My Hair is My Archive — Personal, Political and Social
(Kennesaw State University)
An archive is a site where records of the past are stored as a way of preserving the past, of keeping history in the present moment. It holds records of experiences that enable us to interpret and understand history. When I refer to my hair as an archive I am underscoring the fact that it functions as a record of practices, but also of values that date back centuries. My hair is my archive because through it I can tell important stories and recollect key events from my life. I embrace my hair, my locks and now my grey. This is a spiritual act of self-affirmation. My archival hair represents an embodiment of who I am today, how I move around the world, how I am viewed by others and the ways in which I have to navigate my identity/ies in different spaces. And it references not only my own individual identity, but also how I as an individual connect to a larger collective past.
Being in an academic space where whiteness and all that it entails is the norm, choosing to have locks as a Black Haitian immigrant woman at a predominantly white institution is seen by some individuals as an act of resistance and by others as defiance or refusal to conform. However, I am made keenly aware in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways that my hair—and by extension myself—is not always welcome. As feminist and critical race theorist Sara Ahmed explains:
But think of this: those of us who arrive in an academy that was not shaped by or for us bring knowledges, as well as worlds, that otherwise would not be here. Think of this: how we learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us. Think of the kinds of experiences you have when you are not expected to be here. These experiences are a resource to generate knowledge. (9–10)
Unfortunately, the wealth of knowledge, worlds of expertise and diverse experience I could bring are consistently ignored, because I am at once hyper visible and invisible, and far too many people cannot see beyond my hair and my Blackness.
I am a postcolonial thinker and a Black Haitian American woman. Because academia is addicted to whiteness, it is uncomfortable with me. The way I choose to wear my hair — having locks — is for me at once a personal, social and political statement. It is my way of affirming my identity, accepting and loving myself as I am. Through my hair I am able to negotiate my relationship to my ancestors and my identity as an immigrant living in a diasporic space.
I last had any kind of chemical in my hair about twenty-five years ago. This is an ongoing choice, but it has consequences. My choice not to use chemicals in my hair was at first unconscious, because it didn’t feel right or healthy, and later became a conscious act of both defiance and self-love. It is a way of having compassion for myself, of refusing to be traumatised physically and emotionally by what is required to conform to the Eurocentric and white standards of ‘beauty’ that people of Colour are too often subject to in the West. Like our bodies, Black women’s hair is constantly policed as a means of control by structures of power in the dominant culture.
Microaggressions and exclusions as they relate to hair are very real. Drawing again from my own life, I still vividly remember the physical and emotional pain I felt when getting my hair pressed. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the late 80s, my mom would use her hard-earned money as a housekeeper to take my two sisters and I to a beautician (the shop was at the beautician’s home) so that we could fit the standard of beauty for special occasions such as a wedding or a first communion. For those not familiar with the process of pressing Black hair, a hot comb is used to straighten the hair to make it supposedly ‘soft’ and ‘silky’. I hated the sound and feeling of my hair being pressed, and I remember my scalp burning after putting in a perm and my eyes burning from the smell of the chemicals. Even writing about this decades later is triggering for me. And even after all of that pain, I don’t recall my hair ever conforming to the advertised softness or silkiness.
I have had all types of hair styles throughout my youth and into my adult life, including braids, twists and now locks, which I have had for over 15 years. Some white friends have asked if they can touch my hair, and I jokingly tell them, “I will let you touch my hair for a price.” I have had in-depth discussions about Black hair with a few white friends who are close enough, brave enough and open-minded enough to listen to that complexity. Some white people feel a certain level of interest, and perhaps for some, exotification, when it comes to touching Black people’s hair. I think some whites exoticise Black hair to prove they are liberals and not racists, to show that they understand and accept that Black hair is “different”. But beyond simple curiosity, I think it may be another manifestation of white guilt and white fragility.
In Don’t Touch my Hair, BBC race correspondent Emma Dabiri takes readers on a journey about Black hair, appropriation, body politics and racism.1 Dabiri notes:
Hair-straightening for people of African descent emerges from a traumatic historical legacy… In denying black people their humanity, the hair that grows from their heads was—one might argue, still is—considered more similar to the wool or fur of an animal than to the straight human tresses of Europeans. (11)
She further asserts that “Hair has the power to confer classification as black or not” (17). Likewise, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps observe in Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America that “hair act[s] as the true test of Blackness” (17). From an outsider’s perspective, hair texture and style often determines whether people are classified as Black or not.
When we think of hair as an archive, we need to have a certain level of respect. Different archives have different rules, and we cannot simply touch the materials within them. When whites (try to) touch Black hair, it can be understood as a kind of trespassing on certain histories. The record of Black experience must be approached in a way that is more informed and respectful, otherwise it becomes one more form of appropriation.
