They dreamt of wearing “good hair” because of peer pressure from schoolmates and neighbourhood friends, who had ceased to wear their natural hairstyles. Their mates and buddies were now rocking Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian and European weaves, wigs or chemically transformed locks, with some even sporting plastic and horsehair.
Rock’s documentary Good Hair went on to become an international box office success in theatres worldwide.
African people’s hair has always been a source of universal intrigue. It’s an amazing psychological jigsaw puzzle of identity, image, self-esteem and heritage.
My maternal grandfather was a devious mining engineer from Scotland who married our Ndebele grandmother at the beginning of the 20th century. My mother, therefore, emerged as a “mixed-breed”, “Mulatto”, “coloured” person with straight hair.
My three younger sisters were “blessed” with semistraight hair. Most of my mother’s light-skinned relatives had similar varieties of “good hair”. My own hair pursued that of our father’s texture and variety, although it retains up to this day a slight softness inherited from my mother’s side.
Dad was Karanga/Pedi and therefore not easily acceptable to many of my mum’s “kleurling” relatives. In the townships, we were “Maasbigir”, “Amperbaas”. As a child, I was subjected to regular mention of my mop as “kaffir hare”(kaffir hair).
“Korrelkop” (mealie cob-row head), “Hottentotmat” (Khoisan mat) and other derogatory terms were associated with indigenous coifs. Such words came from my Afrikaans-speaking granny (when it was appropriate) when her “Oorlams” (Dutch-rooted) relations, many of whom were Ndebele and Pedi, would say to her: “Haai Joanna, maar die kind het lelike hare, wragtig!” (Wow, Joanna, but this child has ugly hair, really!”) I began to realise that criticism of hair quality had subconsciously instilled in them deep embarrassment and shame over what sat on their heads.
Charge of the light-complexion brigade
When the apartheid regime came into power in 1948, it was romantically sentimental about treating and classifying the Afrikaans-speaking “coloureds” as officially superior to us “natives”.
It exploited tribalism, institutionalised ethnic groupings and established legal racism based on white supremacy.
Not that the structures did not exist during colonial times, but they became administrative law, enshrined to an absurd level of constitutionalised slavery.
Within all the ensuing racist insanity, indigenous people who wished to acquire coloured status because of its “half-white” privileges straightened their hair with the aid of hot combs, which created a putrid smell but guaranteed the wearer’s success in the apartheid regime’s “pencil test”.
This examination ensured that if the pencil did not get stuck in the hair, the examinee lawfully became a coloured.
The utter absurdity of it all still boggles the mind. Many women took the “cliff dive” into hot-comb hair-straightening and skin-lightening to pass for identities as far removed as possible from African – or, as Europeans loved to call us, kaffirs – regardless of how dark-skinned they were.
It caused deep pity inside my young soul to observe a people so ashamed. It still does. How lethal the severe sword of oppression.
When I entered my late teens, I began to realise that African people were successfully being manipulated into believing not only that they were inferior to Europeans, Asians and coloureds, but that their own hair texture and quality were perceived as unmanageable, uncivilised, primitive and backward.
To be socially acceptable, Africans had to contemplate upgrading the feel of their tresses to a level closer to that of real coloureds (there were many fake ones), Asians and Europeans.
Hair industries in the US, the Caribbean and South America emerged to exploit the hundred-and-something-years-old inferiority complex of most people of African origin about their “nappy heads”.
Ironically, one of the foremost pioneers of “soft” hair for so-called blacks was a Madam Jackson, an African-American who went on to become a multimillionaire early in the 20th century.
Shortly before I left South Africa in 1960 to study music abroad, the hair-straightening, wig-manufacturing and skin-lightening industries were taking root in Africa. Many women destroyed their beautiful faces, which were often burnt by the creams. The burns are called “chubabas” in southern Africa.
In central Africa, because of the hot, humid weather, men and women turn yellow from the applications. In my African travels, I’ve seen some outrageous spectacles.
The most comical portrait that comes to mind is that of Ghana’s first independence Cabinet with Kwame Nkrumah at the helm in 1957. Everyone was resplendent in traditional Kente-weave costumes, but with all the wives proudly sporting sparkling Indian-style wigs.
I am pained whenever I view that portrait. I try to imagine the wives of a European country’s Cabinet or female soldiers in Asian armies wearing African short-hair wigs and I am tempted to chuckle, but the laughable probability saddens me instead.
Nkrumah was supposedly one of the fathers of Pan-Africanism. (May Robert Sobukwe and Steve Bantu Biko’s spirits rest in peace.)
