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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 22 November, 2019

The politics of black women's hair: 'There is a struggle attached to this hair'

Hair is a central and important part of Africans’ lives, writes Ola Majekodunmi.

Ola Majekodunmi Africa Day 2018 Champion

I MOVED TO Dublin from Lagos, Nigeria when I was seven months old. Thirteen years later, while sitting in English class I first heard the name, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I remember my teacher mentioning she was a Nigerian author and fellow classmates looking over to me.

I was delighted and in awe to hear that a Nigerian female author’s literature was being celebrated by the world. I wanted to know all about her and after that class finished I rushed to read her first book Purple Hibiscus.

I became fascinated with her work and ideas, later giving me inspiration to do my final year college thesis on The Politics of Black Women’s Hair. Adichie argued that if Michelle Obama had worn her hair in a natural black hairstyle, Barack Obama would not have been elected as US president, because many white Americans would fear them as terrorists.

Natural black hair or hairstyles are stigmatised when they are worn by black people.

Natural hair

Negative cultural and social connotations are attached to the natural hair of black women. Black hair is seen as ‘bad hair’. Whether a black woman wears her hair natural or in weave, she is always criticised and can’t win. There is a struggle attached to this hair.

Alongside Adichie, I drew from author and feminist, bell hooks, Irish-Nigerian social historian and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, singer Solange, Essence Magazine and more. It is women like these who have helped strengthen and shape my views of black women’s hair.

My thesis also charted the history of black hair in Africa with specific reference to braids and dreadlocks. Hair in Africa has always been creative and elaborate, evoking admiration and awe. It was a source of curiosity for early travellers and the African diaspora in Europe can relate to this.

They commonly receive innocent requests such as “can I touch your hair?” It is important to be aware and discuss the fact that there are philosophical underpinnings of hairstyles from the cultural areas where the hairstyles originated.

Rich with symbolic meaning

In Yoruba–Nigerian society, hair is very important to men and women. Hairstyles are considered a popular art that reflects and interprets contemporary Yoruba lifestyles, and carry social significance. Hair in Yorubaland is also linked with spirituality. Dada people are born with dreadlocks and dreaded hair is very special to them, seen as a blessing from the gods.

This hair is well maintained and should not be cut after the newborn ritual. From nations across the continent, African hair is rich with symbolic meaning and a site of self-expression, regardless of gender or social class.

Nowadays, more and more black women are embracing and celebrating natural black hair and hairstyles. Black women’s hair is so meaningful and creative and that should be celebrated and not subordinated.

I’m looking forward to seeing the beautiful and creative black-African hairstyles at this year’s Africa Day. Along with African music, culture, and food, we shouldn’t forget that hair is also a central and important part of Africans’ lives.

Ola Majekodunmi is an Africa Day 2018 Champion. Supported by Irish Aid, the Africa Day Dublin flagship event takes place tomorrow, Sunday, 27th May from 11am to 6pm at Farmleigh Estate, Phoenix Park. Register for free tickets at here. This is a no parking event. See for details of the Africa Day Dublin line up and for the full programme of events nationwide.

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About the author:

Ola Majekodunmi  / Africa Day 2018 Champion

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