The Black woman’s body, historically, has been the site of some of man’s most grievous crimes. It has suffered persecutions of such magnitude that the hair, as an integral part of what constitutes the entire black body, has been reduced to the position of secondary victim in the racial wars waged against this body.
This peculiar state of victimhood has relegated the Black woman’s hair to the fringes of mainstream conversations about the effects of centuries worth of suffering on the black body. Hence, the Black woman’s hair occupies an inferior position in the hierarchy of global attention, where the Caucasoid female body and hair are strategically placed on the highest rung, especially in commercial contexts, and are thus more visible, and deemed more socially acceptable.
Black women have also been accomplices in these crimes of erasure. Crimes that include: Black women’s hair being hidden under wigs and weaves fashioned after Occidental styles which are more popular; Black women’s hair eaten up by attractively-bottled devils from the depths of global cosmetic-industry hell, wicked chemicals disguised as ‘hair products’; and Black women’s hair stretched and fried and chewed until it is almost unrecognizable, in the attempts to make it into something else, something more de rigueur, until it is no longer a Black woman’s hair.
In hair salons scattered across Africa’s swelling urban centres — salons where the Black woman’s hair goes to die, where it is murdered by needles and threads and relaxers, where the funeral of the Black woman’s hair is presided over by Black women’s fingers — the conversations are not about the Blackness of the hair, its power, beauty, and history. Instead, the talk, which revolves mostly around celebrity gossip, reality shows, TV soaps, men, children, in-laws, domestic economics, serves as diversionary mechanism designed to distract from the crime of disbeautification being perpetrated against the hair.
African salons are the centre of all hair activities, and also serve as the citadel of chatter and communal gossip, it is a paradox that there is not much talk about what the African woman’s hair represents, its true essence. Most conversations about the African woman’s hair is done outside the salons, in creative spaces, especially through visual and literary art forms exploring the cultural, religious, political, and social symbolism and significance of hair.
But one cannot talk about the representation of the African woman’s hair in art without the mention of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, one of Nigeria’s most notable photographers who has done extensive work about traditional African coiffure, showcasing the diversity of original African hairstyles to the world. His photography challenged how the world viewed the Black woman’s hair.
One central feature of Ojeikere’s work is how his camera lens refocus the male gaze away from the female body. He makes the head the singular focus of his shots, utilizes angles and employs lighting techniques that enhance the aesthetic quality of the hairstyle. By ‘cutting off’ the rest of the body and placing focal emphasis on the hair, he succeeds in desexualizing the female subject, not in the negative sense of divesting her of the sexual component of her femininity, but in a manner that does not hypersexualize the Black woman.
By repositioning the male gaze, Ojeikere reshapes notions about how women are represented in art. Ojeikere’s lens functions not just as the camera’s eye or as an ocular auxiliary of the photographer, but as the eye of the audience, representing their gaze, and fixing this gaze in that position of linear visualization of his work, while making room for the multi-layered interpretations that are necessary to have a broader understanding of the work.
Ojeikere’s entire photographic oeuvre post-independence, particularly the work he did on African women’s hairstyles between the 60s and the 70s, is very instructive when you consider it in terms of the post-colonial narrative of Africa taking its political power back from the imperialist forces of the West. Most of his work was influenced by the Pan-African zeitgeist and concurred with the nationalistic fervour that grew and spread across newly independent African nation states. Ojeikere aimed to restore pride in African hairstyling as a marker of rich cultural heritage, at a time when the modern African woman was in the initial phase of obsession with Western fashions, thanks to the hypervisibility of European hairstyles in mainstream global fashion industry. There was little or no room for Afrocentric influences which are the rave today.
The erasure was happening on many fronts. Western influences had terribly eroded many African traditions, especially through education and religion. Cultural self-esteem was at its lowest ebb. It became the duty of art to bring about a renaissance and restore pride in African culture. African artists took the responsibility to seize control of the narrative, which had been weaponized against Africans by the historians of the West in order to keep the African at a political and social disadvantage.
The illustrious Senegalese film-maker and Pan-Africanist Ousmane Sembène, in his call for decolonizing the narrative, observed that “if Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear”. Sembène, doing his most remarkable culturally influential work in that same post-independence epoch of the 60s and 70s, was passionate about telling Africa’s stories from an African point of view through the cinematic medium. He came to be known as the ‘father of African film’.
