The Politics of Black Hair
By Donna Kakonge
OISE/University of Toronto
What is so threatening about natural Black hair? This is something we are still aiming to understand although one of the researchers began the study at Concordia University in Montréal in 1997. The suggestion for studying Black hair came from two naturally Blonde women. We continue to do study in our PhD at OISE/University of Toronto. Back in the mid-1980s, watching Oprah’s bouncing and behaving hair was like a dream come true. We never knew that Black hair could do that. We rushed to a salon, telling them to duplicate the Oprah ‘do on our heads and they did. The bad part is that just like what once happened to Oprah, our hair fell out. We were left with no hair on our heads for a time to duplicate any ‘do. Now we have hair, different from First Lady Michelle Obama, but hair nonetheless. What is so threatening about natural Black hair? Even Michelle Obama must blow dry straight her natural hair to keep her hair so healthy, just like Oprah does.
Nina Simone sings “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” however that song is first a traditional folk song potentially coming from Scotland (“Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair),” 2013) and actually many of us have once thought our true soul mate was a bald man, even if it was Mr. Clean. But the inside love (that’s all of us) do have Black hair. Learning to love ourselves and our hair, however we choose to protect it, colour it, straighten it, weave it, love it, braid it, lock or dread it and ultimately embracing it, is a never-ending project. We have decided to make it our unofficial focus of study at the graduate and PhD level.
One of the researchers sits with some friends at a Montréal university pub in 1997 talking about what she often does – hair. One of them says to Donna, “why don’t you do research on hair?” Donna thinks she is crazy and that she will not ever find information on the topic. She does. Five pages worthy of a reference list for a master’s thesis done in two years.
As many Black women, and some Black men too, we have gone through quite a hair journey. We started off with our natural hair from birth and sitting between our mothers’ or fathers’ knees to get it combed and braided. We dreaded having our hair combed. This could be the reason why many of us do wear dreads and call them as such with Pride. We know more hair came out on the comb than what was actually on my head with the fine-toothed ones. Those combs are not made for curls boys and girls.
We would wear towels to simulate having White girls’ hair. Now, all we use a towel for is to dry the hair on our heads. We have heard that Whoopi Goldberg used to do this too. Many Black women have. When the Jheri curl became popular in the early 1980s, we begged our mothers or fathers or guardians to let us get “the Michael Jackson look.” Our parent/s, guardian/s allowed us to do so and because we hated going to the hair salon, our hair actually grew because we were barely combing it.
We wore the Jheri curl up until high school until we were introduced to relaxers through media. When we saw Janet Jackson in “The Pleasure Principle” video (“The Pleasure Principle (song),” 2013) with her swinging relaxed hair – we thought our pleasure principle relied on a relaxer.
We have all seen some of the friends we have or had, be successful with relaxers. When you have super curly hair from Mother Africa, this can be hard to achieve. Why should it be achieved? For whom? For what? Why? What is so threatening about natural Black hair? Some Black people’s hair is less super curly and can be straightened easily. This tends to be the case for many African-Americans which could explain why United States First Lady Michelle Obama’s hair does look good. So does super curly African hair.
Books by Lonnice Brittenum Bonner that we find while browsing through A Different Booklist or Accents on Eglinton in Toronto or Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton, Ontario inspire us to start using olive oil, jojoba, aloe vera gel and natural oils on our hair. We oil our hair, eat nutritious foods, exercise and ensure that the beauty of our hair is the crown to the beauty of our outer and the envelope to the beauty of our inner. However, the hair can be permanently locked as you may see with some Rastafarians or people who wear their hair in locks, or dreads, with Pride.
This brings us to today where many African people wear a variety of hairstyles, even the straightened ones, weaved ones, coloured ones, dreaded ones, wigged ones, braided ones, twisted ones and bald ones. Anything and everything goes because we are African people. Strong and proud and our hair does not define us – it is point of artistic expression as it is for all of humankind.
Donna Kakonge is an author, teacher and writer, law student and PhD Candidate living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her official website is: www.donnakakonge.com.
Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair). (2013). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Online: Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Is_the_Colour_%28Of_My_True_Love%27s_Hair%29
The Pleasure Principle (song). (2013). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopaedia. Online: Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pleasure_Principle_%28song%29