‘Is your hair still political?
when it starts to burn.‘
So I am contemplating ‘The Big Chop’… I have been turning it over in mind for many weeks, months, years… The Big Chop is a cornerstone of the natural hair movement. It is ‘the point of no return’ in the transition from chemically treated hair back to natural hair. A redemption of sorts.
The natural hair movement recognises that according to global beauty ideals, Black hair is the least desirable. Black hair does not sell products. Black hair is ‘not professional.’ Natural Black hair is often banned from work places and schools. Colonial myths about Black hair have led Black women to mutilate and thus erase a distinctive part of their identity – their hair. This has meant that Black women would put extremely harmful chemicals in their hair to straighten it. Or buy expensive weaves of dubious provenance to cover their own curls. Or attack themselves with blazing iron rods that removes kinks from tresses. The natural hair movement (which encourages women of African descent to keep their hair naturally afro-textured) has been with us for quite a long time. However, social media (which I have argued elsewhere is a dynamic tool of Pan-Africanism) has put the argument for natural hair in communicative spaces previously not considered. This has ensured that global consciousness has become more aware of the natural hair movement.
I find the ‘question’ of Black women’s hair to be very intellectually interesting. It is one of those issues (probably the most prominent of its type) that mostly affects only Black women. This explains and illustrates the necessity of multifaceted or intersectional approaches. ‘Intersectionality’, as originally advanced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, speaks to an understanding of the complex and multiple ways in which various systems of subordination converge. In the case of Black women’s hair, the liberty (liberty and not right) to be an adherent of the natural hair movement is a gendered issue faced mostly by Black women. So, it illustrates that creating margins of freedoms that do not account for positionality is an incomplete exercise in freedom. By not accounting for how the freedom to wear natural hair affects Black women specifically, we silence and erase the Black female experience and thus do epistemic violence to her.
Simply put, in this sense, epistemic violence is the cognitive inability or refusal to engage with the truth of another group’s social experience. Any measure that restricts the Black’s woman’s freedom to treat her hair as she wishes, may be said to be a form of epistemic violence. This means that for a Black woman, the freedom to wear natural hair is an intellectual issue as well as a matter of personal aesthetic choice. The epistemic world only recognises certain bodies as normative and creates policies around those normativised bodies. Refusal to acknowledge the condition of the Black woman’s hair as natural, is a refusal to see the Black woman as natural. In fact, as has been seen in some South African schools, merely wearing the hair one is born with is a sign of protest. To exist is to resist. Existence is resistance.
And this brings me to the crossroads of personal and political. When existence itself becomes protest, the personal is always politicized. When the lines between the personal and political are persistently blurred, personal decisions are always fraught with political cogitations. For example: As a postcolonial decolonial pan-African feminist (yes, that is a thing…) do I not owe a scholarly duty to be an adherent of the natural hair movement? (In essence to practice what I preach) As an autonomous person, do I not have the freedom of choice to do what I want with my hair? Natural or Textured? But how free is my choice when the structures of society implicitly support one choice over the other? And therein lies the problem and the solution. The natural hair movement will always be political. And that is not a bad thing, because freedom is political. But freedom is life. Freedom like a skylark flies upward. Freedom is aspirational. Freedom is a becoming. For humanity. The struggle is everlasting.
A luta continua, vitória é certa
For hair. For here. For her.
Chakravorty, Spivak Gayatri, Nelson Cary, and Grossberg Lawrence. “Can the subaltern speak?.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture 271 (1988): 271-313.