Lupita Nyong’o, Kenyan-Mexican actress, noted for her work in Black Panther, one of the highest grossing films ever
Maxine Williams, T&T national, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Facebook
Alek Wek, South Sudanese British model and designer
Her Excellency, Paula-Mae Weekes, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago …
What connects these women? All of African heritage, all successful and all choose to wear their hair in natural hairstyles. Their professions span the worlds of media, fashion, law film and more. How would they react to the view that because of their natural hair, they are not perceived as professional?
My stomach churned as I watched Wendy Fitzwilliam berate a young woman for wanting to keep her natural hair as a contestant on Ms. Fitzwilliam’s ‘Next Top Model’. I hoped that eventually social media would announce that the video was fake. I waited, and checked the news reports. The newsfeeds reinforced what I feared – it was not a hoax.
That is not what I would have expected. Commenting on Miss Jamaica, Davina Bennett, who was exceedingly successful in the 2017 Miss Universe competition, Ms. Fitzwilliam apparently said that “She’s a stunning and confident black woman, and her decision to wear her beautiful crown of natural hair was just otherworldly.”
So there is clearly an understanding that the question of black hair goes beyond fashion. Colin Kaepernick, controversial American footballer, did not invent using hair as a political statement when he knelt during the national anthem. In the 1920’s, Marcus Garvey was one of the first to link hair and resistance, telling his followers “remove the kink from your mind, not your hair.” The rise of African consciousness in the 1970s saw women strutting across catwalks wearing Afros, bantu knots and other signature African hair styles. In the United States, Angela Davis’s Afro became synonymous with militant resistance to racial injustice. At home, these movements paved the way for workers in the notoriously conservative banking sector and other areas of business to wear their hair natural.
Despite these strides, it is important to understand the normalising of negative self-image and behaviour by people of African heritage as a result of enslavement. Dr. Joy de Gruy-Leary’s ‘Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome’ demonstrates how the promoters of this system used mock scientific studies or academic research to justify their illegal trade in humans. For instance, in the 1700s, Carl Von Linnaeus developed racial classifications based on skin colour, but as de Gruy-Leary points out, not based around any solid scientific data. Von Linnaeus referred to indigenous peoples as Homo Americanus, reddish, obstinate; Homo Europaeus or white people, blue-eyed and gentle and people of African heritage as Homo Afer, cunning, lazy and lustful.
Institutionally, Professor Hilary Beckles has documented that the British parliament passed over 100 laws that allowed the enslaved to be treated by the courts as property, not as people.” From Britain to the United States, published documents by respected academics, persons in authority and religious leaders supported this distortion. For instance, Reverend John Newtown, author of the song Amazing Grace opined that “slaves are lesser creatures, without Christian souls and thus are not destined for the next world.”
Over the four centuries of African chattel slavery, concerted steps were taken to ensure the de-humanisation of the African. Their traditional belief systems were belittled and replaced by Christianity, families were separated and cultural practices were forbidden. African hair texture and styles were included in this invented identity of inferiority, to the extent that derogatory names became accepted as reality – hard head, nappy, knotty, dada head – derisive terms that persist today.
I am somewhat heartened to see that the young lady who succumbed to the pressure to relax her hair is now demanding an apology. It is a start, but it is not enough. The battle for the mind is still being waged as descendants of enslaved persons struggle to break free of mental enslavement. I thought by now that people of African heritage would have understood that they were brainwashed. Sadly, it appears that the brainwashing was so effective that generations later, the enslavers are still given voice by the very people they oppressed. For what it’s worth, I add my voice today to the powerful women who stand firm. Hair is my resistance.