The 1960s and 1970s saw a visible global shift towards embracing natural hair, during this time wearing one’s natural hair was a statement of sorts. For a little bit of historical context we can reference the hairstyles of performers such as James Brown; Sammy Davis Jr. who with his wife Altovise, became the first black people to be invited for a White House sleepover under Nixon; and Cicely Tyson. Cicely, who is said to have been the first African American actress to wear a natural hairstyle on television; she preferred to rock braids or the Afro.
The Afro became an expression of pride, connection, power, revolution and differentiation. The Afro gained popularity with performers, artists, activists, youth and nationalists. One of the most recognizable figures of that time being activist Angela Davis, who with her iconic Afro spearheaded the American civil rights movement which fought for social change and helped define Black identity.
Angela had close ties to the Black Panthers Party which also played a pivotal role in propagating black beauty standards by generating national and international coverage of black empowerment. The Black Panthers would in due time become an icon of counterculture. Original Black Panther member and Professor of Law Kathleen Cleaver sums up this ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement up quite concisely,
“We are born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this. The reason you might say is a new awareness amongst black people that their own natural appearance is beautiful, it’s appealing to them. For so many, many years we were told that only white people were beautiful, only straight hair, light eyes and light skin was beautiful, and so black women would try everything they could to straighten their hair, lighten their skin to look like white women, but this has changed, because black people are aware and white people are aware of it too. Isn’t it beautiful? ” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWbIHcm6xSc
I’m pretty sure we have all experienced a comment or two in more recent times that had you asking yourself those burning questions, or simply got you angered at the sheer ignorance of it in its purest form. I see this as the disconnect of “I.” In my natural state of being, from the “I” in the context of “we” with the added layer of strange, ridiculous, wonderful, modern influences that we have used to define what “normal” is.
So say if I take one single moment of ignorance and escalate it to society’s measure of right and wrong during the 60-80’s period, I can present the 1981 case of Rogers vs. American Airlines (AA) which was the case that became a popular benchmark for employers’ hair restriction towards black women.
This was basically a struggle to see if the natural hairstyle could find its place within the workplace. Courts were in full support of the ability of employers to prohibit the wearing of braided or natural hairstyles in the workplace. In the Rogers vs. AA case, the black woman argued that the policy discriminated against her specifically as a black woman. She lost the case on the premise on an argument based on the distinctions between biological and cultural understandings on race. In another case, a black women in West Virginia was fired from her job at a prison for wearing braids, this was apparently seen as a fireable offence. Some black institutions even discouraged the natural look to prepare Black individuals to blend into a White–majority corporate environment. These were just some of the events that catalyzed the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Women have been put under pressure to meet certain standards, and this is not only confined to beauty. Biases, both conscious and unconscious, based on physical appearance, affect the ease of black women in enjoying a complete sense of freedom. White beauty standards have been and are still thrust upon black women and are consciously and subconsciously consumed in large amounts.
But there’s hope :). Although severely lopsided, mainstream messaging and imagery that surround the concept of beauty has grown to include various states of black hair through the likes of TV icons such as Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek or Halle Berry to name but a few. A black woman is born in a time when her hair has been a source of anxiety. Sadly our mainstream media is still wrought with messaging and imagery that continues to perpetuate this conditioning to a state of normalcy.
We have been taught that We are…because our hair is…. Knowing this I think its time to flip the script if only just a little bit. I write this because I don’t want to unconsciously separate myself from one of the key buildings blocks that has me calling myself Omwambo. Shouldn’t the choices we make about our hair (that is heavily based on our environment) come from a place of (at least) a basic understanding of why this is? I see it as a case of learning the rules in order to break them properly. I want to be able to say that My hair is…because I am!
(Oranjemund born Elina Nambala; @Crownedpearl currently serves as a strategist for ad agency 34 in Johannesburg, with an academic background in Political Science and more recently brand leadership. Moreover @Crownedpearl is an avid life lover, an appreciator of all things art, an old young soul, living, learning and growing).