Becky’ character is, the racial undertones in this line signify a much deeper message. Beyoncé’s naturally curly Afro hair is worn in braids on the album cover of Lemonade, which implies that if Becky’s hair is “good” then Beyoncé’s hair is, inversely, not so good.

Beyoncé rocks braids on the album cover for Lemonade

Beyoncé rocks braids on the album cover for Lemonade

As trivial as this may sound, it could be argued that ‘Becky’ represents perfection. Her hair isn’t kinky, coiled or curly. It doesn’t need to be protected with braiding or weaving methods. Her hair is the epitome of idealised feminine beauty. This spotlights how black hair is interpreted in the modern day, despite how far we have come from the oppression of slavery.

He only wants me when I’m not there, he better call Becky with the good hair

- Beyoncé, Sorry

From uncovering my own personal Afro hair tales to shedding light on issues that concern black identity and feminine beauty, I think it’s fair to say that there is much more to black hair than meets the eye. When we talk about Afro hair, it’s important that we delve deeper and explore not only its history but how we can change the way it is perceived both within and outside of the Afro hair community.

Afro hair is often misunderstood and labelled as ‘unruly’ or ‘strange’. According to award-winning Afro hair stylist and owner of Hair Lounge, Charlotte Mensah, it’s about time we changed this outlook from all sides of the spectrum.

It’s time for black people to become more comfortable with our hair. We have been uncomfortable with our own hair for a long time, as well. Afro hair comes all different shades, textures; it’s so versatile and it’s just amazing. I think we need to embrace it, instead of covering it and hiding it. There is so much that we can do with it, but it also needs to be treated and conditioned with a lot of care too.

- Charlotte Mensah

Thank you for the food for thought, Charlotte.

You can join in on the conversation about Afro hair via @StylistMagazine on social media using the hashtag #AllAboutAfro

Lead illustration by Madison Upton, other images from Getty

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