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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Black hair politics

By Rahwa Hailemariam 

Black hair isn’t, and has never been “just” hair.

Braids, afros, curly hair, dreadlocks and other black hair styles continue to bring up controversies and make statements in the United States after centuries of the dominant culture attempting to “tame” black hair.

It wasn’t until the 80’s that black hair products were available in Bellingham stores.

Ted Pratt, dean of students, was an undergraduate at Western in 1980. Pratt and a fellow Black Student Union official decided to go talk to stores in Bellingham about getting black hair care products in 1980 since they couldn’t find any to buy for themselves, Pratt said.

The manager began taking notes as they gave him list of the products and got in contact with companies that produce black hair products, Pratt said.

“They started a section down at Rite Aid, and it’s been there ever since,” Pratt said.

Junior Jasira Andrus, said she saw the obvious need of support for the black community in Bellingham inspired her to reach out to other black people and make a group to talk about hair.

“All of the things that used to be poked at about us became desirable, the afro was a big part of finding our identity and being very proud of that and displaying with a sense of pride.”

Ted Pratt, dean of students

It is a way of rebuilding that community here, to talk about different hairstyles, products they use and teach each other easier routines, Andrus said.

“[Black hair] is shown to be dirty, nappy, which is not inherently a bad thing to have nappy hair that’s just hair type, or on the flip side it’s exotified, it’s never portrayed as just a part of a person.” Andrus said.

A lot of people don’t understand that black folk’s hair is something that has been shamed for a very long time, Andrus said.

“If I was to have my hair naturally, in an afro, that could mean I may not be taken seriously in a job interview or I would get profiled as a criminal,” Andrus said. “In reclaiming the styles, it’s a way of not only for us to say ‘no we’re not going to conform’ but it’s also a very brave decision for a lot of people.”

Freshman Selamawit Abraham said the afro is very much political in both Africa and the Americas. Black hair is a policed feature because of fear of dominant culture not being able to communicate their power, Abraham said.

Freshman Selamawit Abraham shows off her hair Friday, May 12. // Photo by Rahwa Hailemariam

Policing black people’s hair is also a way to control their class status, Abraham said.

In America, everything is so capitalistic that, the littlest differences are made to be something that [people in power] can be able to profit off of, Abraham said.

By belittling an entire group, you have less competition and more chance to profit, Abraham said.

“If you can make an entire group of people feel smaller, they won’t try to rebel, they won’t try to be your competition and you’ve got the entire group of people conditioned to believe that,” Abraham said.

In an eight-minute video, Chime Edwards, natural hair and lifestyle vlogger talks about black hair history in depth.

In a lot of African tribes, different hairstyles played a role in defining social status, age, marital status, fertility and manhood and more, Edwards said.

When Europeans began kidnapping Africans, and enslaving them, they shaved both men and women’s hair to “rid them of their identity to maintain control and dependency.”

Europeans began pushing their standards of beauty on Africans. Which was fairer skin, straight hair, and European facial features, causing slaves who were “attractive” to be sold at higher prices, Edwards said.

Freshman Ivonne Jean, did an independent study course on the politics of black hair in her high school. She said having an afro is a challenge to the European beauty standards.

“It [black hair] is like saying that I’m black and I’m okay with that and you have to deal with it,” Jean said. “It forces space for black culture and black voices, so I think that’s why it’s kind of met with resistance.”

In the 1800’s, as free blacks wore their hair in elaborative styles that drew the attention of white men and the jealousy of white women, black and Creole women in Louisiana were forced to wear head wraps, according to the visibility project.

In 1789, The Tignon Laws were passed in Louisiana, requiring black women to use tignon to cover their hair.

Black women began to wear bright-colored tignons, used different styling techniques to wrap their hair and embraced their tignons, according to the visibility project.

“Good Hair,” which was closest to the Europeans became a prerequisite to get jobs, entering certain schools, churches and social groups when slavery ended, Edwards said.    

The term ‘dreadlocks’ was born in the early 1900’s when Guerrilla Warriors vowed not to cut their hair until Selassie (Ethiopian emperor who had led the resistance against the Italian invasion) was released from exile. “Eventually their hair becomes matted and form into long locks,” Edwards said.

In the late 1960’s, civil rights and political activist Angela Davis became an icon of the black power movement making it a symbol for black power and pride, Edwards said.

“A Black person wearing a ‘fro was dubbed as militant and threatening. This notion was promoted by law officials, politicians and the media,” according to Essence.

White people aren’t as intimidated by afros anymore because, since the invention of perm, some are getting the curly looks as well, Pratt said.

“All of the things that used to be poked at about us became desirable, the afro was a big part of finding our identity and being very proud of that and displaying with a sense of pride,” Pratt said.

In recent years, the topic of black hair being ‘unprofessional’ or ‘different’ was brought up, bringing attention to issues many black people face in their everyday lives and workplaces.

Songs such as Don’t Touch My Hair by Solange Knowles, books like The Politics of Black Women’s Hair, and hundreds of articles have opened up different conversations around the topic.

Sophomore Ashley Lockett said straight hair is seen as professional because it’s white, and considering black hair unprofessional is microaggression which is a sub form of racism.

“In this society, people do anything to kind of uplift the white community even in forms of hair, they’ll try to discriminate against people’s hair that isn’t like the euro centric kind of based hair,” Lockett said.

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