“I Am Not My Hair” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves
I remember when India Arie’s song, “I Am Not My Hair,” first came out. I was a young college student at a predominately white institution. My friends and I would walk around campus singing the lyrics:
I am not my hair, I am not this skin
I am not your ex-pec-tations no no
I am not my hair, I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within
However, even as I sang these lyrics, the words on my lips were largely divorced from my sense of self. It felt good to sing an anthem affirming my place in the world as a black woman. Yet, I knew from experience that I was my hair, at least to those around me.
Recently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights established new guidelines to include policing hair under the category of racial discrimination. Although the changes are general enough to cover any hairstyle, the guidelines specifically aim to protect “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” This new legal protection speaks to a longstanding truth for black women. For us, especially, hair is an added embodied layer to our blackness. However, the testimonies of women interviewed in New York, or the past controversy over Google Image results on unprofessional hair, also reveal that black women’s hair is tied to much more than our bodies or our sense of self. Our hair cannot be separated from our economic means, our relationships, our self perception, our educational opportunities or a host of other material and social realities.
When the news about New York’s new protections for natural hair broke, I was in the middle of teaching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah. Despite the controversy that has surrounded her, I admire Adichie’s ability to unflinchingly claim that black women’s hair is political, “a means to talking about other things.” As much as Americanah is a love story about black diasporic experiences, it is equally, if not more so, about black women’s hair. The novel’s promotional campaign, designed by Zach Erdmann, illustrates as much through an array of images of black women’s natural hair styles.
The idea that black women’s hair is political permeates Adichie’s text. When the protagonist, Ifemelu, begins to contemplating going natural, one of her friends encourages her by saying, “relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.” This love for natural black hair is later embraced by Ifemelu as she finds herself scouring blogs and message boards in search of fellow black women naturals. In Adichie’s novel, the relationship between black women’s hair and politics is explicit. To relax one’s hair is to conform to a belief in the possibility of black social mobility and acceptance via an adherence to Western beauty standards. On the other hand, to wear one’s hair in its natural state is a visual and political rebellion against these standards.
Ifemelu’s experience in Americanah is one that resonates with me deeply. The feminist proclamation that the personal is political never rang so true for me as it did the day I decided to stop straightening my hair. Growing up, I was always praised for my long, thick, straight hair. When people found out I was half Ethiopian, they would often praise my father’s heritage as the source of my so-called good hair. As someone who struggled with my self-esteem as a teenager, as most do, my hair was my singular source of unwavering confidence in my physical appearance.
Something changed, however, when I became a Ph.D. student. As I dug deeper into my love for black studies and my research on black feminist writers, I began to see myself, and my hair, in a different light. I knew that blackness was more than ancestry, culture or phenotype. It was political. It wasn’t a far leap to realize that my hair, as a black woman, was political too. It was then, for the first time, that India Arie’s lyrics began to ring true for me:
Went on and did what I had to do
Cause it was time to change my life
To become the woman that I am inside
Activists like Angela Davis, whose iconic Afro was an integral part of the imagery of the black power movement, have long depicted the link between black women’s hair and black women’s politics. But, what did that mean for me as a black woman living in the 21st century? For many, we are long past the era when black women need to wear natural hair in order to prove that black is beautiful. Certainly black women have the right to wear our hair in any style we see fit. Yet, I still feel a certain level of discomfort when individual choice is used to justify an embrace of bone straight hair or blonde dye.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream, often whitewashed, feminist claim that every woman should have the right to look as she chooses overshadows the history and political context of black women’s bodies. A woman’s right to control her body, and her look, is a fundamental one. It is also, however, an extremely individualistic one. What does it mean to make an individual choice about one’s body when the conditions surrounding it have been overly determined by white beauty standards for centuries?
This question is one that Adichie answers to some extent in Americanah. Black women do indeed make choices about their hair that reflect individuality. This individuality is partly what Zach Erdmann puts on display through novel’s promotional artwork. The range of hairstyles, from “teeny weenie afros” to “kinky twists,” dispels the myth that natural hair exists as nothing more than the opposite of relaxed hair. The nuance and variety Erdman illustrates convey the heterogeneity of natural black hair.
To be clear, it is not my place, nor is it my desire, to police other black women’s bodies. However, I find that many of us fail to fully acknowledge how deeply entrenched and internalized white beauty standards are. To believe that our own desires to look, and be looked upon, in certain ways is divorced from the context of racism is naïve, at best. Black women’s hair remains as political today as it was 50 years ago. While we may not be our hair, our hair continue to be the way we are understood in the world.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.