Why black hair will always be personal, political and cultural
“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” — Beyoncé
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I could and should probably write this from the perspective of my re-growth. By now it has started to stretch upwards through my scalp — a centimeter and a half of wave before the beginning of my plait. It has its own voice — judging me like my elders do at times for not getting my hair done regularly and letting it “look like this.” Its messy state has forced me to wear a hat for the past month. My re-growth is a reminder of how much I don’t care about my hair (at times) but also, the slight kink in texture is comforting to me. When I think, when I relax, when I’m bored, I find myself playing with it between my forefinger and thumb.
Black hair is and will always be personal.
Black hair is and will always be political.
Each strand is something more, be it pride, time or detail. I think it was whilst reading Foucault that I was introduced to the theory of the body as a site of resistance; as contested terrain through which multiple private and public battles are fought out. This is the framework (in my opinion) through which you can view black hair. It is a contested site of resistance, at times shaped and influenced by a certain standard of beauty and aesthetics through which the wearer has had to fight to maintain their own identity. It's something deeply personal through which the wearer has had to assert and reclaim as not a trend to be appropriated, but as their own cultural heritage.
There is a history of inventiveness when it comes to black hair. We have a deep tradition of cutting, moulding, wrapping, plaiting, shaping, shaving and extending our hair. A couple years ago I went to the Staying Power exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Walls of beautiful photos of 1950s to 1990s black life (the early formations of what we regard as multiculturalism in London). At the back of the exhibition was a set of photographs by J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere’, a Nigerian photographer who began documenting his culture and, more specifically, the hairstyles of women he saw during the 1960s. Each photo shows the intricacy involved with plaiting hair. It succeeds in portraying African hair as regal, as a process of turning our naturalness into woolen crowns. I saw this in real time at two separate art events in Brooklyn. In both settings, I was surrounded by a mixture of high top fades, long and short locs, graphic undercuts, tightly-wound curls, bare heads, waist-length hair extensions and natural tresses.
Something I worried about before moving to New York and after was finding a hairdresser. Raised on the old West Indian adage of “you don’t just let anyone put their hand in your head,” my hairdresser/counsellor in London had been taking care of me since I was 14. I call her my counsellor because she’s morphed into the role of being more than someone that simply does my hair years ago. Going to see her was an experience, and I knew when I left I would feel fresher not only physically but mentally. As I looked for a place for months — taking recommendations, going online, even running up on people in the local grocery store and pancake spot to ask where they got their “hair did,” and while thinking of her — her skills, her friendship — it got me thinking more of the space I was looking to get my hair done, rather than the person.
To me, that's just as important if not more so than any of the art attached to doing black hair. Since living in New York, little things have become large affirmations for me. I’m finding that although there are some differences people of colour experience in New York vs London, there are some similarities. I think the salon or the barbershop for a person of colour is one that translates globally and one that reflects that deeply political and personal view of hair as I outlined earlier.
However, here hair is an industry — a billion dollar industry. This is the home of “good hair” as Chris Rock would have us believe, and that African American women have a warped obsession with their hair without ever delving into the historicity behind that aesthetic. This is where you can easily see back-to-back hair salons on every block. And more recently, this is where we heard Beyonce declare that she “likes her baby heir with baby hair and afros” in front of a viewing audience of millions.
The place I found in Brooklyn encapsulates the feeling of freshness, ease and safety that I want to experience in the salon. But partnering with a new hairdresser wasn’t easy. Amidst a feeling of place, I had a set standard and expectation of her hands before they ever touched my head, which I admit was unfair to her and which I had to let go of as to establish trust quickly. When I retell my experience out loud, it sounds too much like a first date or the first time of something else. But some language and sentiments can be taking from that and applied here — we did form a relationship and declare a partnership that day.
The hair salon and barbershop for people of colour is a space with buried meaning.
There’s little surprise that when studied closely through ethnographic and photographic lenses, that it is not only the detail which is important, but the testimonies of people in those spaces. It's the characters and their voices that make the place something more. Here's a space where you can let it all hang out — literally. Here's a place free from a lot of questioning of others, which sometimes can feel like an interrogation about something so deeply personal to you. Here is a place where community and service collide, where hanging out and getting your “hair did” coincide. Here is a hub, a safe space. Where we can politic, where we can laugh, where we can be free.