The politics of black hair is one that has only become more complicated with the passage of time as we work to define what blackness really is – and if natural hair is a requirement of blackness at all.
The above image is a photograph of a white woman wearing a fake afro. The afro is large, black, and voluminous, and is banded by a purple headband. She wears stereotypical garb – bright blue with orange patterns – and a thick silver necklace. She holds her hand out like a claw, and her expression is angry – eyebrows low, teeth bared, mouth crooked, eyes wide. She looks like an animal.
Black hair is political. In the Harlem Renaissance, there was a push for neatness and cleanliness among the black middle class. Since in US culture both then and now clean and neat hair meant straight and flat hair, with curly or nappy hair signifying wildness (think of the expression of the woman in the image), this meant that middle and upper class black people were wearing their hair relaxed or otherwise straightened. The following Black Arts Movement pushed in the opposite direction – it narrowed the definition of blackness and required that people embrace blackness in order to reclaim it. The result of this was seen especially among women, as we see in The Cotillion. In order for Yoruba to reclaim her blackness, she is forced to cut her relaxed hair and go natural.
For Yoruba and many black women, going natural is not a simple act of scissors to hair – as a result of this politicization of black hair, going natural is an emotional experience and often is read as making a statement. Many black women have had their hair relaxed or have worn it straight for years. For Yoruba and other black women, accepting their hair the way that it grows out of their heads is a radical act. We see this in Yoruba’s struggle as she tries to convince herself to go natural.
“The Afro-natural thing was a new thing for Yoruba. She had waged a running battle with it for many many months… she had vacillated, equivocated, rationalized, hemmed and hawed, and gone through other varied and sundry changes. To be or not to be? Should she or shouldn’t she? But now, at this very history moment, it was a time of great decision” (Killens, 206).
Despite this emotional and deep-rooted struggle, black hair is something that some white women have sought to emulate. Whether it be a desperation to be a part of an exoticized culture or a simple desire to be different, some white women have chosen to be a part of the black hair movement by imitating black hair. When three white girls show up at the cotillion “wearing Afro wigs and darkly-tinted contact lenses,” they had been treated like black girls. When these girls declare their whiteness, they are apologized to and told, “We thought you all were colored.” (Killens, 223)
Whatever the reason that white girls have for wanting to imitate black women, one thing is for certain – they will never be a part of the movement long as they can remove their blackness the moment it causes them some trouble.
Killens, John. The Cotillion. St.Paul: Coffeehouse Press, 2002. Print.
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