‘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. The myths about black hair have led black women to mutilate and thus erase a distinctive part of their identity – their hair. This means that black women would put extremely harmful chemicals in their hair to straighten it. Or buy expensive weaves of dubious provenance to cover their stringy mop-like 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 natural afro-textured) has been with us for quite a long time. However, social media (which I have argued 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 affects only black women. This explains and illustrates the necessity of 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 can come together at the same time. In the case of black women’s hair the two systems of subordination are gender and race. The liberty (I say liberty and not right) to be an adherent of the natural hair movement is a gender issue but only applies to black women. So it illustrates that relying and positing margins of freedoms that do not account for positionality is an incomplete exercise. 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.
I have previously set forth the guiding principles of epistemic violence as set forth by G S Spivak. Simply put, epistemic violence is the cognitive inability 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. Spivak argues that epistemic violence can only be defused when the intellectual represents the silenced. This means that for a black woman, the freedom to wear natural hair is an intellectual issue as well as a matter of personal beauty. In fact as has been seen in some South African schools, merely wearing the hair one is born with is a sign of protest.
And this brings me to the crossroads of personal and political. When existence itself becomes protest, the personal is politicized. This brings into question the variable autonomy and sovereignty allowed black women. When the lines between the personal and political are blurred, personal decisions are 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 worth fighting for. For humanity. The struggle is everlasting.
A luta continua, vitória é certa