To watch the royal reed ceremonies of KwaZulu and Swaziland with the young maidens in traditional threads, tall reeds in hand, fills one with so much admiration for the regalia, the music and the dances.
However, on realising that the majority of the heads are crowned with black, blonde, platinum and rainbow-coloured wigs and tresses, I tend to cringe. Are the kings really admiring the headdresses?
When I arrived in New York City, I could not find a barbershop in Harlem that would afford me a haircut. Almost all “Negro” men’s heads were wrapped in straightened, chemicalised “hairdos”.
They would inform me that only very young “Negro” boys wore natural hairstyles, aside from Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King Jr (and most of his team), footballer Jim Brown and a small minority of prominent African males. Very few “Negroes” of the era wanted to be associated with the continent of their roots.
“Ya’ll got fruits and vegetables in Africa? I’m an American; I ain’t no African, man! I’m a Negro!” They would assure me of this in a dismissive, agitated and angry tone of voice.
Miriam Makeba, Odetta, Abbey Lincoln, Cecily Tyson, Maya Angelou and a few others who wore their hair naturally then were deemed strange.
People who were doing the opposite considered those with “natural hair” as almost bordering on being terrorists, pagans and extremists. They felt threatened by the look. Most whites viewed it as a typical example of cheeky, troublemaking “Nigras”.
To me, this felt like arrogant censure and a negation of my heritage’s exceptional history and glorious contribution to human knowledge in several fields of the arts, sciences and philosophy.
When the emergence of black power, spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael in 1967, finally tore down American white-racist stereotypes about Africans, many former “Negroes” began to wear dashiki shirts with “head mops” that became known as “Afros” or just “Froes”.
For a while, the African diaspora was captivated by a new pride about naturalness. Alex Haley’s Roots television series in the mid-1970s traced his family history back to ancient Gambia in west Africa and was a massive international smash.
It caused African traditional couture to gain a large following worldwide. But the euphoria was not to last long. By the 1980s, the return to Western and Asian wigs and extensions pointed to a U-turn from what had seemed like the beginnings of an African renaissance.
Today, African women the world over spend tens of billions of dollars to acquire Brazilian, Indian, Chinese and Peruvian locks, many from the heads of the dead. From a traditional perspective, the practice is macabre and ghoulish.
Skin lighteners are back in full force. The new fads and fashions are a vilification and denigration of centuries-old African traditions and heritage.
I am thrilled by the welcome discovery of scores of African hairstyles that are possible because the tresses are malleable enough to sculpt into dazzling looks in all colours. On the other hand, European and Asian hair only hangs downward unless fastened and clipped with all manner of pins, bands, gels and sprays. It lies strangely on African-moulded features.
From my viewpoint, the manipulation of African people to look down on their natural beauty and their subsequent exploitation by the international makers of skin-lightening creams, hair extensions and wigs is truly a tragic return to the thinking that was prevalent during my childhood and teenage days, which mocked our origins.
I have registered the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation to:
. Attempt to restore into our lives the knowledge of our historic past and research the genealogy of every family.
. Interview every person aged 85 and older to capture whatever memories, wisdom and ancient know-how they might still be able to recall. The information will be preserved and stored in databases for access to our past.
. Encourage the relearning of mother tongues, poetry, praise songs and literature for present and future generations to possess as a bulwark against consumption by other cultures.
. To revive study in the areas of indigenous manufacture of household goods to elevate African carpentry, construction, weaving, linen manufacture, design, stonemasonry, mosaics, art, traditional music, dance and sport.
Hopefully, this initiative will aid us to gradually cut down on our blatant consumption of foreign goods and cultures. We must become a seller society instead of the buyers we are today.
It would be hypocritical of me to appear in photos with people donning foreign wigs, chemically altered hairdos, and Asian, European and South American extensions, except in cases where my refusal could result in my imprisonment, deportation or demise.
I do not wish to stop anybody from the choices they make or the cultures they want to serve themselves as fodder for. I am only begging not to be forced to join the dive of the lemmings or sheep over the cliff.
As you can surmise by now, I have personally had a very depressing hair life. Today, and every day these days, appears to be a “bad hair day”.
It is painful to watch government officials, “celebrities” and prominent women in business, media, sports, religion and education wearing these devices with so much deep pride, aplomb and joy – especially the grannies who are at an age where surely nobody is “looking” any more.
I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I see people of the African female community who look like themselves in newspapers, magazines and journals, on television, in the theatre and at concerts. It is as rare a sighting as an albatross.
Many employment establishments will not have them. We are living a “bad hair life”. Welcome to another “bad hair day”.