Does your hair make you African? by Esame Okwoche

Does your hair make you African? by Esame Okwoche

A  close friend recently told me an unsettling story. Her colleagues and her were attending a conference when they happened upon a famous African artist; a world renowned trumpeter, and composer, amongst many other things. For the sake of this article I will call him Celebrity A. I will not mention his country of origin, because if I do, you would know, and yes, he is that famous.

So, my starstruck friend and her  starstruck colleagues, rushed to him, to greet and show respect. He acknowledged her colleagues but ignored my friend. Why? She had permed hair, and  according to him, it is un-African for a Black African woman to use chemicals on her hair.

permed hair


What exactly does it mean to be African? Some define African-ness on the basis of skin colour. Others will define African-ness along  hairlines. The danger inherent in defining African-ness by the colour of the skin or in this case the nature of our hair, is that we exclude the White Africans, some of whom lay a greater claim to African-ness than some Black skinned, dread-locked or afro haired African.


Don’t get me wrong, I understand. I understand the heritage and ideologies that surround Black women and hair. In fact we can draw parallels between Celebrity A’s views and those of the English nationalists,  who hold that black (skinned) people in Britain may be British, but they are not and can never be English. I know black people, whose parents, grandparents or great grandparents were born in Britain, some of whose ancestors contributed to the building of Britain as we know it, who refer to themselves as British, but who will never use the term English to define themselves.

Why? Because British-nnes is a more inclusive term, when it is used it generally means the following – I was born under the British sky, I grew up in Hackney Empire, I attended Christ Church, I love fish and chips, I can sing ‘ All Hail the Queen,’ etcetera etcetera …

English-ness however, evokes a more distant past. A time before trade lines between the Portuguese and the great Benin Kingdom was established. Before the period of the great sea voyages and novel discoveries, before Vasco da Gama stumbled on the sea route round Africa to India, they were white skinned people, only, living within a specified geographical region.

Equally, before then, there were only Black skinned people living in eg Benin Kingdom. It is to this period that Celebrity A alludes. Perhaps he meant to say it was not a ‘Black thing, to put chemicals in your hair?’ That may have presented a more weighty position. But what about choice? What about the freedom to choose?.

There has been building tension in the more recent past, a split, along hairlines if you may, permed/weaved hair on one side, and the Afro/dread-locked on the other. This tension, is becoming increasingly vocal, in fact it is now loud and divisive and is instilling doubt in an increasing number of Black women.

The motivation for permed and or weaved on hair, has definitely shifted. It used to be,  that Black women needed to straighten their hair in order to become beautiful, acceptable, employable (although there remains that hostility against black women with natural hair in some organizations). But many Black women now wear a perm, because of the ease and comfort, because they want to. Why is that so wrong?

It is hard enough to be a Black African woman, living outside the continent – in a society where your African-ness is  judged, boxed and often dismissed – to be put in the uncomfortable position (by fellow Africans) who second guess your African-ness.  Black African women are now asking questions of their hair, their dressing, the political,  or in this case African correctness, in order to fit into this mould of African-ness, erected mostly by artists, who have appointed themselves custodians of our African-ness. Whoever said that having a perm will stifle or jinx your creative muse?

I believe that true identity is a collection of the experiences you have had, the journeys you have undertaken, places you have visited (and by places I mean more than a physical place).

We should indeed ask questions of ourselves; personal questions as well as money questions like I asked myself before transitioning to natural hair.  Honest, self searching questions, on manageability, comfort, finances. Questions that are unimpeded by outward demand or pressure of how or what an African woman should look like. Questions that will inevitably yield honest answers,  answers that stem from freedom of choice.

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