Land of the Big Six and the Proteas. Land of Mandela’s birth. Land where edges go to DIE.
One of the things I was most excited about in moving to South Africa was the prospect of having my hair slayed every week. Compared to prices in the States, cornrows and braids are delightfully inexpensive here. You can get your hair cornrowed in a fairly intricate style for R90-120 ($6.50 – 8.50) and get box braids for around R200 ($13.50). Of course, being an America, the prices I am quoted are subject to an ‘American tax’, so hairdressers are wont to tack on an additional R50 to the prices local women are generally quoted. This doesn’t offend me. It’s just the African way of doing business. It’s the accent. Ghanaians do this to me at home as well. And in the grand scheme of things, I AM making out better paying these prices than I would in the States… except when I’m not.
There is always a price to pay when you’re getting goods and services at a discount; and in South Africa, that price is your edges.
9 out of 10 Black women (in this part of the country) are not in possession of their edges. The numbers on TV are not much better. It is truly a heartrending vision to behold. Every whisper of hair has been snatched, tucked or ripped from Black scalps across the nation, as if they were wayward truants being punished for escaping their internment. Black hair is to be seen… but not seen… if at all possible, ya dig? In other words, tame your nappy knots, they’re offensive.
The idea that Black hair – especially and even on the African continent – is offensive is one that is ingrained in large swaths of society. Black women are not permitted to love their hair. Overwhelmingly, they can’t (and therefore don’t) take pride in it. I have yet to see a Black woman just let her hair be. Curly weaves and wigs are the order of the day where I live on the Garden Route. That sewed in or glued on artificial hair floats and catches the wind as women sashay by. And yet curiously, I have not seen a twist out, an Afro puff or braid out in these parts to date. Even my locked sisters have their tendrils tightly wound, tucked and folded on itself. Black hair is not free in South Africa!
This was something we discovered fairly quickly once the girls began school.
Last month I wrote about the veritable angst and frenzy our school’s administration had worked itself into over the styling of the girls’ hair. To Amana Academy’s credit, they do not police Black hair in the tyrannical ways I’ve heard other schools in and around Atlanta do. Girls are also allowed to wear hijabs at Amana without fear of reprisal. To attend school, hair simply has to be clean and neat. You know…a standard most parents have for their kids. As a result, the girls learned to be creative with their hair, were willing to explore new ideas about their hair and have conversations with their peers about all types of hair. In third grade, Aya and her friends formed The Hair Club, where they would sit at recess and positively “talk about hair.” Now, this may seem prosaic, or even silly to the ordinary observer, but these girls were participating in truly a revolutionary act; an act that was only made possible because their school fostered a permissive and safe environment.
Switch to the other side of the world: New school, new culture.
I’ve been thinking about (and doing) a lot hair lately because a line item in their elementary school’s code of conduct says, “false hair pieces or braids are prohibited”. The first day I read this rule, I prayed for God to save me from the massive stroke I felt coming on. How can you prohibit braids…in AFRICA? What kind of colonialist/apartheid/Jim Crow hellbroth is this and who brewed it? And more importantly, why? You want to kee me and all the Mamas?
Whatever the reasons for the policy, I now find myself washing, blow drying and pressing three heads every weekend (with midweek touch ups required thanks to the humidity) in order to be in compliance with this “no braids” standard. However, I have come to the realization that I am the only dummy adhering to this rule, as I’ve seen dozens of Xhosa girls skate around the school’s premises with extensions and cornrows.
But ain’t a single one of them in possession of their edges; a reality that petrifies my kids and me. We were all witness to the aftershocks of the one time I let a Cameroonian woman get a grip on my follicles. The incident left me with a headache, scalp irritation and hair loss for days. It’s not a scenario I am eager to repeat or subject my girls to.
Why is it so hard for African women to learn to properly care for their hair?
I have long maintained that the deficiency harkens back to the trans-Atlantic responses to racism, education and all its systems. I think what’s happening in Pretoria is partial evidence of that.
In the years following Emancipation when African Americans could legally get an education, schools were segregated by race. Economically disadvantaged white children who lived in close proximity with former slaves would sometimes attend these schools. But for the most part, the environment was Black. The teacher was Black, the administrative board (if the school had one) was Black, and Black mothers saw to the care of their children’s hair which would be neatly plaited and perhaps have a ribbon tied into if it was a special day. Finally, their kids could take pride in their hair and not have to subdue it with a rag to facilitate fieldwork. Black women were experimenting with new ways to nurture and style their hair. (Enter Madam CJ Walker.)
On the other side of the Atlantic, education was facilitated largely by white missionaries and European stakeholders. Girls were made to chop off their hair in boarding and day schools alike, because African hair was (and still is) considered a distraction. They intimated that girls would spend too much time doing their hair, and not enough studying. It’s a nonsensical argument that holds no water and cannot be backed by any study or empirical data, but it stuck. And as a result, we have a whole continent of women who are just now learning how to properly nurture their hair and not see it as a threat or the enemy.
In either instance, Black pride and ability has been made to bow to whiteness. Where there is integration, there is always – often coerced – assimilation. When African American girls integrated into white schools, society and entertainment, lye made a triumphant strut onto the scene. A conk was considered a Black male right of passage. Straight hair signaled that you were grown, and more importantly, successful. This is why it frustrates me to no end when otherwise well-educated folk like Whoopi Goldberg confuse cultural appropriation with assimilation. One is oppressive and exploitative and the other is for survival!
No rule in school is JUST for school. It follows you and becomes an extension of your character and shapes your view of yourself, the world at large, and your place in the world. So when we’re telling girls like those who attend Pretoria High that they must chemically straighten their hair and “fix themselves” in order to be in compliance with school ethics, and then further bar them from speaking their native language(s) because it is also a violation of the code of conduct, the idea that their Xhosa/Zulu hair and heritage is inferior follows them long after matriculation. It has taken African women years of rehabilitation to get over this hurdle, only to have their daughters experience the same needless, harmful trials.
My alma mater, SOS HGIC, had (and still has) a very open and supportive hair care policy. Girls could wear their hair in cornrows, braids, weave or perms. We learned about hair care from each other. And guess what? Our studies were not affected in any way. In fact, HGIC female graduates are arguably the most successful, well-rounded and effective influencers in Ghanaian society today.
…And ALL of us are in possession of our edges.
What? You thought this post was about equality and education? Nah mehn, this is about keeping these African edges safe!
Does your school have a discriminatory language or hair policy? Has a lot changed since you were in school, or remained about the same? Are you of the opinion that policing hair is a valid approach to positive outcomes in education?