All the Way from Hair to There

By Meklit Workneh

We braid it, cornrow it, plait it, dread it, straighten it, relax it, flat iron it, curl it, put in extensions, put in a weave, fade it, and grow out an afro. What do we NOT do to our hair?

Hair may seem like a simple feature to many people. However, I’ve noticed that hair has turned into a feature with social and political issues surrounding it. Watching movies like “Barbershop,” I began to notice to a larger extent how central a role hair plays in many communities. It goes without saying that in African and African diasporic communities, actual hair and the process of doing hair provide plenty of stimuli for conversation and social gathering. When I first moved to the United States and to Stanford, one of the points on which I could immediately relate to other black students was hair. For one, I discovered that a lot of us shopped at that whole separate aisle at Wal-Mart for “ethnic hair products”. Hair is a point of commonality across Africa and the African diaspora.

I can trace back my first memories of awareness of my own hair to the day I got my first Barbie. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. This Barbie had long, straight blond hair like most dolls that were available on the market at that time. (This was always a point of confusion for me growing up in Ethiopia since I was always busy trying to figure out why their hair did not look the way mine did.)

As soon as my mom gave me the doll, she told me not to put her in water because that would ruin her hair. And right after my mom left, I plunged the doll in water and her hair came out looking very raggedy. Then, I asked my aunt to help me blow-dry and straighten it before my mom came back. I’m still not sure what compelled me to do that, but I do know that it shows a level of awareness and understanding about the importance of hair in the society I was raised in. That doll was to go through several forms of torture in my possession, eventually having all her hair shaved off and her head pulled off her neck. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed with the way I handled my toys.

The hair issue also came up in a more academic setting, my Popular Culture in Africa class. Looking at ads circa the 1960s advertising hair perms and relaxers, we came up with the idea that by straightening, relaxing or perming their hair, black people were trying to appear white.

Growing up in Ethiopia, issues dealing with race had never played a major role in my life. After my first year in the United States, however, I found myself reflecting a great deal more upon racial matters. When describing the United States to people back home, I often found myself using the word “racialized.” The hair issue became a sub-category of this racialization.

In my classes at Stanford, Madam C.J. Walker was lauded for being the first African-American woman entrepreneur and millionaire, but criticized for creating hair products that further led to a dislike of typically “African” traits among African- Americans. And I was thinking: Hold up, I know I have a perm in my hair and I straighten it occasionally, does that mean I’m trying to appear white? I knew there was no such intention in the back of my head. So what were these people talking about?

A girl in my Popular Culture in Africa class broke it down for me that fateful day when we were discussing those ads. I realized that I straighten my hair for the same reason that I braid it or leave it curly . . . because I like the way it looks! There is no deeper psychological process to this, it’s pure and simple popular culture. I don’t know what the roots of this “fashion” are. But regardless of roots and origins, black hair fashion today is not an imitation or fabrication; it is its own entity unlike anything before. It evolves with the times and is sometimes a reflection of the times and other times it just looks good.

The 70s brought the black power movement and Afros worldwide from New York to Paris to Dakar. The 80s and 90s brought the popularization of a spiritual pan-African consciousness and dreadlocks became popular. 90s hip-hop culture made cornrows acceptable as a fashionable hairstyle, and not just a hairstyle for those bum days. And although a lot of these hairstyles and dos can be traced back to what people on the African continent have done for centuries, each generation has added its own twist and flair to make black hair what it is today.

Love it or hate it, hair is more than just fashion in today’s world. It is social, cultural, political, you name it. And that is what makes it all the more interesting. Entire political statements are made through hair (think dreadlocks in the Rastafarian movement). In the film “Barbershop”, for instance, it provides a setting for social and intellectual gathering.

All I know is next time I go to have my hair braided, straightened or twisted, I’m going to look into it a little deeper.

About the Author:
Meklit Workneh is a graduate student at Yale University. She wrote this piece when she was a junior at Stanford University. The article was first published on Tadias in the spring of 2004.

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3 Responses to “All the Way from Hair to There”

  1. 1 April Aug 29th, 2007 at 12:17 am

    I’m a black American from NC yet now living in WA state. Like other women in my family I have wavy curly hair that to whites is considered “wild” and to blacks “good hair”. As long as a person’s hair is neat and tidy, it really shouldn’t matter what a person chooses to do with it. And can a certain someone stop asking what I have in my hair?! It’s au natural! Get over it!

  2. 2 Wanjiru Sep 7th, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    I totally agree with this because my hair is now in kinky mode or what is called in here “nappy” . I keep it that way because I do work out alot and it is cheap.Yes the perms, curling and what have you can be expensive and for a woman like me who is trying to save a few pennies, then my nappy hair accomodates that.Nice article!

  3. 3 Taqiyya Sep 24th, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I grew up right here in America. I am a light skinned black female with very course or “nappy” hair. SInce I was a child I was taunted about my hair and a hair dresser once asked how someone so light had such nappy hair. A very early memory I have as a child is trying to put my hair into two ponytails and taking huge scissors to cut out the naps in the middle! I ended up in elementary school with most of my hair cut off after that incident. I am very emotionally attached to not using chemicals in my hair. I don’t think black women that do perm or weave their hair are all doing it to try looking white but I have a problem when we are doing it because we think our natural hair is ugly! My favorite t shirt says “I have good hair, I got African in my family!” :)

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