The joy of locks
African and African-American hair as performance and political statementBy John Ryle • 21 April 2000 • The Times Literary Supplement • “Hair in African Art and Culture”, at the Museum for African Art, NYC; Hair in African Art and Culture ed. Roy Sieber & Frank Herreman; Dreads by Francesco Mastal & Alfonse Pagano; Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr. • Revised and expanded • Posted 2016 • 2,586 words
In Colored People, a memoir of his youth in West Virginia in the 1950s, the writer and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. devotes a central chapter to the ritual of hair-straightening in his mother’s kitchen:
Mama would stroke that red-hot iron… slowly but firmly through their hair, from scalp to strand’s end. It made a scorching, crinkly sound, the hot iron did, as it burned its way through damp kink, leaving in its wake the straightest of hair strands, each of them standing up long and tall but drooping at the end like the top of a heavy willow tree…. How that scorched kink could be transformed through grease and fire into a magnificent head of wavy hair was a miracle to me. Still is.
This nostalgic evocation of the armoury of home hairdressing in the American South—the oven-heated tongs, the chemical relaxers and jars of pomade, all dedicated to taming the tight curl and thick nap of black hair—elegantly sidesteps the controversies that have made hair-straightening a fraught issue among African Americans. In Gates’ account the skills of his mother and her companions are an occasion for celebration. For radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, on the other hand—for writers and activists such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver—hair-straightening was an act of self-oppression, a humiliating attempt to imitate the contours of Caucasoid hair. Black power activists represented the tongs and irons used to moderate the natural curl of black people’s hair—and the chemical perms that followed—as metaphorical shackles that bound them to slavery. Earlier, Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born ideologue of Rastafarianism, had likewise exhorted black people to remove the kinks, not from their hair, but from their brains, to “go natural”, to let their hair grow out.
The hair issue affects black women more than black men. It’s mainly women who have processed hair and—ideology apart—an increasing number have come to see the maintenance of the relaxed look as an unnecessary and irksome business. Relaxed hair, they know too well, tends to spring back to a frizz as soon as it gets wet: rain, perspiration and atmospheric humidity constantly threaten to return it to its natural condition. Worse, the lye used as a relaxing agent makes it brittle. Every day becomes a bad hair day. Thus Alice Walker’s recollections of the primal hairdressing scene of her youth are less nostalgic than Gates’:
I remembered years of enduring hairdressers—from my mother onward—doing missionary work on my hair. They dominated, suppressed, controlled…. But flatness, the missionary position, did not interest it. Being short, cropped off near the root, another missionary solution, did not interest it either. It sought more and more space, more light.
The 1960s, accordingly, saw the rise of the afro, a lower-maintenance, unisex style (though in reality not that much lower-maintenance). The afro exploited the sculptural qualities of tight-curled kinky hair, becoming a political statement in a time of rising black activism. Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, Ishmael Reed—even the young Michael Jackson—all sported afros. (More recently Angela Davis has deplored the fact that she should be remembered for this rather than her life of political activism.) Afros extended the head; they made black people bigger and taller. They defied prevailing conventions of tidiness and restraint.
In an era of trichological politics the shapely afro certainly trumped the fine, lank hair of the white, would-be-hippie youths of my generation. For aspirant radical white youth it seemed that the only rebellious gesture we could make with our hair was let it grow shoulder-length and split-ended (though a few curly-headed non-black people, like Abbie Hoffmann and Bob Dylan, managed passable faux afros).
Corn-rows, conks, flat cuts, dreads, fades and shaves
The afro was huge, but it was not African. Only in the 1970s did most African-Americans begin to rediscover and embrace the abundant choice of hairstyles that formed their heritage in the mother-continent: the plaits and weaves, braids and beadings seen in towns and villages in most countries in Africa, and depicted, with a high degree of precision, in African sculptures found in Western art collections. The current exhibition at the Museum for African Art on Broadway in New York, thronged with largely African-American visitors, is evidence of the continuing fascination of these styles, a fascination that has resulted in a series of exchanges between Africa and the diaspora, producing the panoply of corn-rows, dreads, fades, flat cuts, and glinting, shaven heads that are to be seen today in the cities of the West.
Hair is performance art; so an exhibition like this can only give a hint of its place in lived experience. What Hair in African Art and Culture provides is a display of the tools and stage props and images derived from the art of hair: a thematically organised array of objects from across the continent that include masks, figurines, portrait sculptures, headrests and tools of the hairdresser’s trade, culminating in an entire barbershop, shipped from Ghana.
