Heritage In My Hair

By: Sinalo Mkaza

Socialists Saltzberg and Chrisler suggest that Beauty is subject to the hegemonic standards of the ruling class. Because of this, “beauty is an elusive commodity” (1997, 135) and definitions of beauty vary among cultures and historical periods.

From the deepest well of my memory, hair has played a significant role in my life as a black woman. Trips to the salon are frequent with many hours spent braiding, relaxing or treating to ensure I look stellar for any upcoming event ranging from the first day of school term to weddings and birthday parties. I’ve always found my hair to be a challenge as it was never straight enough or long enough but thanks to braid extensions, I’ve been able to recreate my hairstyles and achieve the desired style for a short term. Like many girls and women in the black community, my hair has been my crown. Connie Koppelman affirms that throughout the history of humankind, women’s hair has been contrived to exhibit ones beauty and social standing.

Among African communities across Africa and the diaspora, hair braiding can be understood as as a means of particular significance recognizing ‘Africanisms’ one places Africa in the consciousness of the people. The role that this consciousness has played in black people’s quest for liberation and national identity is substantial. Women of color have always sought answers through an introspective gaze or through their communities in order to counter White hegemonically defined standards of beauty.

Herbert Lang Expedition (1909-1915)

The way African slaves styled their hair – through braiding, knotting and weaving – was important to them as individuals as well as it playing a substantial role in the community. One’s hair “is never a straightforward biological ‘fact’ ” for it will “almost always [be] … ‘worked upon’ by human hands.” Such procedures “socialize hair, making it the medium of significant ‘statements’ about self and society. Whether in African or New World societies, and in what- ever period they are studied, blacks have always engaged in this kind of cultural activity.

The styling of hair in present-day Africa and the diaspora reflects innovations and borrowings as well as a commitment to old forms and techniques.



“I want to know my hair again, the way I knew it before I knew that my hair is me, before I lost the right to me, before I knew that the burden of beauty-or lack of it-for an entire race of people could be tied up with my hair and me.”

– Paulette Caldwell, “A Hair Piece” (2000, 275)

Hair has always been a serious issue in black communities as it still has implications beyond a superficial aesthetic level. During slavery, emulating white standards of beauty for body image and particularly for hair meant having more status, the possibility to pass as white, become free and even survival in some instances, states Patton (2006). As a result, Eurocentric beauty standards remain immensely ingrained in Western societies to the point where the way a black person wears their hair can still affect their livelihood today. Wearing ones hair naturally is a political stance that aims to change in the way black people define themselves, a defiance of Eurocentric standards of beauty while simultaneously being a journey to “self-discovery” that gives a sense of pride and strength.

However, we live in a modern society where integration is inevitable, therefore we reject the notion of hair relaxers as alienation of blackness. Relaxers have evolved to be part of black culture and do not necessarily equal self-hatred anymore, rather they can also “serve to counter-politicize the signifier of ethnic and racial devaluation and challenge definitions of blackness as defined by hegemonic culture” (Thompson, 2008, p.847).

source: elle.co.za

With schools In South Africa still implementing anti-black hair policies, it is important to blatantly acknowledge that natural hair shows racial pride. Hair is still a political signifier of one’s autonomy. As time unfolds, we find that no matter how oppressed the African and their progeny, no matter how suppressed their cultural heritage, they have managed to retain in a safekeeping some parts (whether in full or partial form) of the original African way entirely to themselves and it’s highly necessary to keep referencing our past through hairstyles in order to affirm ourselves in a world that usually seeks to disregard diverse expressions and forms of beauty. The lack of a positive space for varying black hair in media fosters the ignorance of black hair, as well as the misconceptions of other races.

It is crucial that black people unlearn the preconceived beauty ideals and the internalized racism Eurocentric societies imposed on us in order to form a strong collective that supports each other against discrimination and oppression. Solange said it damn straight in “Don’t touch my hair”!