The Curl of my Culture

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Written by: Kendi Martina M’Mbijjewe

So lets talk about hair—specifically curly, gravity defying African hair.

At the surface hair is beauty, a personal statement of style: depending on my mood, and the weather, it could be braided, knotted, wrapped or afro bold. At its root, hair is legacy: it is tradition, politics and revolution. In the coiling, twisting, and curling history of the African people hair has always been a big deal and a billion-dollar industry can testify to the power of the afro. Now there is a lot to be said about the hair-industry but hair is so much more than its economic impact.

A moment to celebrate hair in our history.

Across the continent, you will find women and men giving salute to their tradition through hair. From the elaborate braiding and twisting styles of the Afar and Oromo people in the East to the intricate Gele head ties in the West—African people have found creative and often dramatically beautiful ways to display the diversity of their culture through hair.

Now anyone who has had the pleasure of combing an afro will also know that African hair isn’t always easy—to quote my afro people “don’t get it twisted, the struggle is real”. And in fact, the afro-hair struggle cannot be unbraided from the wider political and cultural African revolution.

During the fight against British colonialism in Kenya, Mau Mau fighters deliberately allowed their hair to “loc” as a symbol of their rebellion. The same idea, though predominantly made visible by the Rastafari in Jamaica and the Black Panthers in the United States, had parallel sentiment among African people on the continent.  The 1960’s saw the start of a hair revolt in which afro-celebrating people around the world refused to “tame” their natural curls with harsh chemicals (ironically termed relaxers) and allowed their hair to stand as a symbol of pride in African heritage. In a way, Africa’s political independence of the 1960’s was paralleled with the cultural liberation and rediscovery of our uniquely African beauty.

The revolution is alive! It is bold and curly, fierce and untamed.

I recently visited the Museum of African American History and Culture where I learnt that African slaves were required to wear head wraps or hats as a badge of their enslavement. For slave-owners, the covering of the head was a sign of subordination. As an African, I found this imagery presented a particularly powerful contrast to the way (and reasons why) Africans have traditionally worn head adornments. One only has to attend an African wedding to see African women and men wearing head-wraps and caps like queens or kings wear crowns—adornment of the head not as a social ceiling, but rather an elevation to the skies.

Empowered by the strength of this follicle tradition matched with the courage and flair of the millennial age young Africans have brought hair into the modern day. Afro-hair is a statement of our liberation from beauty standards that do not include us, and like the generations before we use our hair to declare love for our continent and our people. We reject the chemical straightening of our hair and bleaching of our skin. Instead we curl, braid, wrap, loc, we weave when we want to, and rock a baldhead if we feel like it. Even the communities that cover their hair do so with a purposeful flair that proudly declares to the world their tradition and beliefs.

Now I have to acknowledge that I do not speak for all Africans and the way they experience hair. Nor can I claim to be a “hair-storian” that can sufficiently capture the diversity and meaning behind the many hairstyles found in Africa’s past and present. All I can testify to is my experience and as a passionate afro-bearing Kenyan, I feel my hair today is homage to a rich African legacy and simultaneously reflection of modern style. In hair, I find beauty, I find history and revolution; ultimately I find my identity.

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