On Liberating the History
of Black Hair
Emma Dabiri Deconstructs Colonial Ideas of Blackness
Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair examines the continuities and ruptures that characterize black history, and the interweaving connections between Africa, America and Europe. In writing this book I found myself uncovering the racist underpinnings of the categorization of Afro hair, most virulently espoused in the disturbing, eugenics of the Nazi scientist Eugen Fischer, as well as the ways in which hair—at times more than complexion—has been used to categorize people as black.
However, it was crucial to me that I liberate our history from any singular emphasis on the effects of racism and “white supremacy.” In doing so, I examined pre-colonial African history to uncover the deep spiritual and cultural roots of black hairstyling; how the intricate patterns have millennia old histories which have been used to convey everything from fractal mathematics, to detailed social commentary and history, and even—in defiance of the slave masters of Colombia—secret maps to freedom.
As a black child with tightly coiled hair, growing up in an incredibly white, homogeneous, socially conservative Ireland, I certainly wasn’t considered pretty, but that started to change in my midteens. I remember being told that I was “lucky I was pretty,” which meant I could “almost get away with being black.” However, there remained the unquestioned expectation that certain measures would be taken to keep my affliction at bay. Needless to say, the most offensive manifestations of my threatening blackness had to be rigorously policed.
As I got older, my skin color could almost correspond to the “tan” my peers were all obsessed with achieving. I still got the jokes about needing a flash to take a photograph of me, or the classic likening of my complexion to dirt, but it was my hair that remained unforgivable. Anything that could be done to disguise it, to manipulate and mutilate it, was up for consideration. The concept of leaving it the way it grew from my head was simply inconceivable.
There is long evidence of both weaving attachments as well as the use of wigs throughout Africa. In most black cultures the frequent and radical transformation of hair is typical, and the wearing of artificial hair, including wigs, is not traditionally stigmatized in the same way it is in mainstream—no, let me dispense with polite euphemisms, I mean “white”—culture.
Considering the great diversity of styles available, it is worth noting that throughout the 20th century and until recently (with the exception of the Black Power period and immediately afterward) very few included working with Afro hair texture. Personally, I was trying to get as far away from my own texture as possible. Today, I’m much freer and, now that I’ve embraced my natural texture, I’m also happy to rock a pink body-wave wig, although I’m more likely not to. There is untold fun to be had experimenting with hair. But when I was in school it was emphatically not about fun. My actions were a bid for assimilation, by way of disguise. My efforts stemmed from a cardinal terror that people would catch sight of my real hair. From weaves, to extensions, Jheri curls, curly perms, straight perms, and straighteners, my hair was hidden, misunderstood, damaged, broken, and completely unloved. It is hardly surprising. I never saw anybody with hair like mine. Afro hair was—and in many places still is—stigmatized to the point of taboo.
Growing up, I was made to feel terribly conspicuous; always under scrutiny, an object to be examined. When people saw me, they did not see me, they saw a symbol, a poorly cobbled together approximation of an African. In the famous train passage in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon, the renowned Martinican psychiatrist and postcolonial icon, explores the psychological effects of the white gaze upon the black subject: “Look, a Negro . . . Look at the nigger! . . . Mama, a Negro!”
I vividly remember his analysis of these words soothing like a balm when I first encountered them at nineteen years old. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t solely motivated by a “chip on my shoulder.” Fanon legitimized my experiences and identified their psychological cost. Such validation was met with a sense of relief I still feel all these years later. As an isolated “mixed-race” or black individual in a predominantly white environment, you become a cipher, a representation of a coming anarchy. The barbarians have breached the gates and you are the manifestation of all the fantasies, fears, and desires that have been absorbed by a population fed a steady diet of racist discourse. You are constantly under surveillance. You become achingly aware of your every gesture; your movements, your very posture, are at all times under analysis. Mundane details, the minutiae of your daily routine, are a performance for public consumption.
While I could not articulate it at the time, I experienced the suffocating weight of such an existence deeply. I felt like some kind of experiment, like a sideshow freak, and I eventually became incredibly paranoid. It got to the point where I was extremely uncomfortable with people even looking at me. My hair, in particular, was a spectacle, the site upon which most of this attention was concentrated.
When we think about what we are taught constitutes beautiful hair, the characteristics of Afro hair are notable only for their absence. Straight, shiny, glossy, smooth, flowing . . . that’s certainly not my hair. What’s my hair like again? Oh yes, of course. Coarse. Dry. Tough. Hard. Nappy. Frizzy. Wild. The English language has bequeathed us this list of pejoratives, which are perceived as adequate to describe Afro-textured hair in its entirety. Now don’t get me wrong, I know Caucasian hair can be described as greasy, lank, or thin, but it is not routinely described thus—and can you imagine the horror if I casually referred to a white woman’s hair in this way, to her face!
The words we use to describe Afro hair do not relate to its texture and, judged by another’s metric, it will always come up lacking. But we do not possess a list of words that reflect the qualities of Afro hair, words that demonstrate its strengths, beauty, and versatility.
Even the labels on our bloody natural hair products can’t seem to shift out of this mode of thinking. We are assaulted by words like “defiant,” “wild,” “unruly,” “unmanageable,” and “coarse.” We might manage to squeeze out a “cool” or a “funky,” but our hair is never just “normal.” Beauty is, as ever, imagined through the characteristics of a standard not designed to include us. The only way Afro hair can seemingly fulfill the criteria for beauty is if we make it look like European hair—if we make ourselves look like something we are not.
