Feminism | Posted by Faatimah Solomon on 09/23/2016

The History Of Banning Black Women’s Hair

Amandla Stenberg wearing her hair natural

When I turned twelve, I started faithfully straightening my hair every single week. By the time I was fourteen years old, therefore, I had straightened my hair at least one hundred and four times. At least. But eventually my hair started falling out in large clumps and my mom demanded that I stop severely damaging my hair.

It was then that I began the emotionally draining process of learning how to love myself. I read countless books about feeling beautiful in your own skin and body, stuck a number of pictures of beautiful black women wearing their natural hair on the walls of my closet, and followed Instagram accounts that celebrated the beauty of having black curly hair. With time, I began to love my hair: I wore it natural at home and around my family, despite my father and grandmother’s pleadings that I brush my hair back and make it look “tidy.” I started loving my curls and on wash days would caress them gently and apologize to them for all the harm I inflicted upon them. It may sound crazy to some, but it’s the way I began to love my frizzy, kinky hair and come to terms with it.

So when I recently heard that a South African high school had instituted a strict hair policy that bans female students from wearing their hair in wide cornrows, dreadlocks, and twists, and advises them instead to straighten or chemically treat their hair, I was mad. This is certainly not the first time natural black hairstyles have been banned in an educational institution, either. A Kentucky high school also recently faced backlash for banning hairstyles it deemed “extreme,” including dreadlocks, cornrows, and twists — a policy, therefore, clearly targeting black children, since these styles are all historically and traditionally black. Although the policy at the South African high school was repealed after it received a global wave of criticism, and the Kentucky high school’s policy suspended, they are both indisputable testaments to the prevalent stigma regarding natural black hair — a stigma it’s high time we address and eradicate.

This stigma is not just an issue in and of itself, but one that sits at the intersection of a broader legacy of sexism and racism: Hair policies are undeniably reminiscent of policies made during colonial rule in this country. For example, during the Spanish colonial period in Louisiana, a set of laws called the “tignon laws” were passed by the Spanish governor. These laws decreed that all women of African descent (Creoles, black, or women of color), both slaves and free, must cover their hair with a simple knotted headdress and refrain from drawing excessive attention to their hair. The law had been contrived as a response to the increasingly ornate and elaborate manner in which women of color wore their hair, including adornments like feathers, beads, jewelry, and silks. Their hair was a feature that separated them distinctly from their white counterparts and simultaneously — perhaps most problematically — seemed to attracted white suitors, which in turn caused a disruption in societal norms and blurred the distinct lines that were meant to blatantly separate the gens de couleur (people of color) of a lowly social status from the white women of a higher social status.

These black women and women of color hardly took these laws sitting down, and incredibly responded to this set of laws by wearing fancy and lavish headdresses. But the implications and consequences of these tignon laws are weighty and momentous. Black hair was seen (and is still seen) as so threatening that it is still banned from public sight outright. These laws degraded and devalued what was once a source of pride for black women until it no longer symbolized their radiance and uniqueness, but rather their embarrassment, self-consciousness, and shame. This legacy has resulted in the utter stigmatization of black hair, and in turn, the stigmatization of black female bodies.

Essentially, the systematic and prevalent policing and regulating the natural hair of black women is a suppression of Black female identity. Black women and girls have been taught by society to hate and be ashamed of their bodies, including their hair and their curviness. That these features are fetishized and considered “exotic” by society teaches black girls and women that their hair is threatening and that it is something that should be hidden and kept “tidy” and “neat.”

As a little black girl, I hated going to swimming pool parties and the beach, because after I came out of the water I realized that my hair was a matted, tangled mess, while everybody else’s hair was slicked back. They looked like glorious seals whereas my hair looked strange and unpleasant in comparison — not because I was born believing it did, but because it failed to resemble any of the established beauty ideals presented by women and girls in the media or even in the black dolls I owned. The idea that black women’s hair needs to be tamed or hidden out of sight manifests itself in mainstream pop culture and, as a result, deeply influences the beauty standards black girls and women internalize. I wasn’t taught that my big lion’s mane was powerful and beautiful. I wasn’t taught that it was something to be proud of. Rather, I thought of it as something that should be fixed and tidied up. I was taught that I needed to make it smaller, which as a result, made me smaller. It was like deflating part of my personality, and it was what caused me to straighten my own hair over and over and over until I had exhausted every strand.

We need to normalize images of black women’s natural hair in the media. Some young teenagers, such as Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi, are public figures who are taking pride in wearing their natural hair and speak out about how they draw empowerment and strength from doing so. Their choices to do so helps spread positivity and self-love surrounding black women’s hair.

But at the same time, women of color shouldn’t feel they can only accept themselves if they wear their hair natural — that is far from the truth. The lesson here is that black women have the right to wear their hair however they chose, and without the fear of being stigmatized. After all, this “taming” of black natural hair implies a “taming” of the Black female identity and the aspects that accompany it.

So to all the girls out there who feel like their kinky, curly hair isn’t pretty enough: don’t be afraid to love and wear your natural hair if you want to. Wear it in defiance to those people who view it as untidy, disorderly, or a threat. Wear it because it is beautiful. But most of all, don’t be afraid to wear it because it is unapologetically part of who you are.

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  • Sandi @ at 6:34 pm, September 28th, 2016

    Terrific and well said! Anyone’s hair is theirs to do exactly what they want with. Anyones hair can be a work of art.

  • Nicole @ at 12:15 pm, December 31st, 2016

    Thank you for sharing. This is exactly why I started to wear my hair natural. It was such a freeing experience. I also did it to teach my daughter that she is beautiful whether her hair is curly or straight. We are blessed to able to do both if we choose.

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