I wrote part of this last year. I never got around to sharing it. Today felt like the perfect day to do so!
My family had a fortnightly ritual. On Saturdays of each fortnight, my mother would take my hand in hers and we would go to the hairdresser. There, Aunty SiSi, a nice chatty woman, would immerse my hair in a hair relaxer until my scalp was almost flattened. She would ask me to tell her when it hurt and in ten minutes, I would do just that. She would then sit me under a hair-drying machine for my hair to dry. When my hair dried, she would style it elegantly. This was culture and I saw no reason to question it.
I was 19 years old when I read Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Americanah. An epic love story that subsumed numerous themes of love, race, politics and curiously “hair”. Ifemelu, the protagonist, is a Nigerian immigrant living in America. For her first job interview, she is advised by a friend to relax her hair to make it look more professional. Ifemelu wants a job, so she takes her friend’s advice. When she leaves the hair salon, her hair is unrecognizable, it no longer stands in its natural halo, neither is it thick and black. Her hair is thin, straight and falls to the back of her neck. For various reasons, notably the fact that the chemicals in the hair relaxer damaged her scalp, Ifemelu decides to cut off her hair completely. She grows it naturally, adds no relaxers and finds an online community to advise her on hair products. She is teased for it, called “jungle” by a streetwalker and Ifemelu’s aunt tells her that natural hair is just “untidy”. Yet, Ifemelu persevered.
I think sometimes by being African you are automatically disadvantaged. You are born into a culture where philosophy is not celebrated. You are not encouraged to ask questions but expected to take things as they are. I never once asked my mother why I had to put chemicals in my hair every few weeks.
I researched on African and African American hair and found lots of materials. My natural, kinky, nappy hair apparently had a history of not being accepted in society. I recently saw an interesting documentary that shed more light on our hair;
Hair was the difference between life and death for our ancestors. Our ancestors would place rice, seeds and sometimes gold on the scalp between two sections of hair. They did this so if they were captured and forced to voyage across the Atlantic, they would at least have a small amount of food for sustenance. The technique was also used if they were planning a brave escape. Seeds and gold could help them build a new life. In the 1800s, African women were required to keep their hair covered in head wraps, except on Sundays when some could remove the wrap and style the hair for church. When left with nothing but their spirits, resilience shone through. With no combs or brushes available, they’d use wool carding tools to comb through tangles…
Early African American men wore their hair in “conks”. A style achieved after straightening the hair with chemicals. This was until the Black Power movement of the 1950s took place popularizing the Afro. Still, today, most descendants of Africans prefer to straighten their hair and wear straight, long hairpieces – human hair.
“If our hair could talk, it would tell you a story of power. Our coils hold the DNA of survivors.” – Crowned Ladies
Reading Americanah made me realize I needed to ask myself deeper questions about my choices and actions. Do I do things because I am born into a world where they are done or do I question the moral and ethical implications of what I have done? Is there a reason or am I simply internalizing the values I had been born into? These questions planted seeds inside of me that grew and bloomed into courage.
An unexamined life is a life not worth living. It was Socrates’s words I thought of as I walked into my neighborhood barbershop on the 30th of December, 2015 – two years after reading Americanah and transitioning – determined to shave off all my permed hair and embrace the kinky natural hair that I was born to have.