Like many forms of black self-expression, black afro hair is largely an unknown quantity, only garnering mainstream conversation when something has gone awry.
In recent times Chris Rock's Good Hair documentary attempted to introduce to a wider world to the issues surrounding weave, hair relaxing and black people conforming to Euro centric ideas of beauty, but other than this rare example –and outside of a style mag sticking Pharrell or Idris Elba in a suit – there is still little conversation or visibility around black hair in wider society.
Talk on Twitter recently turned to a new film called Get Hard, the poster for which features Kevin Hart braiding Will Ferrell's hair while both grimace to the camera. The comedy follows millionaire Ferrell who employs street smart Hart to toughen him up before he heads to prison. The punch line of the poster was clear: for Ferrell to avoid ending up as a jail house bitch he needs to look like someone you don't fuck with – he needs cornrows, a black hairstyle that will make him better suited to prison life.
This is one of many examples where black hair is bound up in a matrix of negative associations and misunderstandings. Piers Morgan may now see himself as an expert on race relations, but he once revealed his total ignorance over black hair when he told Rihanna to abandon her pixie crop. That's not her real hair Piers, it's a hairpiece. Conversation over black hair is so poor that two year old Blue Ivy Carter is already the butt of jokes for her "messy" afro.
Black hair isn't talked about, but instead viewed from afar with fascination, and then persecuted up close for failing to conform.
Journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge cites a common quote to coming up when there are clashes with black culture in the mainstream, "Black culture is popular, black people are not." Reni says that in mainstream culture, "blackness is used like an accessory, like punk or goth."
The author, aged four.
Throughout my life, my hair has been either the source of trouble for the establishment, or wonderment for strangers who saw no issue with running their hands through it without asking permission.
Growing up in East London, I eventually found myself going to private school in the sticks of Great London before going to the virtually mono-ethnic white spaces of Essex and Somerset for my further education. Since my teenager years I've existed on the fringe, acting like some sort of black emissary to my white peers, before returning home to accusations of "choc-ice" and "bounty" (AKA a black person who acts white).
My hair became a battleground as I attempted to stay true to my roots while also following rules that often do not consider or understand black ethnic and minority people.
Sometimes the desire for acceptance manifested itself in a more Euro-centric cut, as I tried to put those who had never met a black man before at ease. At other times, I've said, "sod the rules", the simmering resentment at having to prove myself as someone worth acknowledging as a person manifesting as a mohawk or a lightening bolt pattern in my hair. I spent the majority of second year at University growing an afro, only to shave it all off just after my 20th birthday for fear I was playing up to the sassy token black stereotype.
For 1990s children Will Smith as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the archetypical black man in a fish-out-of-water situation. For me, he was a figure I could easily relate to.
Talking about her own struggles, Reni says it wasn't until she became politically aware that she started having her hair in her natural afro textured state.
"I didn't have a choice – as soon as I could walk and talk, my Mum, bless her, was having my hair relaxed and I was having routine scalp sessions."
To relax afro hair, a chemical agent, strong in alkali is used to break down the chemical bonds of the hair. Damage to the scalp and burning is a constant risk during the process so parents often wait for a child to come of age before the process.
When I asked Reni why she thinks her mother made this decision, she told me she thinks of it as the result of a litany of "insidious coercions" from mainstream media for people to conform to Euro centric ideas of beauty.
"People are bombarded with insidious messaging which is informed by racism. If you think about the Euro centric ideas of beauty you see, you rarely see a white person with a curly hairstyle, let alone a black afro. I was made to believe that black hair is dry, dirty or nappy. I was convinced I couldn't go natural with my hair for a long time because it was unruly and messy."
All this makes for a dreadful shame. Afro hair is more than just what grows out the top of some people's heads. It's the summation of a cultural experience, a point of black self expression and empowerment that's borne out of one of the most accessible pillars of black community – the barbershop.
Afro hair is more than just what grows out the top of some people's heads. It's the summation of a cultural experience, a point of black self expression and empowerment that's borne out of one of the most accessible pillars of black community – the barbershop.
The experience of going to a black barbershops and hairdressers is one like no other, a chance to immerse yourself in a culture and be at ease for a few hours with a cross section of society. Growing up in Leytonstone, East London, some of my best formative experiences occurred in a barbershop called Mister Tee. (I currently get my hair done at a place called "Hair Force One". Barbershop names > nightclub names.)
The film Barbershop may be pretty cartoony, but it was true in articulation of how the general day in the barbershop is so much more than your time in the chair.
Firstly, unless you have an appointment (rarely possible unless you've built a rapport with a barber over the years), most of the time you spend in a barbershop isn't in the chair itself. Barbershops function as conversation halls with haircuts included as extra. Outside of the church, there are few other places around where a Masters educated accountant has just as much sway as a 15-year-old kid who just wants to be a grime artist. The country club for people who could never afford them, barbershops are the great forums of our cities
It was in a barbershop where I first learnt how to play checkers, back in 1996 – waiting for my Dad to get a trim while he went at it with a Nigerian man who fervently believed Frank Bruno would beat Mike Tyson. It was in a barbershop where I saw numerous FA Cup finals unfold, watching games in the mirror reflection, hoping my barber wouldn't mess up my hairline in the event of a sudden goal.
"These places exists because the mainstream, which is coded white, doesn't cater to us. I can't go to a white hairdressers which supposedly 'caters to everyone', because no one there knows how to do my hair." – Reni Eddo-Lodge
In our rapidly gentrifying cityscapes, barbershops make for some of the few black owned businesses that stand firm on our streets; the home of local heroes. David Cameron's hairdresser may have earned himself an MBEfor swapping the PM's side parting, but I doubt he's done as much for his local community as your local inner city black barber, dishing out fresh trims, words of wisdom and home truths to dozens of people a week.
"These places exists because the mainstream, which is coded white, doesn't cater to us," says Reni. "I can't go to a white hairdressers which supposedly 'caters to everyone', because no one there knows how to do my hair. When I went to University in the north of England, I had to travel several miles to Manchester to find a place that knew what to do with my hair. I once had someone in Toni & Guy try to charge me £80 for a routine trim because I was deemed a 'special case'. These places are important because they understand the issues of being black."
Afro hair cannot be cut by anyone, so like Reni, to get a haircut I'm always drawn back to the black barbershop. School and university may have taken me out of Leytonstone, but Leytonstone remains in me, as I'll always need my hair cut (or at least I hope I will – my dad is 50 and still just about hanging on to his hair).
The barbershop is a constant pilgrimage. No matter how far away I go, I travel back to the barbershop and I'm put back in tune with the black experience, as people talk about the issues and stories about being black in the present day. Granddads tell me how lucky I have it that I was able to go to University and in turn I tell teenagers about the perils of doing my degree. It's almost like a big brother programme, years of black experience being passed on from person to person, all while we get our hair cut.
The products of our barbershops themselves – those corn rows, crops and fades – make for so much more than something to be dismissed as a novelty, bickered about by the media, or deemed as disruptive enough to be suspended from school over.
There needs to be a greater acceptance and understanding of black hair and its many permutations. Black hair can make for artful forms of self-expression, not possible anywhere else. It's a crying shame that there is so much tension in black hair. It's so much more than a visual punch line.
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