The world around us fuels a powerful narrative about hair and femininity. From fairy tales to advertisements, movies and music videos, our icons tend to be lusciously locked. For girls and women, femininity is intricately bound up in hair. For a long time, long, flowing hair remained one of the most powerful markers of being a woman. But that is not how Afro hair grows; generally, it grows upward. Of course, femininity—like beauty—remains a culturally specific project, and certainly not one designed with the physicality of black women in mind. Nonetheless, we are expected to conform to these standards, and woe betide us if we cannot.
This pressure to conform to European standards of beauty is far more than the grass-is-always-greener type of vanity it is often dismissed as. In the Pretoria High School incident, these little girls were told they couldn’t come to school looking like themselves because they had to look “neat.” Two weeks later, a US federal court ruled that it was legal to fire a female employee for having dreadlocks, deeming them “unprofessional.” But the terms “neat” and “professional” are both highly constructed, and to deem black people’s hair as it grows naturally from our heads neither neat nor professional is incredibly revealing. The way language operates in the politics of power here is significant. “Unruly,” “defiant,” “unmanageable,” “coarse.” Consider these terms in the context of the regulatory nature of policies around our hair. Language that is now culturally unacceptable—the language of the colony or the plantation, the language once employed to describe black people—has not vanished; it has simply shifted to head height.
Hair-straightening for people of African descent emerges from a traumatic historical legacy. Since the advent of the slave trade—the centuries-long transatlantic trade in black flesh—our humanity has not been something straightforwardly assumed. While most of the world’s population is melanated (is that a word? It should be!), there are few populations beyond those of African descent (and some Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians) who have Afro hair. Our hair is the physical marker that distinguishes us from all other racial groups.
In denying black people their humanity, the hair that grows from their heads was—one might argue, still is—considered more similar to the wool or fur of an animal than to the straight human tresses of Europeans. One of the enduring problems of the modern age, the real reason that racism continues to plague us, is that we continue to advance ideas of blackness that were invented during the psychotic period of European global expansion. The “knowledge” produced in that era remains with us to this day, its echoes ricocheting down through the centuries and settling to fix and frame people of African descent as characters not of our own making. The idea that Africans are culturally inferior to Europeans was widely advanced from the 1700s, but by the 19th century this had evolved into “scientific racism,” which established the idea that empirical scientific evidence could be used to demonstrate that “Africans” were an entirely distinct species.
An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, written by Arthur de Gobineau in 1853, famed for his development of the idea of a superior Aryan race, had rejected unity between humans, proclaiming, “According to the natural law already mentioned, the black race, belong[s] as it does to a branch of the human family that is incapable of civilization.” “Negroes” were granted the privilege of occupying the lowest rung of all the species, closer to apes than to whites. Gobineau’s writing inspired many, not least American white supremacists. Types of Mankind, a collection of letters and articles by six scholars attempting to explain the most “cutting edge” scientific knowledge regarding race, written a year later in 1854, stated, “The differences observed among the races of men are of the same kind and ever greater than those upon which the anthropoid monkeys are considered as distinct species.” Josiah Nott, one of the contributors to Types of Mankind and himself an owner of slaves, conveniently claimed that “the negro achieves his greatest perfection, physical and moral, and also greatest longevity, in a state of slavery.” He ignored the sections in Gobineau’s writing where the latter spoke disdainfully about white Americans themselves, whom he believed to be an inferior, racially mixed population.
Yet despite the centrality of hair texture as one of the primary features in marking “blackness,” its importance is routinely overlooked. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson explains:
Hair type rapidly became the real symbolic badge of slavery, although like many powerful symbols, it was disguised—in this case by the linguistic device of using the term “black”—which nominally threw the emphasis to color. No one who has grown up in a multiracial society, however, is unaware of the fact that hair difference is what carries the real symbolic potency.
Patterson argues that during slavery it was hair texture more than skin color that distinguished Africans specifically as degenerate. Think about it: an African albino is still read as black due to their hair and features. There are East Asian and South Asians who have darker complexions than some Africans and who are certainly darker-skinned than many African Americans and African Caribbeans, yet they are not “black.”
The nifty little “hair gauge” opposite resides in a collection at University College London. It was designed by the German scientist Eugen Fischer in 1905. Fischer used hair texture to determine the “whiteness” of people of mixed race, the offspring of German or Boer men and African women in modern-day Namibia. He carried out experiments on these people before recommending that they should not be allowed to “continue to reproduce.” Accordingly, interracial marriages were banned in all German colonies in 1912.
Fischer’s “work” in Africa was hugely influential in German discourse on race and went on to inform the Nuremberg Laws, the legislative framework for Nazi ideology. Fischer’s interest in the “hereditarily unfit,” as mixed-race people were classified, didn’t end in Africa. In fact, Fischer was just getting started. Between 1937 and 1938, he oversaw tests on 600 mixed-race children, the product of liaisons between the French-African soldiers who occupied western areas of Germany after the First World War and German women. Following this, the children were forcibly sterilized to prevent the contamination of the white race “by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe.”
Twisted by Emma Dabiri is available via Harper Perennial.