CW: descriptions of anti-Black violence

As Black people, our entire existence is political. And our bodies and what we do with them — how we use them to subvert and buck up against colonialist, ableist, elitist, capitalist, and racist ideologies about Blackness — is a necessary form of resistance. Black hair is a matter of our existence that has historically faced scrutiny and policing on par with Black sexuality and Black reproduction, and Black women have a unique relationship with these facets of Blackness and how they become understood through White ascendant ideals of respectability and personhood. The joint forces of anti-Blackness, patriarchy/paternalism, and misogyny continually converge, placing Black women in a space where we receive the brunt of these discriminations through racialized and gendered forms of violence that work to dehumanize and subjugate us. In this way, Blackness becomes situated as something which is fashionable only when it is taken from us, dissected, disemboweled, and worn on other bodies.

Michelle Obama – the only FLOTUS I recognize – was recently photographed wearing her natural hair.monaturalhair It was pulled back into a simple pony puff, accompanied by a gray and white polka dotted headband. There was nothing extravagant about the textured mane. Despite its quietness, Black women exploded with glee at finally getting a glimpse at Michelle in her natural state after years of waiting and wishing; being teased with a photoshopped image of her with a bomb ass twist out as well as her stylist’s confirmation that she had in fact been fully natural for several years back in 2015. We are overjoyed that she can now enjoy the freedom of no longer living under the constant scrutiny that she was forced to endure during her eight years serving as our First Lady. Seeing Michelle being unbossed, unbothered, unpressed, and heat-damage free brings us so much pride because we understand how absolutely suffocating it is to have to perform a respectable Blackness, lest our intelligence, beauty, or worth be even further questioned as Black women.

It would have been beyond monumental for us to have seen her wearing her natural kinks during the Obama presidency. I am certain that tears would have been shed at the sight of the First Lady donning an afro or a natural up-do at a White House function or while out spending time with Sasha and Malia. I wish so much that this had been the case, but I also understand why it never happened. As it has been said, time and time again, Black hair is always political.

The trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – the systematic abducting, displacing, and enslaving of Africans across the globe – has left a lasting impact across the entire diaspora. Enslaved Africans were not afforded personhood and, as such, were treated as non-humans throughout slavery, the Antebellum era, and beyond. This lack of personhood is significant in understanding the history of Blackness and the relationships of Black people to the government and the law. Dred Scott sued to be recognized as a person in 1857 and was denied that right by the U.S. government. That decision was overturned with the 14th amendment in 1868, but the concept of Blackness as non-human and animalistic did not magically disappear from the social psyche and the white imagination. Legally, Black people were “human,” but were still socially and culturally regarded as subhuman.

In 1888, The Mercury published an anecdote from a man about his encounter with a foreign physician in Philadelphia who wore peculiar shoes:

“I remember that two or three years ago I incidentally referred to a prominent physician of this city wearing shoes made from the skin of negroes. He still adhered to that custom, insisting that the tanned hide of an African makes the most enduring and the most pliable leather known to man…

…A young society lady of this city wears a beautiful pair of dark slippers, the remarkable lustrousness of whose leather invariably excites the admiration of her friends when they see them. The young doctor who presented them to her recently returned from an extended foreign tour, and he told her that he had purchased them from a Turk in Alexandria, and that he did not know what sort of leather they were made of, but he supposed it was the skin of some wild animal. As a matter of fact, the skin came from a negro cadaver, which was once prone on a Jefferson College dissecting table, and the leather was prepared in Womseldorf. The rosettes on the slippers were deftly fashioned from the negro’s kinky hair.”

Our abductors not only used our ancestors for forced labor and sexual gratification, but they also took from their bodies at will. In September of last year, YouTube user Yisreael Ben Yehudah uploaded a video displaying a 200 year-old chair that he was restoring for a wealthy family from the northern part of Georgia. When he removed the fabric cover, he discovered that the chair had been stuffed with hand-picked cotton and hair. “Imagine how many slaves it took to fill this chair with human hair,” he laments, astounded at how much there is. These people were told that their kinky hair was dirty, ugly, and inferior, only to then have it taken from them, either while living or in their death, and deemed appropriate to be used as a product in service to whiteness and white indulgence – whether that be to provide the cushioning beneath fancy upholstery or to be shaped into the delicate rosettes affixed to shoes made from the skin of a negro cadaver.

The exploitation of Black bodies and Black hair in this hideous fashion is merely one facet of a much larger impression. It is a practice that is indelibly linked with the methodical governing of Black hair, especially Black women’s hair. Under ordinance of the Tignon Laws, Black women were obligated to cover their hair in public. The edicts were introduced in the 1780s in New Orleans by the Spanish colonizers as a way to curb the social progress of the Black people there. Along with prohibiting Black people from renting apartments or purchasing liquor, they also demanded that Black women wear tignon wraps over their hair in order to signify their inferior social standing and to prevent them from drawing the attentions of white men and the ire of white women with their elaborate, adorned hairstyles¹. Blackness is a fashion that only Black people are prohibited from wearing. It is permissible only when it can be used to serve the comforts of others.

