Hair that Grows Up and Not Down

by Esihle Faltein

jms1 'hair that grows up and not down' Esihle Faltein, instagram_ @blackartistry_
Photo credit: @blackartistry instagram 

“I think it is time,” she gleamed as she built up confidence to emphasise what she was about to say. “I think it is time we made afros fashionable again,” with passion in her eyes and a stern voice, Fezeka Nomlomo stands by the notion of being radically free with natural hair.

In the township of Joza, situated in Grahamstown, having natural hair is uncommon amongst popular hairstyles. Young children and the community at large prefer to have their hair relaxed, to have extensions or straightened under a hot iron. Nomlomo, a teacher at Noncedo Pre-School, believes that having natural hair as a black person is the best way to maintain it. “Relaxers are very irritating,” she said shaking her head with disdain, “when children have the hair that I have, they are not restricted. They can be children without worrying about hair.” When asked what hairstyles are the most popular in their school, the teachers of Noncedo Pre-School said replied that it was braids and relaxed hair. Hairstyles change each year and a new one is adopted by popular culture. From 2002 to 2017, the teachers of Noncedo Pre-School have witnessed a massive change in the way children do their hairstyles. “When we first started the school,” Phumla Donyeli says pointing towards the entrance, “children came with their natural hair to school.” As the years went by Phumla noticed that the hairstyles their students had were linked to the latest trend, and now braids, hair extensions, and predominantly relaxed hair are the new afros of today’s age. The latest trends set up the imagine one should have and have an immense influence on younger people.

Relaxed hair is the type of hair that is straight and thin and exposes each hair strand to the eye. Walking into a hair salon, in the township, one would rarely see a client with hair that has not been straightened. Hairstylist Vida Nyarko from Joza states that, “Relaxers can cause harm to hair only if it is not nourished well”. When one has relaxed their hair (straightened with chemicals), it is recommended that they wash the chemicals out of the relaxer the following week. The chemicals in relaxers contain agents that permanently straighten out hair strands while damaging the roots. This slows down the process of hair grow and results in hair loss too. The main purpose for the development of the relaxer was to permanently straighten black hair in order for it to look desirable. When metal hot combs were invented in France they were distributed around the world for black people to use. The main purpose for these combs was to straighten kinky hair, and make it look more western. The stigma of having hair that is similar to a white person than of a black person in the black community comes from hair straightening products. When asking Vida (the hairstylist) which hairstyles she enjoys doing she said, “Well I prefer the weaves and relaxers, because it’s much quicker and easier.” A weave is a hair piece created from weaving real or artificial hair together, and relaxers are creams used to make ethnic hair straight, thin and silky; these are the same hairstyles that ruin the roots of black hair when done constantly.

This raises a question as to whether black people are doing hairstyles that are accustomed to white culture, because it is easier, convenient, and more appealing than their own natural hair? When asking one of the teachers at the school whether they preferred seeing their students in their natural hair they answered, “Yes, I’d like to see more students in their natural hair rather than in hair that is not their own”. Fezeka Nomlomo had natural hair herself. She stretched out her mini afro showing that she is proud of her natural journey. “If the children had natural hair, they would not be distracted so much by hair that is in their face all the time,” said Nomlomo. “When children are distracted by materialistic things, such as hair, they tend to lose their inner child when actually they need to be free,” Nomlomo added.

During the time of slavery the afro was associated with political radicalism and rejection of the status quo. It was a statement rather than a hairstyle- the bigger the hair, the bigger the statement. Activists, such as Angela Davis, had an afro to fight against oppressive rules of that time as a sign that she is black and proud. When Nomlomo said children needed to be free she was not lying. Natural hair does not restrain you nor do you have to endure pain when you are growing your natural. It allows you to do as you please without having to think of twice about being blown up by the wind.

To some, the discussion on hair may not be something of interest. When asking Emma Evers, a foreign student from the Netherlands, about her thoughts on black hair she said, “I don’t think I have ever really thought about it. Hair is hair right? I guess coming from abroad I think it is quite fascinating because it always looks so cool.” Emma is one of the people who are liberal to the idea of black hair being relaxed and having hairstyles such as weaves. “Every individual should be able to do what they want with their hair, I guess it really doesn’t matter to me.” Any opinion one has is influenced by their personal context. Emma is from the Netherlands, and she was never exposed to ethnic hair the way she is now.

When you look around in the black community having an afro is rare and strange. This goes to show that having hair similar to that of a white person is still systematically ingrained in the minds of black people that it is deemed more appealing or right. The problem lies within  the school rules that perpetuate this way of thinking, and how we’ve been socialised. The idea that associates black hair with inferiority needs to be oppressed.



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