Saturday, April 22, 2006

I am not my hair

"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.


? said...

Nice post Nkem! Energising, glad to see this early today. I think it's time to grow my hair. Will check back regularly.
ps: Nice lyrics too "i am not my hair"
Have a good day!!!

Ore said...

(Grin) Loved reading this. I admit that I've given very little thought to the issues that men might have with their hair. It's quite refreshing to know that they do have some.

I think that black people are slowly accepting the beauty of natural hair, though I met a few deep pockets of resitance when I was still in the US and definitely here in Lagos. On the whole though, the more people they see rocking various natural styles, the more 'normal' natural hair appears. In a way it's a bit sad, because it's another form of conforming and as soon as the trends change, many will follow in the new direction.

PS: Were/are you on the Nigerian Business Forum list?

Anonymous said...

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

That is the biggest lie I've ever heard, EVER.

You stopped cutting your hair because I told you to -on pain of death.

purleeze. Like you'd ever have been so bold without my I-N-S-P-I-R-A-T-I-O-N!

Credit where credit's due, matey!

culturalmiscellany said...

Thank goodness someone is talking sense.

I too much prefer the natural look when it comes to black hair. I don't agree that you should do nothing with your hair as I have seen some shocking sights but corn rows or twists are more than acceptable to me and I don't think should be penalised against in the workplace. I'd be more offended by lip studs and nose rings. I actually think some of your recent experiments have looked good ;)

I will say this though, the 'fixing' of ones hair to make it acceptable is not solely an issue for black women. My hair is shocking in the morning and stands in all directions as I have a short cut style so I am forced to wash it every day to get it to look like I haven't just put my fingers in the plug sockets. Other white women spend hours straightening their hair with irons every morning just so people don't see 'kinks' in their hair, as if that's a problem!!! I think all mankind has been conned by the fashion industry about what is right and wrong.

Oh and before I forget can you convince my boyfriend to do something different with his hair. I like it how it is and will love him whatever but a bit of Grace's INSPIRATION wouldn't be moaned about should it appear :)

culturalmiscellany said...

oh bother i meant Kemi's inspiration - please forgive me Kemi!

Anonymous said...

handsome? with that hair? i think you are exxagerating a little bit. lol. nice post.

tori said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tori said...

Lol. Thanks for the video. I am ashamed to admit I am [well, was, until i read this] a hater of men with cornrows and locks [I dont mind the Gizmo-man look] but your post made me think about it a little bit. Sounds like men get just as bored with one look as we women do.

I am also severely tempted to cut it all off and shout from the rooftops "I am not my hair!!!" but I know I'll simply panic and run out and buy huge beautiful earrings to compensate. :smile:

Olawunmi said...

i enjoyed reading this. i also stopped cutting my hair a while ago and now i'm getting those same comments. i don'y comb it regularly either; due to some gene thai i inheritted from my mother, my hair looks like dreadlocks 10 minutes after you comb it anyway, so why bother?

being the rebel that i am, my parents have refrained from commenting, because thats the fastest way to strengthen whatever absent-minded resolve which prompted me to grow it in the first place. oddly thoug i get the odd, "your hair looks nice" or "you look more like a man when you grow your hair", which is strange considering what i suspect their real feelings are.

i had a long discussuion with my father about how african churches place far too much emphasis on appearance at the expense of actually ministering to the spirit. he agreed that it really shouldn't matter if a man has corn-rows or earrings, especially when you consider that in biblical times the men wore their hair and jewellry in ways that we would consider feminine in modern times. in any case, how can anyone say that it is not african to have braided hair, when the men have been braiding their hair since before the slave raiders ever visited the shores of the motherland? my dad's a pastor by the way, so his opinion counted for a bit in my ears, little did he know i was setting him up. i do get my hair braided when i want to, but it HURTS!!

i'm growing my hair until the necessity of fitting into the corporate world dictates that i have it cut. its such a beautiful thing, and why do i have to conform to all of society's expectations anyway?

keep your head (and hair) up man.


Opium said...

Whatever, you should still have combed your hair before going on Question Time and you know that you braid your hair so that it looks presentable so stop trying to act all known conformist.

I work in "corporate world" and oyinbo people are so ignorant of what black hair that I doubt that they'd comment if I went to work with cornrows (I admit that they might not be so accepting of a guy with cornrows, that would be seen as chavish).

adefunke said...

