Beyoncé called upon the spirits of the Civil Rights movement in her most political performance (albeit her only one so far) of her most political single yet. But she herself left out one of the most political symbols of the Civil Rights movement–an afro. Backed by an army of Black Panther dancers sporting ‘fros and berets, she stood in the center of them delineated as their blonde wavy-haired leader, which, among everything else, made a statement.
In 2016 a Black woman with wavy blond hair makes a statement in a way that a white woman with dyed blond hair doesn’t. For centuries Black hair has been tangled up in politics that to this day it can’t shake. Black hair in its natural state has been stigmatized and criticized to the point of submission. During slavery only house slaves had time to do their hair and in which case it was braided or hidden under a scarf. Over time straight hair was adopted as a norm, a standard of social acceptability, even though straight hair wasn’t our norm. But it stuck… for years. Centuries would pass before the Civil Rights movement would declare Black beautiful and use Black hair as a symbol of cultural pride. But it would take more than civil unrest to get natural hair to stick. Natural hair only lasted for roughly 20 years during that time period. It has resurfaced in recent years, thanks to the natural hair movement that continues to grow (even beyond the United States), but there’s still a ways to go. Natural hair is still this thing that’s novel because it’s not widely seen and needs to be learned about even by Black people, as can be seen in the short film You Can Touch My Hair. Meanwhile, the afro still carries its political punch, hence Michelle Obama was depicted with an afro in the New Yorker’s controversial July 2008 cover.
So, in a performance drenched with political symbolism and in a song that celebrates Black culture, where was Beyoncé’s own ‘fro? The singer’s hair selection may have simply been a way to make her stand out from her dancers, or perhaps it was meant to get across the fact that she can wear her hair however she wants. She’s a grown woman after all, and variety is a big part of the spirit of Black hair. We as Black women change our hair a lot. But in wearing her signature look, especially in this context, Beyoncé brings to light the weird predicament many Black women find themselves in. Wearing your hair natural tells the world your ‘standing up to the man’ or going back to your roots, when in reality you may just really care about the health of your hair. Meanwhile, wearing straight hair tells the world you’re subscribing to a Eurocentric beauty standard, when in reality you may just be having a bad hair day or protecting your hair with a wig. There’s really no hairstyle choice a Black woman can wear without making a statement. As it stands it’s hard for a Black woman and her hair to just be.
On the one hand, wearing your hair in a texture or color that’s not naturally yours, can be viewed as a form of self-fashioning. As free-thinking individuals we have the right to express our identities however we want. Hair can be looked at as something as interchangeable as nail polish. There might not be a deeper meaning to it for an individual; it may simply just be a form of adornment, a way to play dress up. Hair is not some all-encompassing indicator of culture or pride. Blackness is so much more than any one particular element.
Yet, on the other hand, we have to take an honest look at what hairstyles we’re defaulting to… defaulting being the operative word. About two years ago my boyfriend said to me, “if you felt 100% confident in your natural hair, you would wear it more often.” I had nothing to say back to that statement except, “that’s true.” When we carve out our own images we usually are putting our best foot forward. We’re usually putting out what we think is beautiful. And I realized that with my straight wigs, I was telling the world that my hair wasn’t beautiful, that it wasn’t good enough to be seen all the time. One the readers of my site (Un-ruly, a place for Black hair) made an interesting point about wearing weaves. “I question why people don’t wear weaves that are similar to their hair texture,” she commented. “Or why they wear weaves without taking a break all in the name for ‘protecting their hair.’ There is a fine line between protecting and hiding. Furthermore, always wearing weaves or extensions can deter women from learning how to maintain their hair,” which brings up an important point.
Because of my site, I’ve heard and read many stories about why people go natural. Wanting healthy hair is one of the main reasons, but for mothers another common reason is that they want their daughters to grow up liking their own hair. In a special report by WPTV News Joe-Hannah Louisma shared that she went natural because her daughter wondered why her hair didn’t look like mommy’s hair, which makes me wonder if Blue Ivy, whose mom sings “I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afros” in a long blond wig, will one day wonder the same thing.
One of the main reasons why natural Black hair still carries so much weight is because of how much we’ve all been underexposed to it. From an early age we see straight hair on Black women and we get our own hair straightened. And this has been happening for generations now. One could say that natural black hair hasn’t been prominently seen for hundreds of years. And so it’s no wonder that we’re stuck in this limbo of being both advocates and traitors of Black culture when it comes to our hair.
I would love to be able to change my hair into any color or texture without it meaning something. But unfortunately I don’t have that luxury. Whether I like it or not, I carry centuries of oppression on my head. That’s what the scarcity of kinky hair symbolizes. I would LOVE for my hair, for Black hair, to be mundane, to not make headlines when it’s seen; I would love for it to be normal. But in order for it to be normal it has to be the norm. It has to be our default, and we can experiment and switch things up on top of that.
The goal here, isn’t to pressure anyone to wear their hair in its natural state. God knows, I’m still taking my time with that. The goal is to merely acknowledge this weird hair purgatory we’re in and point one way out of it.
This post was first published on Un-ruly.com. You might also like:
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