My hair is political
Written by the producer of Today with John Perlman, Ncebakazi Manzi
One of the earliest memories I have is of me at 5-years-old hunched over a dressing table at my great grandmother’s house with a pantyhose over my head imagining its legs were hair. I would squint my eyes and bob my head this way and that in front of the mirror so I could see my long, wavy hair flowing behind my shoulders.
Growing up in a village under apartheid South Africa, I hardly had any encounters with white people apart from the farmers who came occasionally to sell amasi (sour milk) from the back of their vans. But even at that age, without much exposure to television, I knew that I wanted to have ‘white hair’, a desire reinforced by the value we attached to being white in general. As children, my cousins and I had all sorts of theories about what it was like to be white, the most outrageous of these being that the excrement of white folk was in fact nothing like what our own bodies produced and most probably closer to ice cream.
Whatever fantastic ideas our little minds conjured up, whiteness was the gold standard, the thing to aspire towards. It is no surprise that by that age, I had learnt that in its natural state, my hair was loathsome – hardly the texture or length it was supposed to be. Fortunately, there was a remedy in the form of perm lotion which tamed the kaffir in my kaffir hare by smoothing out its kinks, making it straighter. The lotion had a particularly acrid smell and after a few minutes of application you could feel like a fire-spitting dragon had licked your scalp with its tongue. “Ubuhle buyanyamezelwa, ntombazana” (One suffers for beauty, my girl) my mother, aunt, cousin or whoever was fixing my hair at the time would say as I writhed in pain imagining the relief once my head would be submerged in water. And it was all worth it. I felt good, prettier when my hair looked nothing like my own. And thus began a long and complicated relationship with my hair.
At 22 I decided to stop using chemicals on it and 10 years later I haven’t looked back. What started out as an impulsive decision became a personal and intimate form of resistance against hundreds of years of the association of beauty with Western values as a result of the colonial encounter on the African continent.
The way I wear my hair is deeply political for me and even for those who dismiss their hair as just hair, it is equally political. I may have since discovered that many of the wild ideas we had as children about white people were the creations of our fertile imaginations, but even then I knew that material privilege was racially skewed and certainly not in my favour as a black girl. This reality has not changed in any fundamental way and I consider my hair a symbol for a deep yearning for a different world. A world in which young black girls look at themselves in the mirror, as I often did as a child but unlike me, see the beauty of their black hair.
We asked Kaya FM 959 staff members to tell us about the misconceptions others have of their hair and took pictures of them in their hairstyles.
Send a picture of your hairstyle and share with us its name or how much it cost you, or what you / others think about your hairstyle. Share your pictures on the Today with John Perlman Facebook page or on Twitter.