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.

Meklit Workneh is a junior at Stanford University and the current President of the Stanford Ethiopian Student Union. For the first time since coming to the U.S., Meklit Workneh recently straightened her hair instead of wearing it curly. Tell her what you think. She can be reached at:

Meklit Workneh