I just got back from a trip home. My mum waitied a whole day before asking 'so are we going for the Bob Marley look?' I had to laugh. At least she didn't ask me to comb it which to my mind menas we are making progress. I haven't combed my hair since November last year by the way and I am loving it.

culturalmiscellany said...

Adefunke, I like the 'Bob Marley' comment by your Mum.

My grandmother tried such humour when my father returned from 1st year Uni in the 70's with long brown hair, and moustache - she asked where his 'ring of thorns' were!

Anonymous said...

In the 2+ years I've been growing my natural hair, I've had the weirdest comments from Nigerians, ranging from 'Oh! So you're one of those afrocentric sistahs?', to the classic 'Don't you have money to buy relaxer?'

Even my own mother regularly calls me up just to say 'I hope you've decided stop your nonsense and perm your hair o. Do you want people to think your family doesn't have money to perm your hair, ehn?'

I wish I could explain the freedom you get with natural hair - you don't need to worry about rain, or going swimming, or simply sweating at night. You can wash it as often as you want, and change styles as often as you want - all you need is beeswax and black gel.

It's a shame, therefore, that I blow dry/tong my hair straight when going for job interviews, as I know it'll boost my chances of getting a job.

As for guys - you have no excuse of having rough hair - the hairstyle that makes us females look quirky makes you look mad. I know the pain involved in combing hair, but it helps to comb it when it's wet. Try it.

Nkem said...

@Ore, yep I'm a member of the infamous NBF.

@Kemi, of course you were my inspiration. I believe you terrified me into growing it :) I won't tell what you did.

@Opium, nope I shouldn't have combed my hair before going on QT. I was going to be on national television, the very reason I shouldn't have some pretend hair imposed on me by some unknown he-devil.

Butterfly Jones said...

I love all your hairstyles Nkem, and good on you for keeping it real on QT. As a dreadlock wearer of ten years now, you are preaching to the converted. And I prefer a man with some hair, uncombed or dreaded or otherwise. I'm not a huge fan of the Morris Chestnut look, but before I get hate-mail it's not a dealbreaker, merely a preference.

I faced no opposition from my parents, but when I first went natural got quite a few rude comments, but they didn't phase me, because I knew I was just being me. I find it amazing that people will criticise someone for wearing their hair in a natural state, but think weaves, never-ending plaits and 'conking' their hair is normal!?!

Olawunmi said...

@ butterfly

"I find it amazing that people will criticise someone for wearing their hair in a natural state, but think weaves, never-ending plaits and 'conking' their hair is normal!?!"


Nneka's World said...

Well said!
i cant stop laughing at your conversation with your mom about your hair.
And there i was thinking it was only we girls that fret over what to do with our hair.
I do apply the chemicals to my hair, dont like weaves as they can be very hot and frankly i dont relish scratching the thing 24/7. I mainly braid or cornroll my hair and i do leave my hair out for a month before putting it back in braids.

I love the shaved look as well as the afro look on men, but cornrolls are sort of a hit and miss, cause not everyone suits it, like those ones that have no hair in front (guys i mean) and still insist on braiding and removing what little hair they have left on thier head.
There is nothing like a nice well groomed head of hair!

Seriously loving this post

Anonymous said...

so happy to see a nigerian man who loves nappy hair. that is a rare thing indeed. if i wasn't taken i would have sent you a pic of my fro.

Anonymous said...

Why do I love this post? I love natural hair on guys and girls.

Your conversation with your mom reminds me of my conversation with mine. I went natural - no problem. But then I decided to do twists for my graduation - wahala. LOL. My mom started asking my aunts why they let me loc my hair. Mind you my hair isn't loc'ed. A year later - my mom loved it.

next problem: free form Afro. She was used to the twists and "controlled afro" but when I did my hair just like the girl in that picture, I got the speech beginning with "A woman's hair is her crowning glory". I agree and I choose to crown myself with my hair wild and free. It's beautiful to me and looks beautiful on me.

We'll see what happens when I start loc'ing.

My point: Go you!!! I love to hear about Naija men who like natural hair. Luckily, they are not as few as I thought.

Anonymous said...

Way to go mate. I recently moved over from Naija. Before I left Naija, I had grown my hair for like 6 months in anticipation. The moment I got here and started working, I began to dread up. There definitely will be a confrontation when my mom comes over later this year, but I can't be bothered. It's my hair, it doesn't define my person or my behavior.