Ojeikere’s work can also be viewed as functioning as a storytelling device. He told the story of the African woman and her relationship with her hair, through photographs. He used this subject metaphorically to represent the ideology pervading the continent in the post-independence period, of a self-aware Africa on the cusp of post-colonial greatness on the international stage, its own master, and confident in its own skin.
Another artist who memorably and masterfully handled the theme of the African woman’s hair in the context of postcolonialism is the Ugandan poet, Okot p’Bitek, in a portion of his classic narrative poem, Song of Lawino, published four years after Uganda gained independence. Originally written in the Southern Luo dialect, Acholi, p’Bitek must have used this as a form of linguistic resistance against the language of the colonizer (even though it was later translated to English).
In Chapter Five of the book, in tackling the subject of the two types of post-independence African women and their hair issues, p’Bitek situates the pride that the traditional African woman has in her hair as a satirical counterpoint to the mockery of the modern African woman who tries to make herself resemble a white woman, using the acerbic voice of his eponymous narrator, Lawino.
With great confidence, Lawino expresses pride in her hair:
I am proud of the hair
With which I was born
And as no white woman
Wishes to do her hair
Because she is proud
Of the hair with which she is born,
I have no wish
To look like a white woman.
And in criticizing Ocol’s new wife Clementine’s westernized hairstyle, Lawino quips:
When the beautiful one
With whom I share my husband
Returns from cooking her hair
That has fallen into a pond;
Her hair looks
Like the python’s discarded skin.
A very graphic representation of what the white man’s chemicals do to the hair of the ones that try to fit themselves into the white man’s idea of ideal beauty. The disdain in Lawino’s tone is very evident (almost to the point of being regarded as authorial intrusion), and it represents the emotions of the artists towards colonial attitudes and fashions of the time, and is also an expression of the textural superiority of the African woman’s natural hair, by highlighting the grotesque transformation Clementine’s hair undergoes when she tries to Europeanize it.
In the gender politics of African societies, the woman’s hair plays a very important role in highlighting the power dynamics inherent within the society’s fabric, especially in how women have limited agency with respect to their hair; just as much as the African woman’s body and sexuality are being policed by the institutions of patriarchy, so is her hair, to a considerable extent.
It is common knowledge in many parts of Nigeria that a married woman cannot walk into a barbershop and request for a haircut; she has to have the permission of her husband. Barbers have recounted experiences where they cut a woman’s hair without the knowledge of her husband and when he found out, the barber was in trouble, which sometimes involved physical assault. They are usually wary whenever a woman comes into their shop asking for a haircut; the enquiry that follows would be along the lines of if the woman has the blessing of her husband to cut her hair; as further precaution, some even go as far as asking her to put a phone call through to “Oga” (her husband, which actually translates as ‘master’) for confirmation. These barbers have come to accept that the woman’s hair is owned by her husband, just as is the rest of her in accordance with traditional practice, and they have no right to take any part of this piece of somebody else’s property off, without the express consent of that owner. Sometimes, these women cannot even carry certain hairstyles that have not been approved by their husband, claiming that he wouldn’t ‘like’ it. In such cases, this ‘like’ is made to look like a matter of aesthetic preference, rather than masculine authority.
This patriarchal policing, in relation to cutting an African woman’s hair, extends to funerary rites in certain cultures, where it is mandatory that a widow’s hair be shaved off as a sign of mourning. This shaving of the head is seen as the physical representation of the woman’s grief, because a woman’s hair is an essential part of what constitutes her overall beauty; and to tradition, beauty, especially of a woman whose husband has died, would be vulgar in the face of death. The cutting off of the hair is not so much a mark of respect for the dead or a sign of mourning as it is a show of superiority of the patriarchal system of traditional institutions over a helpless woman. Since a woman’s hair is supposed to be her pride, taking this important part of her can be seen as stripping her of her dignity, which is believed to be an encumbrance to the performance of sorrow.
Schoolgirls are also usually victims of this traditional assertion of masculine dominance over issues of the female hair, as many schools across Africa have it as part of their rules that female students must cut their hair and keep the hair low. The practice is believed to have been handed down from a colonial tradition where the colonial masters saw the African hair as being inferior to theirs, of a lower quality, and so had to be gotten rid of. The tradition was continued by post-colonial educators and inherited by the educational system.
Whether the symbolism of the Black woman’s hair is religious (as the agogo hairstyle of the priestesses of the Osun deity), or political (as the afro representing Black Pride, or as the racial metaphor in Adichie’s Americanah), one thing is certain: an African woman carries stories on her head, plots woven into her hair, narrated by how it is styled; stories of many generations of women who have worn their voices loud in their African hair.