Why I Think Natural Hair is Indeed a Political Statement

June 5, 2012  |  

If you haven’t seen it yet, which I’m pretty sure you have because it has been featured on every black blog and online publication, The New York Times recently ran an editorial, along with a short video, about the black women who are transitioning to natural beauty.

Zina Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian, by way of the UK, documentary filmmaker and video artist, began documenting the American black women natural hair movement after her own transition from chemical straightening to a short bush left her both enamored and questioning her own insecurities about how she really felt about her own hair.  In the video, she speaks to a number of black women about their natural hair and inquires about what inspired them to take the journey.

While I loved both the post and the video, (seriously, it is very well done), I kind of raised an eyebrow at the assertion made both in the video and the post that folks shy away from the “black power” reference associated with black hair. Nor do they view their hair as a political statement.  More specifically;

“As Anu Prestonia, the owner of Khamit Kinks, a natural hair salon in Brooklyn, told me, “There’s been an evolutionary process that has turned into a revolution.” It is not an angry movement. Women aren’t saying their motivation is to combat Eurocentric ideals of beauty. Rather, this is a movement characterized by self-discovery and health. “

No doubt that some women do resist the implication that their natural hair has dual meaning. I have heard many times from women with natural hair reject flat out and inclination that they are revolutionary because of their chosen hairstyle. In the past, I might have agreed with them. In the past, I had agreed with them and wrote about the often problematic social undertones that exist with being “natural.” However I have come to learn that even if we do or do not accept our place in the movement, natural hair is indeed political.

How so? Well consider the story of 13-year old Brea Persley of Inglewood California. One day in class, her teacher at the Century Academy for Excellence got so frustrated with her that she allegedly told her to “sit her nappy-headed self down.” This statement may sound funny, and possibly benign to some, however the term “nappy-headed” historically has always had a negative connation used to belittle or disregard a person of African descent. And when those remarks were made in front of the entire class, this little girl felt humiliated. “When the kids started laughing, it brought back the memories of when I was in 4th grade and kids used to laugh at me and tease me,” said Persley said.

As a whole, the black experience in America is politicized, which was recently demonstrated by  researchers from Brown University, who discovered that race, for both black and white voters, has more to do with their shifting support for President Obama than actual policy. Meaning that if President Obama, the first black (or biracial as some insist on calling him) president, supports gay marriage then black folks, who previously might have denounced gay marriage, shift their positions to align with the President while race conscious whites shift their position to be in opposition of the President.  Of course, the suggestion here is that it is not the issue of gay marriage itself, but the issue of being for or against the black president.

When the first generation of African slaves landed in America, the ability to maintain their elaborate and often spiritual hairstyles was robbed from them along with their freedom. Their kinks were deemed unruly and ugly and eventually became a source of shame. Not much has changed since then; as today, the kinks and the 4B types are still considered a less desirable hair texture than bone straight hair. This is confirmed for us daily as we flip through the pages of magazines, both mainstream and black, and see women of African descent with long weaves and silky perms. And it’s there again when we hear stories about black women being barred from planes or employment opportunities because of their natural coils.

As the always poignant comedian Paul Mooney once said, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, then they’re not happy.”  The age-old efforts to subjugate us by devaluing our beauty, including our hair, have always been a political tactic to establish more European features, including long silky straight hair, as both mainstream and the status quo. Therefore the more you try to a heed to the mainstream image, the more you align and condone politically and socially the status quo. Each time one of us takes the plunge and cast off the shackles of shame, which suggest that our hair and beauty is inferior, the more we strike a blow to those political forces. And as more and more resist the notion that straight hair is the only type of hair to be considered both beautiful and professional, the more we shift the collective conscious of all folks to make mainstream more reflective and inclusive of you. That’s the essence of any great political movement – whether it is for civil rights or uncivilized hair.

This is not to discount women, who want to straighten their hair or wear weaves. I still hold on to the contention that there is nothing wrong, or less black, with that. But this is largely about the message of those, who don’t, those women who never felt comfortable frying, dying and extending. Those women, who wanted to be free enough to go out into public with some knotty dreads or a teeny weenie afro without being labeled as uncouth, unkempt or some other derogatory term. Those, who were and still are routinely excluded from some certain workplaces and social circles. These folks, who in the past, may not have been able to choose the option of natural styles like Bantu Knots, twists and yes even dreadlocks.

The more that black women embrace the natural hair movement, if only temporary, the more women who felt boxed in to abiding by societal standards just in order to get along, can feel free.  Within this movement, they are free to choose natural and have comfort in knowing that there are legions of others like them.  It’s about the freedom of choice to come out of the proverbial hair closet and say to the world that I am here. I am nappy. Get used to it.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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