Black women’s hair is versatile

The clarion cry is if you are a black woman you must have natural hair. Or you cannot be black conscious if you do not have natural hair. Black power means natural hair and on and on it goes. I find that simplistic as a way of identifying a black woman. 

As a little girl, my great grandmother used to wear wigs. Watching my great grandmother with her wig, there was no sense of not being black or not identifying with being African or being black conscious. When I was in Africa and growing up in The Gambia, everyone around me was black so there was no correlation between how she wore her hair and who she was as a person.

So for me to come to the West and hear people talking about how having a weave or wig or perming your hair means you are not black conscious makes no sense to me. I grew up seeing people around me wearing wigs and we were in Africa. So you can’t tell me that how I wear my hair is linked to my blackness. I just don’t see it that way and to impose an idea of what it means to be black or impose an idea of what it means to be African is terribly out of place and wrong. You can’t prescribe that to me. Everybody has a different experience of being black; everybody has a different experience of being African and so it cannot be dictated by anyone else.

A lot of the people that are making this noise about how having black hair equals being black conscious have never been to Africa. A lot of them don’t even want to be associated with Africa. So how do you define African or blackness to me? 

How I wear my hair cannot be prescribed, it cannot be dictated by what other people think. I should be able to define that myself.

My mother and my sister have very long hair — right up to the middle of their backs. Their hair grows really fast and really thick. Mine on the other hand, grows very slowly. It’s very soft, very sparse and very light. As a girl, everywhere I went people would say ‘your sister has longer hair than you’. So to solve that problem, I went to the barbers one day when I was 12-years-old and I told him to cut off my hair. I was so worried that I looked like a boy that on my way home, I placed my school bag on my head to hide it. I was very scared of my mum’s reaction but she just looked at me and didn’t say anything.

And then when I came to university in the UK, I was about 20 years old at the time, I did something drastic with my hair. One day I just got fed up of having to do my hair in the morning or having to pay money to get my hair done, so I shaved it all off. Literally as I took off my braids, I followed that with a shaving stick and shaved off all my hair. I was absolutely bald. I was very nervous and scared about it, so I went to my lectures with a head-tie on for a few days. I soon got tired of the head-tie and went out without it. The reaction was really great. People loved my bald head and I loved the looks I had on the train. It was just fun and the love of the short hair was truly born.  Since then I’ve had my hair mostly       short: coloured blonde, coloured orange, coloured red, braided, permed and left natural. I did my hair in whatever way I felt like doing it. 

Last Christmas, I decided to wear wigs and a couple of them were quite long. It was because I felt like ‘okay it’s a new year, I will be 48-years-old and I want to feel a little bit more grown-up than I look’. But I know that once I start working and I get busy, my natural draw would be to have my hair short again.

Because the short hair suits my personality as someone that’s always on the move and I can’t be bothered with hair on my neck and my shoulders when I’m busy and running around. It also suits my youthfulness.

The point I’m making with this piece is that none of the choices I make regarding my hair has anything to do with me being a black woman or an African. They have to do instead with how I choose to express my personality.

And that is the point of my argument – black women have to be free to express themselves in however way we choose to do so. In fact, that’s the beauty of black hair– it can be anything on any given day. It doesn’t have to stay the same for any one day if we choose.

So as a black woman you can have it natural if you choose or permed, weaved or you can have it braded or bald. That is your prerogative and it cannot be prescribed by anyone else but you – because you are more than your hair. 

Some are wives, mothers and sisters, cousins, professionals across all fields –intelligent, smart, funny and hard-working. How can all of who you are, be condensed into how you wear your hair? Your hair is just an expression of your identity, just like how you wear your clothes is an expression of who you want to be that day. 

All of who I am is not going to be wrapped up and defined by how I wear my hair and that is what I resist and resent about this whole black hair movement. Anybody can wear their hair how they want to without feeling less than they are; without being mocked because they have a wig or a weave; without being disrespected or feeling like they’re letting down the whole black race.

Recently, the Miss World Africa winner, Quiin Abenakyo, who is from Uganda, was invited for dinner by President Yoweri Museveni. He then went on Twitter to say she was lovely but she should not be wearing Indian hair. I was just totally offended by that statement. He has so many other pressing issues to deal with in his country. Why was his focus on a young lady’s hair? Why did he feel the need to embarrass and belittle her? He ignored everything that she was and everything that she had accomplished to comment on her hair. Why did he stop there? Why did he not tell her not to wear the clothes she wore which were probably made in China?

In closing, this is my argument – a black woman is more than her hair and therefore she has the right to wear it as she wishes. If people feel that their hair is synonymous with their identity and that is how they want to express themselves whether it’s natural or perm, weave or wig then that is what they must do. And it should not be dictated by anyone else.

We are more than our hair.

For more on this topic see I’m more than my hair.

By Nana Ofori-Atta Oguntola

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