I was just reluctantly pulling out from the softest kiss, still relishing the sweet-tasting impression of our lips dancing together when he asked a question that snapped me out of my reverie “What can you do with your hair?”
I looked back at him as he moved off the bed to adjust the air conditioning in the room and I immediately felt the weight of the world return to my shoulders. I sighed. This question always comes up each time I’m wearing my hair without braids. Anything I want, I thought without answering. I wanted to ask why he’s asking me this question before I give him an answer but his answer could annoy me. So not wanting to spoil the moment, I changed the subject to something more pleasant, tea?
Yet I’ve been asked this question a million times before by all kinds of people.
Women Ask: is that your real hair? What have you done to your hair? If they are the hair stylist; why don’t you relax/blow your hair (a chemical process which makes the hair softer, straighter and easier to comb and or plait or braid/run your fingers through it) if they are “woke” or activists they don’t associate with people who do not have visible Afros or locks. Therefore if you are wearing braids/weave/wig you are dismissed as fake.
Men Ask: What can you do with your hair? Why do you wear your hair natural? Why don’t you put braids on? Why aren’t you natural? Are you going out like this? Take these things out! or if they are “woke” – why don’t you lock it?
These questions and statements are often made irrespective of the person’s race. Despite consistent negative comments or innocent questions regarding why I wear my hair the way I do, I have chosen not to debate the issue any longer. But I have also been shocked to discover that this is the one question that has been, a silent deal breaker for me. I know it’s the end when someone asks about my hair like it should look different. As we all know people like what they like, think what they think and sometimes any explanation to the contrary is futile.
Why should everything be a struggle? A fight. Can’t we just be? Do you like me or my hair?
So this week as I faced the mirror once again to undo the thin long braids I have been wearing since March I had to fight the urge to simply cut the braids off along with all my hair and start again. Because over the past four months my Afro-virgin hair (un-processed) had grown in and around the braid and had become so intertwined with the synthetic hair – it was like trying to separate salt from sugar. At the end of 2012 I cut off my locks because they had also grown in between the braids and I did not have the patience to extricate the fake from the real so I cut it all off, until I was completely bald. The bald hairstyle while acceptable in South Africa, drew even more curious looks from men and women in Senegal “etes tu un moine femme?” are you a female monk? Why don’t you wear earrings? Lipstick, something? Are you a man or a woman? You look like Mandela, another said at the supermarket. You look like me said another, a brother from another mother.
It’s different when someone close to you says it.
Since then I have committed to growing my hair and have had to resist cutting it every year which is why I often wear braids, first to allow it to grow and second so that I have something other than my hair to cut when I need a change. And with braids I don’t need a comb.
Determined to do the impossible I put on my favourite movie on repeat and tackled each braid until my hair was free of all of them and the morning sun sent light beams through my window. I went into the shower to wash and detangle it and that’s when I realized, what it is about the Afro/African hair which makes people so worked up about it. Including myself:
In its natural state African hair clings to everything. A fact which, necessitated the pencil test in South Africa to help government officials determine which race you belonged to during Apartheid, if your skin was not a clear enough indication. If they stuck a pencil into your hair and it stayed stuck,you were classified as Black. And if the pencil fell easily from your hair you’d be classified as Coloured. The latter being a more desired classification as it promised a slightly better life (opportunities) to those reserved for black-Africans.
It’s not what it seems
The black spiral coils are so tight they are often deceiving, which is why one day you can comb your hair out have a huge big afro or a straight looking do and then next moment your hair can be so short it’ll look like you’ve had a haircut, you can mold it into any shape you desire. Basically…
You can do anything you want with it.
You can make it curly, straight, short and long, you can lock it, iron it or braid it. Any hair style imaginable is possible with African hair. The naturally tight spiral coils mean it can endure so much more, it is pliable, it can stretch so much further and can also allow for an infinite amount of diverse hairstyles. At its best it stands tall and firm.
When the winds blow, it is not moved!
I think the Afro is a wonderful metaphor for Africans too. Strong and versatile. Incubators of ideas, knowledge and mysteries. Stubborn yet soft inside. While we may look friendly and outgoing or loud we are also very private and inward looking people. Once we’ve grabbed on to an idea (good or bad) we cling-tight to it, making it grow bigger and larger for better or for worse.
So while there is almost nothing I can’t do with my hair, I also know that not everything I do with it is beneficial.
Either way, it is my choice to make.