by Victoria J. Collis-Buthelezi
On Tuesday last I attended a meeting at which a well-meaning colleague seemingly complimented me on my hair. It was in a two-day old flat-twistout and as such looked somewhat more like a stretched ‘fro. “I like your hair,” he began. Not bad, I thought, then came, “ … especially in light of the recent Pretoria Girls’ High situation”. I’m well past the stage when such comments surprise me. In fact, it takes me a while to process how violent they are. Not because of a lack of consciousness as a black woman, but the thickening of my skin over the years to the everyday ways in which such words have always pervaded the space that I must occupy given the body in which I reside. For instance, another colleague once asserted that I know what it is like to have a ‘non-normative’ body (aka I’m black?). Perhaps these begin in the minds of their speakers as gestures of political solidarity, multicultural affirmation, or some such, but I read them as signs of the amnesia that seems to have set in post-apartheid for many conscientious progressive folk (of various colours) about things like the pencil test, ‘kaffir hare’ and the continued sanctity of white cultural hegemony in this country.
If allowed into psychic intimacy with many black women (especially those of us who have lived, been schooled, or worked in multiracial societies or contexts) you will find many, far more hurtful gems often either in content or in the hold they have over one’s life given the institution (family/home, school, office, friendship circles) to which they are tied. I come from a former slave society at the southernmost tip of the Caribbean archipelago, the twin-island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Since independence in 1962, we have actively identified ours as the ‘rainbow nation’. We are multicultural and multiracial. But the thing with such rainbow nations (like much of the Caribbean and South Africa) is that race – even when removed from the documents of identification – remains in other avatars: Skin color, hair texture, nose width, lip size, girth of the posterior. In South Africa, with the receding of the pencil test, what remains at ‘elite’ schools is the not-so-metaphorical ruler by which afros can be measured and deemed worthy and a R10 fee for speaking one’s mother tongue during recess. Up to 1995 in Trinidad dreadlocks were still notoriously maligned as representative of the worst state of ‘blackness’ (read Rastafarianism). One family had to go to court for their daughter to take up her state-awarded spot at an ‘elite’ high school because the school didn’t think her dreadlocks matched their ethos. Sometimes when babies are born the first thing visitors do after putting a piece of silver in the newborn’s hand, is check the tops of the ears for the coming skin complexion and the hair at the nape for the signs of the texture to come. Why do families and friends pray for lighter skin and ‘soft’/‘good’ hair? Why did Pecola Breedlove crave blue eyes?
Pecola Breedlove is the main character of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). By the end of the book, Pecola is a figure that her friends, two sisters, remember as adults – her belief that she has gained blue eyes is deemed her madness. Interesting that Breedlove is the name Morrison chooses for Pecola and her family which seems almost incapable of loving themselves or each other, but also because Breedlove is the maiden name of Madam CJ Walker, the African American woman who more or less invented what most of us now know as hair relaxer. Walker started her company in response to products from white companies that often left her and other black women she knew with damaged hair and hair loss. Pecola’s craving of blue eyes comes in the wake of not only her family’s multi-generational trauma, but her own sexual violation, which she arguably interprets against the backdrop of her mother’s adoration and care of her employer’s white (blond, blue-eyed) daughter. If only she had blue eyes, the thing growing in her womb – evidence of her violability as a black girl – might disappear, she might be loved. Of course, it is no accident that Morrison, at the time an editor at Random house, wrote and published the novel in 1970. With the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the rise of Black Power/Consciousness across much of the black world, the novel spoke to the aspects of racial oppression that remained unspeakable – the systemic attack on black self-making, style, beauty, skin, hair, body composition, and size, particularly, the disproportionate and specific ways in which this attack affected black women.
Without reducing black female grooming practices to the wants of anti-black racism and white supremacy, we need to address the ways in which anti-black heteronormative notions of ‘beauty’ have been constructed, consolidated and mobilized as part of an arsenal against the psychic well-being of black women since the mass commodification of the black body at the close of the sixteenth century. A response here might be that forms of slavery existed in Africa before then. Another that before slavery and colonialism, African women had modes of dressing hair that included straightening it to lay flat. Certainly too the commodification of the black body – a good to be traded, bought, sold, shipped, insured, claimed against if lost at sea, etc. – has not only affected black women. Black male bodies were commodified too, black male beauty with the idea of the ‘mandingo’ – the object of (heteronormative) white male fear and (heteronormative) white female desire, the ultimate threat of cuckoldry to white male property. The fear of black male masculine excess was entangled in anxieties about the maintenance of property, whether house, land, money, (white) wife or (white) children (read legal issue).
Yet the various commodifications of the black body with which we continue to live since its emergence as a tradeable good have often resulted in a valorisation/degradation of black male beauty (as highly sexualized and dangerous – whether we look to the slave societies of the Americas or the ordering of black male labor in South Africa) largely in contrast to the negation of black female beauty (also as deviantly sexual, but set against the ‘ideal’ of white female purity – men can be impure, but never women). Black women’s bodies came to be either ‘mannish’ or ‘excessive’. By now the history of this is long and layered (black women from Sarah Baartman to Grace Jones have come under this). Think back to the 2011 ‘study’ that referred to the “markedly lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women” in Psychology Today. At the base of much of this ‘science’ and ‘logic’ are the dominant notions of beauty that continues to assume white female beauty (and that which most approximates it) as respectable, clean, upwardly mobile, normal, professional etc. By this logic the further away one gets from this ideal the more dirty, lowly, abnormal, unprofessional etc. one is perceived to be. Hair remains a key measure of this, not only how it naturally manifests on the body of a black woman, but what she is willing to do to it in order to bring it into line. Make no mistake, the persistence of colonial and apartheid state-sanctioned codifications around black hair in our schools is nothing less than the perpetuation of patriarchy and white supremacy and the congealing of the school as the manufacturing site at which black bodies are made more ‘palatable’ under the guise of appropriateness (whose?) and discipline (by which moral/ethical code?).
As has emerged out of Pretoria Girls’ High and Sans Souci in Cape Town, alongside hair is the question of language. Taken together they say to young black women in formation: relax your hair, keep your ‘fro low so that I, white cultural hegemony, can like your hair (and by extension you); speak English in order to make yourself knowable to me, white cultural hegemony. Put another way, who is it that such policies defend and who do they negate? The conversation should not be about how we, black women, choose to style our hair, but how and why our bodies continue to be sites of fantastical regulation that we are then asked to pretend is not about our psychic decimation as individuals capable of making decisions about our own bodies. Every community requires a set of rules in order to sustain itself, of course, but if these rules cast some members as aberrations in their very being, is such a community not radically unequal? Should the school community not be a place that moves each pupil toward self-determination predicated on knowledge and respect of her own person and others within her school community and wider society? Show me how the dictum of 10 centimetres of ‘fro does anything other than say: “know your place is not equal”.