Summer 1999. Down Waterbeech Road, every window is open to its extremity and billowing net curtains wave to the blushing evening sky. Its already been an hour but Mama is persistent. She jerks through a knot and hears Azza wince. ‘Shit’. She slowly catches me in the corner of her eye ready to throw myself at the comb in my sister's defence, again, frustrated at her discomfort. Bugs Bunny throws Daffy Duck off a cliff. She’s seen the cassette 20 times but manages to force a laugh which by his impact, becomes a genuine chuckle. Azza and I join in as he attempts to reconstruct his dismembered body and she quickly rips through the stubborn knot. She drops the comb and reaches into the jar or olive oil and shea butter. Rubbing her home made moisturiser into her scalp soothes the stinging; Azza closes her eyes and gives a smile of relief. Mum braids the freshly unknotted strand as I squeal in delight at Bug’s look of uninterest.
A routine she’s stayed true to since her days at school, Mama’s style of choice was a single thick plait, embodied across her hairline. A degree in agricultural engineering would lead her into a career as a mechanical engineer, working on site maintaining machinery. She continued to wear her braids on site, keeping the sheer magnitude and volume of hair manageable and comfortably styled in the heat and humidity. Today, it’s not surprising to find her sat at home wearing a plastic-cum-makeshift turban, waiting for her home made recipe of egg yolk, lemon and yoghurt to set into her scalp. Her choice to maintain a pixie (or in my sisters case a buzz) cut in our early years; is a common one for mothers with children born with the beginnings of an afro. Whilst she attempts to teach her two restless toddlers the basics of human dignity (not deficating in their own underwear and aiming food into our mouth as opposed to our nostrils) adding hair maintenance to the equation would’ve been a brave choice. As we grew older she taught us the importance of keeping out hair brushed and nourished. But Mama lead by example and we inherited her weekly hair rituals, as she did from her great aunts who lived in a time where hair grooming was a central aspect of a woman’s femininity.
Occupying a large proportion of our personal grooming, it’s understandable as to why the relationship so many of us have with our hair is a deep and complex one. What’s more, African genetic diversity is vibrant and rich, with modern day natives evolving from 14 ancestral populations. In the Sudan, there’s is a large Eurasian ancestry component in the northern region, as the Arab peninsula made its influences in the north and interacted with native Nubians, compared to their Nilotic neighbours in the south. This is physically represented by the individually unique hair texture we inherit, varying dramatically even amongst siblings.
The intricacy of maintaining black hair has been tackled by cultures throughout history, each finding comfort and liberation. Afros, twists, dreadlocks and braids are some of the many styles that are adopted and essential for maintaining the health of afro hair texture. They go beyond being acts of beauty, they’re acts of tradition and maintenance. But this is generally not the mainstream. The intense connection we have with our hair is rarely understood and contributes to the continuous microaggressions hurled our way. Questions, perhaps perceived to be innocently curious, swiftly become intrusive and often embarrassing, asked in a patronising and pathetic attempt to ‘understand’ my culture. Don’t be misunderstood, asking these questions is how we can delve ourselves into cultures beyond anything we’ve ever been exposed to before. My discomfort starts when comments attempt to deconstruct these ideologies that have an essence of spirituality-my hair, heritage and the relationship I have with it- and attempt to redefine them in hurtfully ultra-simplistic terms within a whitewashed western understanding. Yes, this is beyond your cultural understanding so stop denying me agency over my body.
‘Is it real?’ Maybe, and if not, well done to me. This shit be expensive and clearly for good reason too. ‘Can I touch it?’ Go on - EXOTIC right?!
In early African civilisations hairstyles would indicate a person’s family background, tribe and social status. Men in the Wolof tribe (in modern Senegal and Gambia) braided their hair as they prepared for war, whilst women in mourning would adopt a subdued style. What’s more, many believed that hair, given its close location to the skies, was the conduit for spiritual interaction with God. As slaves are bought over to help colonise the western superpowers in the 1700’s, the non-European texture of their native hair began to be referred to as ‘wool’. While our native culture is systemically erased and the black form is demonised, smoother textures of Caucasian hair textures are deemed more favourable. The phase ‘good hair’ starts to make its way into the lexicon and we still bear its scars today as Eurocentric ideas of beauty continue to dominate society. Not only has this contributed to the huge lack of diversity within the modelling industry and media, but made it acceptable for my man Steve to look me dead in the eye whist he explains how he just ‘doesn’t find black women attractive, you know?’ . It's therefore unsurprising that afro hair in its natural form has by many, including educational authorities and distinguished organisations, been deemed inappropriate and unprofessional. Staff members at the prestigious Pertoria High School in south Africa have taken to telling black students to ‘fix' their hair. London employers have told staff on a number of occasions not to turn up to work in her natural hair. The corporate world has address code; and my hair doesn’t conform.
At 13, the understanding that my hair had no place in beauty really resonated and I found comfort in my heat styled hair. Straightened at 230 degrees the end product was double the length and half the volume. I didn’t have to deal with the halo of frizz, awkward pony tails and questions of why my scalp was visible with cornrows. I was repeatedly complimented for my straight hair and often told it was a big improvement from my natural head. These comments didn’t just come from my non-black friends, but within the Sudanese community. It consumed me. Entering university, I struggled to find a place in predominantly white spaces. I was in a continually surrounded by private school education, where people had out rightly admitted they had rarely been exposed to true cultural diversity. Microaggressions were frequent and my comfort in straight hair turned into an obsession.
I’m not alone. Thousands of women have taken to using heat or chemical compositions to permanently straighten their hair. What’s dangerous is that some of these products can be aimed at children as young as 4. Home kits containing keratin -a chemical relaxation treatment- are in abundance and stocked in most, if not all, stores selling afro hair products. Its difficult not to be taken back by their marketing, using bright and enticing colours to attract the child demographic. The irreversible damage caused by these treatments can permanently damage hair follicles and in some cases effect hair right to the scalp.
One’s ability to straighten their hair should not be mistaken as a sign of cultural disconnection, but recognised as another form of self-expression. The question arises however when techniques like these are frequently adopted regardless of the clear detrimental impact- is this self-expression or conformity?
It’s been 6 months since my last encounter with straighteners – the longest in 10 years. There are days I stare at myself in the mirror and audibly laugh in pity as I genuinely see ugly, but it gets easier. My natural texture has started to surface at the roots and I’m beginning to understand what it needs. A dramatic cut last month cost me half of my hair length, all of which was intensely heat damaged, but it has grounded me and I’ve never felt more in touch with my culture. I’m defiant, fierce and confident in my own skin. It’ll be a long time before I have a seat at the table, but as my hairdresser explained whilst she sliced through my hair, “there’s definitely a movement happening’. But for now, I’m unapologetically reclaiming the back anatomy.
photo source: wordpress