Tuesday 14 April 2015

A (Very) Short Brush With Hair... Catherine Johnson

Hello there. You asked for it so I am attempting it. But I am just skirting the ends of a very unruly topic for an audience that I am patronisingly assuming knows very little. Excuse me. This is a very shallow resume through the Pacific Ocean that is African  hair.  This is a huge topic. Women of every colour have always had to cope with their appearance being something of  importance to society. Women must be careful not to appear too anything, they are judged and judged again. And not just by men and society as a whole, by our sisters, friends and mothers. There is so much prejudice (historical and present day) against natural African hair from the wider world as well as within the Black community itself (and of course that construct does not exist at all.)
Angela Davis with her radical Afro
I'm really just touching on things here. There are probably several anthropological studies of how and why and I really would be here all day. But the white community (see, that doesn't exist either) has always been afraid and in awe of the unfettered black woman and her hair and felt happier with it tamed and bludgeoned into as near a facsimile of favoured European hair as possible.

As a mixed race woman with soft curls the one thing I always knew - old ladies would tell me in the street - was that I had lovely hair - this was before the tyranny of straighteners. Even my Mum knew I had the easier option, she didn't have to learn how to 'do' Afro hair and as a working woman with no time to fuss about she just kept my hair boy short until I was old enough to complain.

It wasn't really long until secondary school, where my teachers would regularly tell me off for messy hair telling me I looked like 'The Wild Man of Borneo'. Yes, that. Many times.

But although my hair was frizzy it did mostly hang down. If any of you have observed small black girls in a, say, nursery school, (not these days dressing up boxes routinely contain wigs) you might have noticed them tie long skirts or t-shirts round their heads to make the required, swishy,  'princess hair'. Black tightly curled hair was always described (by white writers) in a derogatory way as 'woolly' or  'wiry'.

You might not be aware of the massively complicated politics of black hair. Is it right, for example that the only way to get on (be employed) is to apply shit loads of chemicals or tightly woven on extensions to obtain the necessary Michelle Obama straight hair style?  The chemicals in these products have been shown to increase the possibility of fibroids and are highly toxic, the weaves can pull and damage hair growth and cause all sorts of problems.

You may be aware that Afro hair is different to European or Asian hair, heaps drier for a start. And that years of treatment or wig wearing (many black women of the previous generation to mine had wigs for work and church) could result in real damage.

You might not know that many employers will not employ black women with natural hair - an Afro, or corn rows or locks. In fact I remember in one of my last proper jobs working in a bookshop in Whitechapel where the head of the arts centre that ran the shop - a lovely white woman told us employees - including the bookshop manager - who had short locks - that she could not abide them, because they looked 'dirty'. Airlines and the US army have banned braided hairstyles when surely these are the neatest going? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27626509 

You might think that this sort of thing never happens these days.


You might not be aware that there is a movement among young women who rail against it and go natural - this I am happy to say is a thing nowadays with many many You tube channels chronicling the trails of going product free and  sharing information  about natural oils and conditioners to keep their hair healthy.

If you think I am making much think about those big prize ceremonies, OK, there are much fewer Black actresses on any red carpet, but next time see how many of those actresses wear their hair naturally. The beautiful Lupita Nyong'o  was a trailblazer.
Lupita Nyong'o

It has been said by some that when black women refuse to make their hair conform to the European/Western standards it can be seen as dangerous, as a form of defiance. Think of Angela Davies and her Afro.  Society wants us to be something we're not. I am rather pleased there are so many women reclaiming their hair and deciding that they can be themselves rather than spend money and time trying to make themselves acceptable to the wider society.

And as I said in an earlier post Chris Rock, the American actor has made a rather good film that explores the subject in more depth. It's called Good Hair.

Catherine Johnson has always been lucky with her hair. She is also writing a film called Relax based on the story of the British company, Dyke and Dryden who first imported chemical hair relaxer into the UK.

Her next novel is called The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, it's out in July.


Joan Lennon said...

Wow! Great post!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

It's the same with black men isn't it? When I was a child in the 60's and 70's Afro hair was worn in a variety of styles - never straight. In the here and now, you very rarely see a black man with hair. Unless it's braided for those at the more artistic end, on the whole it's all shaved off or cut at a number 1.

Penny Dolan said...

A post that needed to be written. (And read). Thanks! Really looking forward to your new book - Princess Cariboo - coming out in July.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post, Catherine - really fascinating. I'm shocked that corn rows are deemed unacceptable. Bizarre that it's OK - indeed cool and fashionable - for a white woman to wear them (like Bo Derek in 10) but not a black one. Makes me angry.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've just started reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and am finding out for the first time about things like relaxants and weaves. And braids. Ifemelu has to travel to a poor area of Princeton in order to get her hair braided (I had begun to see the significance of this when reading the book, but your post makes it all much clearer, Catherine).

I had no idea that black women were under so much pressure to change their natural hair. I'm appalled.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I did know a fair bit about how different and dry black hair is, having had a very lovely Nigerian lodger/friend, but I hadn't thought through the politics of it at all. Fascinating and important post, Catherine. Thank you so much for sharing. And for what it's worth, I find corn rows beautiful and always get hair-envy when I see them.

Momma Bear said...

I feelmyourpain.
I am a typical sushi white girl in America and had the privilege of bearing 2 beautiful mixed race girls, the first of which had masses of tight voluminous curls. Sigh. I had no idea what to do with it. And being a mom I got desperate and would accosted black women in the hair isle and ask them to please , please help me! Some would walk away shaking there heads saying I was "crazy and many others" (bless them) would offer suggestions and gave some real advice. After many years I finally tames my dear daughter #1 ' s locks I had do #2, who's hair was completely different. Sigh. Back to a costing strangers in the hair isle
It's an issue. Not an earth shattering matter of great importance but a real issue and one that I had hoped, by a costing strangers in the hair isle, to at least mitigate for my darling daughters. Unfortunately people are cruel and unempathetic.

Catherine Johnson said...

Momma Bear if you can't ask extended family there are so many resources on the internet these days. It is a godsend.
Good lick

Catherine Johnson said...

I meant LUCK!!!

Leslie Wilson said...

I have often wondered why so many black women did straighten their hair, since it looks (to me) much nicer natural. I had no idea that it might have to do with employment; that's dreadful. Glad you wrote this post, Catherine. It shows how much we all need to learn and listen to other women.The bit of spam that has got onto this comments page only makes your point. The constant barrage of propaganda, aimed at women, to be dissatisfied with ourselves, gets even worse when racism enters the toxic mix.

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