Probably one of the most emulated and famous Black hairstyles is of Jamaican singer Bob Marley. Practitioners of the Rastafarian religion believe that they are not supposed to cut their hair, so they leave it in locks. Many white people embrace locks because they admire and love Bob Marley, but they do not necessarily understand the implications of growing locks themselves, and are ignorant of the notion of cultural appropriation.
Byrd and Tharps note the strong connection to hair and people’s identity/ies. For many Black people, changing their hairstyle is a form of resistance and a way of being empowered and connected to their African roots. Dabiri notes that “Black hair intimidates a lot of white people” (25). In her novel Americanah, set largely in a hair salon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie depicts the various ways in which hair serves as a metaphor for how race is constructed in the U.S. The novel connects hair politics with power relations, discrimination and European/American beauty standards. For Ifemelu, the main character in the novel, learning to love and accept her natural hair is an act of self-love. I can relate to Ifemelu. It is only very recently that natural hair has become acceptable in certain spaces in the U.S.—especially in corporate America.2
When we consider hair as an archive, we can think about how we have (or do not have) access to hair salons and hair products, and how this can affect our choice of hairstyle. A person may choose a particular natural hairstyle for many reasons, some of which may be practical, political or social. Many of us Black women do not wash our hair every day, which has nothing to do with a lack of cleanliness but is because of our hair texture and the hairstyles we choose. Our hair gets dry easily, and washing it every day would only make it dryer. People may also take for granted that for many people of Colour, living without easy access to beauty salons influences how we wear our hair. I have had the experience of living in very white cities with only a handful of people of Colour, like Portland (Oregon) or Lawrence (Kansas), where I had to leave the city to find hair products compatible with my hair type. Whereas going to the hair salon may for some simply be a matter of finding a stylist they like, for many of us Black women it is a matter of finding a hair salon that actually knows how to do our hair in the first place. The lack I describe here is a result of histories of settlement, migration and prejudice. When I have sought out places that can supply me with what I need to style my hair, I have not been engaged in a superficial quest but in affirming my presence in a particular context, claiming my belonging as part of society in these somewhat hostile places.
Instances of unnecessary touching by authorities also occur because my hair—and by default myself—does not conform to the standard of whiteness. This happens, for example, when I travel and have to go through airport security, and is comparable to the PC tax (People of Colour Tax)—let’s call it the Black Hair tax. You get patted extra as you go through security, because the assumption is that if your hair is not combed in a Eurocentric manner, you are not respectable—and are therefore seen as a potential threat.
Activists like bell hooks are very aware of the damage that look can play in the psyche of young children. Her book Homemade Love offers young girls a path to self-esteem and self-love by celebrating their beautiful hair no matter what the style, from hair that is “soft like cotton”, “full of frizz and fuzz”, “short tight naps” or “plaited strands all”. She presents a variety of hairstyles that allow young Black girls to be free. A seven-year-old girl in Tennessee, Morgan Bugg, recently persuaded the creators of an educational app called “Freckl” to include hairstyles worn by young Black girls as options when creating their avatars. Representation matters.
Power and representation even subconsciously play into cultural appropriation. As bell hooks writes:
When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated. (113)
In Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks further observes that “While it has become ‘cool’ for white folks to hang out with Black people and express pleasure in Black culture, most white people do not feel that this pleasure should be linked to unlearning racism” (17).
Some people (both Black and white) embody the notion that natural hair is not professional. The idea of whether our hair is acceptable or not is engrained in a colonial mindset in which whiteness and white culture dictate what belonging looks like. As Jaqui Alexander notes:
Since colonization has produced fragmentation and dismemberment at both the material and psychic levels, the work of decolonization has to make room for the deep yearning for wholeness, often expressed as a yearning to belong that is both material and existential, both psychic and physical, and which, when satisfied, can subvert and ultimately displace the pain of dismemberment. (218)
In conclusion, my hair as a personal, social and political archive reminds me of the words of poet Maya Angelou that “I come as one but I stand as 10,000”. The people who came before me who dared to have their hair natural provide a space for me to accept my hair and be happy with it. My hair is an emblem of freedom—freedom from the pain of having to straighten my hair with a hot comb and later with chemicals. My hair as an archive allows me to name the racial and social trauma that I live through when I make the choice to have a natural hairstyle. My hair is my marronage and my resistance. Therefore, my hair is also oftentimes a site of politicisation that can have real consequences and impact on my livelihood and how I interact with others. My hair is an archive because it preserves important records of my past and my present and how my individual self is part of history. This history helps me to continuously define myself, guiding me as I move through the world. I claim my place in this history with self-love and compassion.