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Black Hair Is Not a Joke—It's a Powerful Mode of Self-Expression

And the black barbershop is where it all takes shape.
December 10, 2014, 4:55pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Like many forms of black self-expression, black hair is not often noticed by broader society and only enters mainstream conversation when something has gone awry.

In recent times Chris Rock's Good Hair ​documentary attempted to introduce to a wider world the issues surrounding weave, hair relaxing, and black people conforming to Eurocentric 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.

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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 at the camera. The comedy follows millionaire Ferrell as he employs street-smart Hart to toughen him up before he heads to prison. The punchline 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 stereotypically 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 ra​ce relations, but he once revealed his total ignorance over black hair when he told Rihanna to abandon her p​ixie crop. That's not her real hair, Piers; it's a hairpiece. The discourse surrounding black hair is so awful 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-Lod​ge 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 at age four

Throughout my life, my hair has been either the source of trouble for the establishment or an object of wonderment for strangers who see no issue with running their hands through it without asking permission.

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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 teenage 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" (a.k.a. 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 have any understanding of black ethnic and minority people.

Sometimes the desire for acceptance manifested itself in a more Eurocentric 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," and the simmering resentment at having to prove myself as someone worth acknowledging as a person would manifest 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 90s kids Will Smith's character in  The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the archetypal black man in a fish-out-of-water situation. For me, he was a figure I could easily relate to.

The author, at left

Talking about her own struggles, Reni says it wasn't until she became politically aware that she started wearing her hair in its natural state:  "I didn't have a choice—as soon as I could walk and talk, my mom, bless her, was having my hair relaxed and I was having routine scalp sessions."

To relax afro hair, a chemical agent 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 having it done to them.

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When I asked Reni why she thought 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 Eurocentric ideas of beauty.

"People are bombarded with insidious messaging that is informed by racism. If you think about the Eurocentric ideas of beauty you see, you rarely see a white person with a curly hairstyle, let alone a black afro," she said. "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 comes from 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.

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 an educated accountant has just as much sway as a 15-year-old kid who wants to be a grime artist.

It was in a barbershop where I first learned 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 white hairdressers who supposedly 'cater to everyone,' because no one there knows how to do my hair," says 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 himse​lf an MBE for 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 who dishes out fresh trims, words of wisdom, and 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 white hairdressers who supposedly 'cater 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 [$125] for a routine trim because I was deemed a 'special case.' These places are important because they understand the issues of being black."

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Afro hair cannot be cut by just 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 program, 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 cornrows, crops, and fades—are so much more than something to be dismissed as a novelty, bickered about by the media, or deemed disruptive enough to be suspende​d from school over.

There needs to be a greater acceptance and understanding of black hair and its many permutations. It's a crying shame that there is so much tension surrounding black hair. It's so much more than a visual punchline.

Follow Carl Anka on ​Twitter.