The significance of hair in the social order is exemplified by a display of artefacts relating to the Sande womens’ society of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Photographs of initiates of this time-honoured association are displayed alongside the jet-black wooden masks that are worn by them during initiation ceremonies. These smooth, carved masks, with their high polish, reproduce the tight-braided, jelly-mould Sande coiffures in more intricate detail than photographs can. An essay in the exhibition catalogue by William Siegmann suggests that a comprehensive study of the surviving examples of such masks, some of which date from the eighteenth century, could allow scholars to reconstruct a history of hair-dressing in the region, one that would overcome the lack of written or visual documentation, and the inherent ephemerality of hair itself.
Not that hairdressing is the main purpose of the Sande society. Its raison d’être, in fact, is a more radical form of body modification: female circumcision (or genital cutting, or genital mutilation, or genital modification—the range of names indicating the struggle western opinion has to come to terms with the practice). This connection, however, goes unremarked at the Museum for African Art, perhaps to spare the sensibilities of readers and visitors to the exhibition.
The search for historical and cultural authenticity on the part of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s led to a rediscovery and widespread adoption of African hairstyles in the United States. Conversely, in Africa, the search for modernity resulted in the incorporation of new haircutting techniques into the urban barber’s repertoire. Increased African immigration to the United States was the catalyst for this two-way process. By the 1970s a Harlem salon could advertise braiding patterns called “Senegalese” and “Casamance” (the latter named after a region of Senegal).
Meanwhile in Ghana the painted signboards outside barber shops offered flat-top cuts with names like “Grace Jones”, Cincinatti Boy” [sic] and “Boeing 707”. Later on, the fade— that shaven-headed, flock-wallpaper effect, which was developed in Britain and America in the 1980s, and incorporates lightning-flashes, chequer-board patterns and other tattoo-like designs into the hair—was adopted in Ghana and other West African countries. For a time even the American-born Afro found a home there.
But all these are upstaged by the greatest innovation in black international style, a hairdo that’s even more in-your-face than the afro: dreadlocks. Introduced to the West from Jamaica in the 1970s, dreadlocks, unlike the afro, may well have an African origin, though it is a moot point whether dreads were originally inspired by the rope-like matted hair of the Baye Fall sect in Senegal, by Asante priests in Ghana, or by the Medusa locks of Ethiopian hermits. (The latter are pictured in the present exhibition in New York, though misidentified as Sudanese.) What does seem implausible is the theory, floated in Hair in African Art and Culture, that dreads were copied from Mau-Mau in the 1940s, since this was before Mau-Mau began.
Dreadlocks—or something like dreadlocks—recur, in fact, wherever outcast groups seek to assert their antinomian character, real or imagined. And this is not only in Africa and the African diaspora, although the self-knitting qualities of kinky hair make it especially suitable for the purpose. The portraits of nomadic Hindu holy men that are juxtaposed with Rastas and fashion models in the gallery of photographs in Dreads, are evidence of the transnational and cross-cultural aspect of dreadlocks.
In fact these pirs and yogis, with their waist-length matted hair, are yet another candidate for the origin of locks: it is possible that it was not from Africa at all, but via Indians in the West Indies that dreadlocks came to Jamaica and Trinidad. And today in Japan, we learn—in a bizarre, but somehow predictable, inversion of black Americans’ long struggle to make their hair lie down—local fashion victims have taken to having their naturally straight hair expensively machine-twisted and gummed into a curly simulacrum of Rasta style.
Dreads thus have deeper cultural reverberations than the afro does. Their significance extends to religion as well as racial politics. Rastafarians, for example, find legitimation for their rejection of scissors in the book of Numbers (a Rasta catchphrase refers to dreadlocks as “God’s antennae”). Members of the Islamic Baye Fall of Senegal, who call their locks ndiage—strong hair—have a different myth of origin. But magical significance of some kind is accorded to all hair, long or short, in the indigenous cosmologies of West Africa.
In Yoruba traditional thought, according to Babatunde Lawal in an informative essay in Hair in African Art and Culture, hair is compared to a sacred grove. The hair stands guard over the sanctuary of the head. Since it is Yoruba ideas that are the most prominent—or at least the best-documented—in the African heritage of new-world people of African descent, it’s not implausible to discern traces of these notions of the vegetative power and spiritual efficacy of hair preserved, half-consciously, in the diaspora and resurfacing in the present era, for instance in Alice Walker’s description, quoted above, of her hair seeking light and space to grow.
