"I am not my hair" is the title of the new single by India Arie, featuring Akon. In the video, she's seen with a variety of hairstyles, while Akon sings about how his couldn't get a job until he cut his hair. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a topic close to my heart. I decided to grow my hair a few years ago, mainly because I was tired of cutting it, which I felt was a boring option. Ever since then, my friends have made noise about my hair. "When are you going to cut your hair?", "what are you trying to do with your hair?", or more commonly, "are you trying to be Gizmo Man (pictured) from the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon?" The answer to those questions are: no, I'm not cutting my hair anytime soon; I'm not particularly trying to do anything with my hair; and yes, I am trying to be Gizmo Man, who rescued his fellow Globetrotters by pulling out any and everything from his afro. If I had such superhero powers I would take out some ripe plantains, sunflower oil, free range chicken eggs, chrome finish Tefal deep fat fryer, and corned beef from an Aberdeen Angus cow, so that I can defeat that evil baddie called "Feelingus Peckishus."
I love hair. I just love hair. All you need to do is look at the floor in my room to see what I mean (I'm not molting, honest. Just little daily discharge). There have even been times when I've told friends, "oh my goodness, you should have seen the hair on this girl!" E.g. the picture on the right. Naturally, my love is for natural hair, and the inventiveness that goes with manipulating nappy African hair without having to douse it with whatever chemicals are used to tame the poor follicles. It is understandable if black women feel they have to tame the naps with weave-on, extensions or whatever. White people might have invented the phrase "bad hair day", but do they really know what it means? And if black women didn't go to work with tamed hair, there might civil unrest in the workplace.
But. The way we black people look at our hair is based on presumptions of what people expect of us. In school in Africa, we were made to comb out hair everyday with regimental discipline. Several boys even had combs in their pockets. However, as soon I moved to school in England, I could afford to not comb my hair. Four afro-haired boys (five at its peak) in a sea of over a thousand blond, brown and red haired white boys meant that teachers had little experience of afro hair, and didn't have any idea as to what was combed, and what was uncombed. So I stopped combing my hair everyday. Because just like cavemen discovered that striking two rocks together could give them flames, I discovered that when I didn't comb my hair, nobody said owt*. The black boys could also cut all their hair off i.e. go bald (which was banned) without anyone batting an eyelid. Of course there the little jibes such as, "your hair doesn't move", and "microphone head, testing, testing". Luckily, there was no baa baa black sheep, cos I might have decapitated some white boy.
As an adult though, there has been some unexplainable antipathy to me braiding my hair. Apparenty, it's "gangsta", a responsible man such as myself should not have corn rows, and, oh, it's un-African. Who ever said I was responsible, who says all gangstas use the same hairdresser, and what on earth does unAfrican** mean? The last time I went to Nigeria, I had this conversation with my mum, in the car on the way to church:
Mama: Nkemakonam, won't you comb your hair? This hair that you've refused cut.
Moi: (taking out my lock and hold gel) I'm not combing it today, Mama. I'm going to try something else.
Mama: We're going to church, this is not the time to try something else.
Moi: It's just twists, it's no big deal.
Mama: You boys in England, hmm? That's how I heard how D pierced his ears, nose, eyelids, and-
Moi: Mum, he only pierced his left ear, and like I said, this is just twists. It's perfectly reversible, no need to panic.
So I get the gel, put it in my hair, performed all the rituals. At this point, I was willing to deal with any objections she might have. It's just hair for crying out loud. When we got to church she said this to me:
Mama: (smiling) You look a little bit handsome, you know.
Moi: (smiling back) Do you think it's the hair?
Mama: (now grinning like schoolgirl) I'm not saying anything.
I got a similar reponse when I went the extra mile into parental disowning territory when I had corn rows for a family wedding. I sent the pictures to my mum through an aunt. A few days later I got a call from my mum, "I hear you've plaited your hair. I haven't seen the pictures yet, but apparently you look oddly handsome in them." People, especially parents, need to open their minds and let their kids be. I'm at the age where people expect me to go to work in a suit and tie (read noose), with closely cropped hair, shiny shoes, clean fingernails, braces, bowler hat, umbrella, and pocket watch attached to my lapel. Erm, I think not. Luckily I don't work in an industry that requires me to look "presentable". Actually, I don't work at all.
So, the people I'm hoping to liberate, are the ones stuck in corporate environments, where "dressing down" means being allowed to wear Homer Simpson socks. Do corn rows one weekend and take it in to work, I would bet my house if I owned one, that your performance won't deteriorate. Take out the extensions and let the hair breathe. Your boss sure as hell can't fire you for airing your hair.
*owt - Northern term meaning anything
** A friend of mine found a book about hairstyles across pre-20th centuryAfrica pre. And guess what, African men braided their hair. UnAfrican my bottom.
ps Pandagon has an interesting blog on the politics of hair.