The list of the ways in which Black women have specifically been targeted by the anti-Black governance of hair is a long one, and it includes more than I have room to discuss here: Black braiders have been fighting unfair licensing laws for years. Several states have required that these stylists “endure hundreds of hours of unnecessary coursework and pay thousands of dollars before they can legally work.”² Black women have been fired, denied jobs, and discharged from military service due to unfair anti-Black regulations and deeply held beliefs about the “unprofessionalism” of Black hair. Black girls have been sent home from school and threatened with suspension for wearing their natural hair, which is seen either as a “distraction” or as in violation of dress codes. One girl had one of her braids cut off by a teacher in the classroom as a form of punishment (read: physical assault) because she was “playing in her hair” too much. South African girls were forced to lead an entire insurrection to be able to wear their natural hair to school in 2016.

How can we instill any confidence in Black girls to love their natural hair when they can be suspended or expelled for wearing it to school? And when the Black women in their lives are losing their jobs or are sometimes unable to secure employment simply because of their hair? They are being told, in more ways than one, that this amazing part of themselves is something that they should be punished for, while also being denied their right to education because of the way that their hair naturally grows. Our hair is a part of us. It’s a part of who we are, quite literally. Our cottony hair is the fabric of our Blackness. And we continue to be reprimanded in ways that directly affect our educational, professional, and financial mobility, because others are constantly seeking to destroy this fundamental part of us, only to pilfer it to adorn themselves with.

It is a painful and deeply damaging experience – having our hair policed by the nation-state at such a minute level – that sets us apart from every other race and ethnicity. The world demands that we shrink ourselves and diminish our Blackness for the comfort of others. We are constantly coerced into conforming to White supremacist ideals of beauty and propriety, so much so that even amongst ourselves we value natural Black hair that is perceptibly closer to Whiteness; deeming looser curls with baby hairs and laid edges as “good” hair, but tighter coils and undefined kinks as “nappy”/”bad” hair. White supremacist violences have done irreparable damage to our psyche, and we have internalized the very genocidal anti-Blackness that seeks to annihilate every part of our Blackness. And in the midst of it all, we are continually forced to remember and witness the appropriative donning of Blackness and Black hairstyles as accessories on non-Black bodies. Our hair – just like our skin and our lips – is, in fact, envied. We are vilified for our natural features, but those same features are glorified and understood on other bodies.

Imagine my surprise when I learned of Uncombable Hair Syndrome: a medical condition which is characterized by “hair that is disorderly; stands out from the scalp; and cannot be combed flat.” However, a distinct characteristic of this hair is that it is “silvery-blond or straw-colored,” meaning that this syndrome is mainly diagnosed in White people. Yes, someone invented a medical condition for tender-headed White people with frizzy hair. No, Black people don’t get to have any such accommodation or consideration when we are being actively discriminated against for our hair that “stands out from the scalp; and cannot be combed flat.” (And if you are still unsure as to whether or not discrimination and bias against Black natural hair exists, the whispering White people over at NPR recently reported on a comprehensive study which has validated everything that Black people have been saying for years through White knowledge production. Because these phenomena don’t exist until White people prove that they exist via sociological studies).

This conversation about our hair is constant and inescapable. Consider Bill O’Reilly’s recent comments on Maxine Waters: “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.” Black hair has been policed by damn near everyone, especially Black women’s hair. And the politics of desirability and propriety are nearly-always used to devalue Black people, especially Black women, and to invalidate our words and experiences, regardless of how intelligent and articulate and insightful we may be. Just imagine what O’Reilly and other Conservative Republicans might have said about Michelle Obama had she worn her hair in its natural state during her time as the First Lady, when she was already subjected to so much vile misogynoiristic rhetoric. This is why Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics on “Humble,” regardless of his intention, strike a chord with Black women; because he is continuing the long legacy of others commenting on and policing the choices of Black women regarding our hair, demanding that we wear it for their viewing pleasure and consumption, and in a fashion that does not offend their sensibilities, whatever they may be. With “Show me somethin’ natural like Afro on Richard Pryor,” Kendrick assumes, as countless others have, that Black women’s hair does not belong to Black women.

I carry the knowledge of this entire history, and more, with me daily. Years upon years of abuses and dehumanization manifested through the governing, appropriating, despoiling, and degrading of Black hair. The way that our hair has been regarded as too grotesque and unacceptable to be worn freely on our own bodies, but suitable enough to be used as fodder for the various lavish accoutrements made for the comfort and extravagance of Whiteness is just one of the many violences that we experience under the cloak of White supremacy. It evokes within me a sinking and blistering feeling that I have not the words to fully describe. So, when Michelle Obama steps out with her ungoverned naturalness visible in all of its glory, and of her own volition, know that she is living her best life. And I am 100% here for it.

 

¹ http://blackgirllonghair.com/2014/07/shocking-history-why-women-of-color-in-the-1800s-were-banned-from-wearing-their-hair-in-public/

² http://ij.org/issues/economic-liberty/braiding/


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Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She writes pop culture and media analysis, and is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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