In her preface to Dreads, she describes discovering the joy of locks during the filming of her novel, The Color Purple. Her subsequent embrace of the new style, after decades of pressing and straightening her hair, is cast in the language of redemption, of religious mystery. Today there are many other prominent African-American women with dreadlocks: the novelist Toni Morrison has them; so does Mary Wilson of the Supremes (she who was formerly the epitome of the bouncy perm). The political activist and academic, Angela Davis, once the icon of the afro, as previously mentioned, also sported dreads until a few years ago.
The present day, though, is a time of trichological pluralism. Oprah Winfrey has straightened hair. And Michael Jackson has, famously, gone as far as possible in the direction of artifice, away from the specifics of blackness and the baby afro of his days in the Jackson Five, to a limp curtain of chemically-relaxed and unguent-drenched Jheri-curls. The popularity of hair extensions among black women of all nations, another development of recent years, epitomizes the hybridity of contemporary style. Straight hair, borrowed from other races and bonded to your own, may be considered an apt enough metaphor for the process of cultural exchange and assimilation.
At the camel market in al-Da’ein
To judge by this exhibition there is more to come from Africa. You don’t yet see, for instance, in New York or Paris or London, youths sporting the mudpack skull-caps that are commonplace among pastoralists in parts of the African savannah zone. These helmet-like headpieces are woven from living hair and painted with ochre or powdered paint. Half hairdo and half hat, such hairpieces may be detachable, like a barrister’s wig. Some of them have been collected by museums, and displayed or illustrated in exhibitions, but they have yet to make it to the streets of world cities, or the pages of fashion magazines.
The Turkana of Kenya are one of the pastoralist peoples who habitually sport such creations, which are held together with a combination of clay and butterfat. It is claimed in the New York exhibition that hairpieces of this kind (as made, in this instance, by the Kavango of Namibia) have a sweet smell—a blend of fragrant hardwoods and savannah grasses. But in my own recollection they are not always as pleasant as this: to be in the company of Turkana youths with month-old, rancid hairdos can be an ordeal.
The world of African hair is wide; and the technical responsibilities of African barbers may extend further than those of hairdressers in the West, beyond unguents and hot irons, to minor medical procedures and ritual surgery, as they formerly did in Europe. Just how far these responsibilities may go was brought home to me a year or so ago in another part of Africa, in al-Da’ein, a town in the west of Sudan. I had my hair cut there in the camel market—at a barber’s shop not unlike that currently displayed in the New York Museum for African Art. The barber was a Hausa elder, a descendant of migrants from West Africa. An array of knives and scissors was displayed on the wall of his shop. Camels were tethered outside; some of his market-trading colleagues sat inside, gossiping and drinking coffee.
Daoud, the Hausa barber, gave me what a hairdresser in Britain might refer to as a Number Three cut, a short crop with clippers, a quarter of an inch or so all over. (What else, he asked, could he do with straight hair like mine?) He worked patiently—my hair had not been cut for months—while I dozed. In my mesmeric state I found myself drifting back—there in the barber’s chair in al-Da’ein—to the fortnightly trips to the gentleman’s barber during my childhood in England decades before. The clippers were identical devices of steel and plastic, just as they had been back then, maybe even from the same factory; the scissors and comb likewise. The barber’s chair was of a similar vintage too.
After a while the barber of al-Da’ein finished cutting my hair and began to brush the clippings away from my neck. Waking from my doze I heard him ask if there was anything else I would like.
For an instant, emerging from a 1960s trichological reverie, I found myself wondering if he was asking me if I wanted something for the weekend—a quaint euphemism that barbers used in Britain, back when men bought condoms at the hairdresser rather than from the pharmacy, or from a slot-machine, or by mail-order. For a boy growing up in the 1960s, that phrase “something for the weekend, sir?” when first addressed to you, was a thrilling marker of adulthood. There in El Da’ein, though, even as the thought occurred, it was met by its impossibility. Modern contraceptives of any kind are an unknown commodity in El Da’ein.
Awake now, and remembering that I was not in England in the 1960s, I asked the barber what he meant by “anything else”. He hesitated for a moment, then pointed at the knives and scissors on the wall.
“Well, ustaz,” he said with a half-smile—addressing me as “teacher”—“if you liked, we could circumcise you.” ★