We live in a generation where if our African hair is not straightened or covered with a wig or weave, it’s simply not good enough. The only good hair is that which is straight. That which all black female socialites and celebrities wear. Natural African hair is a very unfashionable idea. Many times, I appeared on a Television show wearing my natural hair crown and people always made remarks that sounded like, “You mean you went there without hair?”. My experience above is not any different from those faced by women of color around the world. We are constantly grappling with internalized racism resulting from stigmas surrounding natural hair.

The History: How did the policing of black hair start?

From the beginning of time, Africans took pride in their good hair, they explored various hair styles as a sign of beauty and status. Around the 1700’s, tignon laws were established to diminish the excessive attention women of color received as a result of their flamboyant hairstyles.

Various African hairstyles
Various African hairstyles. Various African hairstyles

This law required all women of color to wrap a Tignon scarf / hanky around their hair to show that they belonged to the slave class. This was where the demonization of black natural hair started. The culture of natural hair grooming and maintenance among people of color gradually started to phase out. Mothers no longer had motivation to teach their daughters how to plait cornrows or braid their hair. The standard of beautiful hair had now become straight hair because black women covered their hair all day and all night.

Today we deal with a market flooded with straightening hair chemicals and drying machines. Due to factors of demand and supply, prices of quality natural hair products are quite high and unaffordable for many since there’s a lot of scarcity of products. African women have been cornered by their ignorance. Instead of having Bantu knots or cornrows, we’ve resorted to “Brazilian hair pieces” or crochets which are deemed sophisticated as compared to natural hair styles. This is the politics of natural hair. What was once good, has been labelled as uncivilized and we add extra pieces of hair that once belonged to dead Indians to “modify” our look. We are constantly yearning to adopt western styles of hair such as buns so as not to appear too ordinary.

Group of women sitting on a couch
Group of women sitting on a couch, with various hairstyles

The debate on good hair versus bad hair is not one where we openly state how much we detest weaves or straight hair but rather one where we recall the historic symbolism of this straight hair that we have now come to appreciate and remind ourselves of who we were before the Tignon age. Can we turn back time? Certainly not however we can start by appreciating who we are and educating ourselves on our own culture.

For far too long we have prided in educating ourselves on everything except our African identity. We can do better!

Article first appeared on AfroRep on the 5th of September, 2020. AfroRep is an online platform that aims at promoting Africa through offering a platform to change the African narrative through the exposure of African content and products.

Shared with consent from original publisher Atuhaire Joan Patience. 🙃 Joan is a freelance writer, former Peer Educator at Reach a Hand Uganda (RAHU), Founder (Kujenga Africa) and also alumni of the FES YLF (class of 2020).

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