OK so I’m banging on about hair…again! As frequent readers of House 21 will know, having mixed-Afro hair is a topic which is very close to my heart, not least because I felt for too many years that it was the main attribute which defined me. I’ve spoken out a lot about how this has affected me and have, in turn, received lots of feedback and questions which I warmly welcome. One recurring misunderstanding amongst those readers is what sets Afro / mixed hair apart from European curly hair in terms of importance to identity.
The short answer: cultural significance.
The long answer: Well…
The Hair Pencil Test
There are black and mixed-race people who could be light-skinned enough to be considered as ‘white passing’ ie, they could look white to someone who did not know their background. This is why blackness is about so much more than skin colour (I will write about this, but in the meantime if you’re not quite sure what this means then check out this interview with Emma Dabiri for Penguin.
In apartheid South Africa, those in power wanted to ensure that no white-passing black person enjoyed the privileges of white people. Thus, the Pencil Test was established.
The Pencil Test entailed pencils being slid into the hair of the person. If the pencils fell out, the person was white. If they stayed in the hair, the person was black. This act of pure degradation was continued until 1994. To put that into context, that’s one year before I was born. Many of you reading will have been alive when this was taking place.
The One-Drop Rule
The One-drop Rule was a law established in America in the early twentieth century which, much like The Pencil Test, was actioned to ensure that no light-skinned black person enjoyed the privileges of white people. As the name would suggest, the law dictated that any person with ‘one drop of black blood’ – or as we non-racists would say ‘one black ancestor’ – was to be considered black and therefore not equal to a white person.
One of the biggest indicators of a light-skinned person’s black ancestry is their hair. Regardless of skin colour, if you had Afro / mixed hair, you were to be treated in law as inferior to a white person.
Cornrows may be an Afro hair fashion choice today, however they bear a heart-breaking significance in black history.
Slaves planning to escape to their freedom would braid route plans and maps into their cornrows to inform the other slaves without the slave owners realising. For example, in some cases the number of plaits worn would indicate how many roads needed to be walked or crossed in order for them to meet one another once they had escaped from the plantation.
When slaves were being sent to auction, some mothers braided rice and seeds into the cornrows / plaits of their children in case they were bought by different slave owners. The prospect of being forcibly separated from your child is the most indescribably inhumane nightmare a mother could face. These mothers did what little they could to protect their children by ensuring they had at least a morsel of food to eat in the event of their separation.
The Tignon Law
In Louisiana, black and mixed-race women were legally banned from wearing their hair uncovered in public. If a woman was outside of her home, she was to cover her hair at all times. This law was implemented in an effort to curb the growing influence of the free black population.
It also had similar objectives to The Pencil Test and One Drop Rule, in that it sought to prevent lighter skinned or mixed-race women from daring to feel in any way equal to white women. The looser curls of the mixed-race women were beginning to be considered aesthetically appealing, so in a bid to prevent any white male attraction towards these ‘inferior’ mixed women, the Tignon Law was applied, thus forcing them to cover up their tresses.
The Tignon Law demonstrates how inextricably linked Afro hair and black identity are – hiding the hair was seen as effectively stripping the community of a key part of their identity.
Every time I go to straighten my hair, pangs of guilt start to eat away at me as I consider how black women once did not even have the right to wear their Afro hair, and here I am independently trying to eradicate mine.
Side note: As is recurrent throughout history, black women fought back. The tignon was intended to reinstate the notion that black women were of a lower status to white women, by stripping them of their ability to style their hair in any way that could be deemed elaborate or regal. If black women couldn’t style their Afro hair, they would style the tignon itself instead. Feathers, jewels and eye-catching fabrics were used to style the tignons, thus reminding the lawmakers that nothing would prevent black women from expressing themselves freely, as free human beings. This attempt at cultural suffocation ultimately failed and the Tignon Law was revoked.
Does the name Madam C J Walker ring any bells? Well, she was the first female self-made millionaire in America. Note, I didn’t say first black female. She was the first female who happened to be black. Despite the oppression of being born to ex-slave parents at a time when the notion of free black people was extremely fresh in the South, Madam C J Walker prevailed to become the first female of any race.
Having been orphaned by ten, and being a female, and being black in America, Walker had the odds stacked against her. But she earned her millions and made history, smashing ceilings as she went.
What was her industry? Afro hair care!
There was such a calling for Afro hair products, that her brand stormed the US, earning her the title of one of America’s most prolific entrepreneurs.
There’s much discussion surrounding whether her brand bolstered the identity of black women, or if it oxygenated the narrative that natural Afro hair was to be corrected. This is a question for another blog post and another day, but either way the fact that Walker was able to succeed to such vertiginous heights through Afro hair only exemplifies the importance of it in black culture.
If you want to find out more about the amazing life of Madam CJ Walker, Netflix has a brilliant series on her starring Octavia Spencer. Watch it here.
The Afro Eradication Industry
This may all sound a bit historic to you so far, so let’s talk present day. At present, only 40% of black and mixed women in the UK wear their hair natural (Don’t Touch My Hair, Emma Dabiri). 60% choose to relax it, straighten it or wear wigs or weaves. 60% have been made to feel that their natural hair is not appealing and thus should not be worn. Despite all of the cultural significance of our hair, the importance of it to our identity and history, 60% of us still feel that wearing it natural is the wrong choice. I’ve been in that 60%. Occasionally, I dip back into it.
Choice is a fantastic thing. Black women should definitely have the choice to style their hair however they so wish, be it straight, natural, braided etc. But for 60% to still choose to not show their Afro hair only emphasises the fact that our natural hair is seen as inferior.
The industry of eradicating Afro hair is worth £88 million per year in the UK and £761 million globally. Every single penny of that is spent on removing every trace of a woman’s natural Afro hair. So to say that the anti-Afro campaign is historic is not only misleading, but fundamentally incorrect.
If I may make this about myself for just a second, this topic is so close to my heart because I have been through so much soul searching to learn to love my hair. Why? Well, because of all of the above. Every time I look in the mirror and see my hair, all of these things come flooding back to me. On good days, this makes me feel closely connected to my heritage. It reminds me that I have to work hard that day, because black women endured such hardships and fought indefatigably which lead to me having the choices available to me. On bad days, it serves as a visual reminder of just how far we have left to go before real equality is achieved. Having a reminder of inequality literally growing out of your head can be a LOT of emotional baggage to carry.
I hope my long answer wasn’t too…well, long. I have hardly even scratched the surface of this topic and will undoubtedly be back with yet another post on Afro hair. But for now, I need to go and wash mine!