Blessing Okagbare is a much-decorated Nigerian athlete who competes in in sprinting, long jump and triple jump. She’s competed in the Olympics, Common Wealth and All Africa Games, and most recently, in the Oslo Diamond League in Norway. It is here where the world became acquainted with Okagbare, not for her prowess on the field, but because of her hair. As you probably well already know, she and her wig parted ways during the long jump.
Are you finished laughing? Please let me know when you’ve composed yourself so that we can continue. Ahaaa. Let’s go!
In the wake of this gravitational wig snatching, headlines and commenters from around the globe have bandied about the idea that Blessing Okagbare must have been embarrassed about her wig falling off during her event. There’s no way she couldn’t have been, right? I mean, your hair (or in this case, some Chinese manufactured form of it) literally separated itself from your body on an international stage. Mortifying, yes?
Let me say it again: No! This will not get you down. Not if you’re a Nigerian woman, or a Black woman in the Diaspora of a certain caliber.
Let me tell you something about Nigerian women: They have bigger concerns than worrying about feelings of embarrassment, despite what the western media would have us believe. Though I do not share their nationality, I have had the blessing (pun fully intended) of calling many Nigerian women sisters and friends, and have shared sacred space with them online. One of those spaces is FIN – an acronym for Female In Nigeria. It is a closed group with strict rules about disclosure, so I certainly will not betray the group’s trust or risk my privileged access to the site by going into specifics. I can say this: There is no woman – no person – who suffers like Nigerian women. Between the Church, the in-laws, some random Honda Accord-driving bozo who demands wife material (and service) on the first date, Boko Haram and your random lascivious Senator, the things that are done to and said about Nigerian women’s bodies create an incredible amount of pressure on this group. Nevertheless, they persist and continue to excel.
Look at Luvvie.
Look at Chimamanda.
Look at Folorunso.
Their accolades and achievements did not come without sacrifice, hardship and ridicule. Chimamanda has spoken about an essay that she wrote while she was in college. It was apparently the best essay in class, and the professor wanted to acknowledge the student. When she raised her hand, he looked at her in disbelief before repeating his inquiry…As if how could a woman from Darkest Africa produce such excellent work? This is just one of the myriad indignities women of color are continually made to suffer. The abilities of our minds and potential of the body are frequently downplayed and suppressed, unless it’s in the service and for the benefit of someone else.
Ahaaa. Let’s continue.
I don’t know why Blessing Okagbare chose to wear a wig in Oslo this week, but I can hazard a guess. Despite India Arie’s postulation to the contrary, Black women are and will continue to be our hair. There is a fair amount of handwringing from the New African and Hotep crowd online who have shamed Okagbare for her choice to wear a hairpiece. The most vocal have been men. Female critics have taken to sniggering, rather than perform outright criticism.
“She looks better with her natural hair!”
“It is an embarrassment for an African woman to go and look for some dead Indian woman’s hair to tape on to her forehead. This is not QUEEN behavior.”
“When, oh WHEN will African women release their minds from this mental slavery!”
And yet when a dark skinned woman with 4C hair shows up at the club or for an interview for a receptionist’s position, she is routinely passed up and overlooked for either a) a lighter skinned woman or b) a dark skinned woman who has sense enough to straighten her hair. I am here to testify that I have seen it myself with my own two Ghanaian eyes. When you add to that matrix the strength of body that a woman like Blessing Okagbare possesses, the comments and stigma outside of the safety of the sports arena is nothing short of bestial.
In an interview conducted a few years ago, Ghanaian pop singer Wiyaala discussed how growing up with a “strongbody” affected her. Wiyaala is an incredibly strong woman with lean muscle mass. She described how walks about her hometown would invite taunts from local boys who would shout for her to raise her shirt to prove she was a girl. She responded by embracing her androgyny and opting for a high-top close crop.
I suspect that Blessing Okagbare – who, like Wiyaala has been active in sports since high school – has faced similar taunts. It’s probable that the hurtful words of strangers (perhaps even choices) have had some level of impact on her sartorial choices, including how she wears her hair.
You might well recall how the Black community savaged Gabby Douglas during the 2012 Olympic games over how she styled her hair. Douglas made history by becoming the first American gymnast to win gold medals in both the team and individual all-around. That vicious attack was the direct result of centuries of conditioning, and it’s something we’’re yet to be healed of.
Female athletes (Black women in particular) have added pressure of performing femininity on the field while in the midst of competition. One will have to give way to the other, because you can’t have slayed edges and slay the hundred-meter dash. The 4-6 hours required to sit in the salon while you wait to get your sew in or cornrows done is valuable training time lost. Any serious female athlete would forego the salon in pursuit of that extra second on the clock. But I can just see some pastor or some too known auntie coming to ‘advise’ the Nigerian team:
“Eh ehhh… You know you are representing the whole kontry. When you go there, don’t go with that unruly hair, eh? Let os pray…”
I’m telling you, I’ve sat at dinner with the son of a Ghanaian mogul who nearly spat his whiskey in disgust over the idea that the Pretoria High girls who were fighting to wear their natural hair and locks.
“There is no way in Ghana that we will ever allow a girl to come to class with that BUSHY hair!”
Look: Any woman who wears a wig knows that there is always a hazardous risk with making that choice. There is ALWAYS a chance of it getting blown off, snatched off or simply slipping off. It’s a fact of wig-wearing life. But you can’t let a little bit of synthetic stop you from putting in that work. Blessing Okagbare responded to losing her wig in the same way generations of Black women who have felt compelled to cover their natural hair for social acceptance have for years: She simply put the mask back on and went about her business like a BAWSE CHICK. To get to this level, she has been through greater trials than her hair falling off. We should all just stop forcing her to feel embarrassment that she’s not experiencing.
And now: A short video representation of other notable African women who have (or nearly) lost their wigs while putting in that work. Honorable mention to my girl Gloria of TFH, who routinely tests the adhesive integrity of her wig glue while in the midst of praise and worship.
Kiki Sheard: Nothing, not even the separation from my wig, can separate me from pursuing the love of Jesus
Queen Bey: A fan is not a halo, but it tried it.
Kim Z: I’ll give you my wig why you pry it from my cold, icy head.