Bad Hair Uprooted, the unknown history of Frizzy Hair
Until I decided to wear my hair naturally frizzy, I had hardly given any thought to the consequences of slavery. Growing up in Suriname, I was never short of anything. Without wishing to be immodest, I can say that I come from a good family of 3 children, with more than enough opportunities to develop. Conscious of my blessings, it was impossible for me to consider myself a victim of slavery.
July was a day off for us, not only to celebrate but also to reflect, raise awareness and remember what a powerful people we are; how much we've overcome, what we've all survived and, above all, how to prevent such a piece of criminal history from ever repeating itself.
Even when I went to study in Amsterdam, it never really occurred to me to think about what slavery meant to the Netherlands. Except for a handful of Surinamese, the traces of the slave trade had been almost obliterated, I thought. It was clear that Suriname was not a subject in Dutch schools. The Dutch still know so little about Suriname that even MPs are surprised that we "speak Dutch so well".
If Suriname was mentioned, you were invariably told that the colonies only cost the prosperous Netherlands money. Other sporadic times when slavery was unexpectedly mentioned, it was said that the Dutch today have nothing to do with the crimes committed by ancestors centuries ago. Or, that the Africans who sold their captives at that time were (partly?) guilty. Fortunately, frizzy hair literally drove me to uproot my slave roots.
Relaxers and de-frizzers
Hair straightening is so common in the Afro-Surinamese community that I never realized how harmful these chemicals are. So when my hair started to break, I thought it was just me. It wasn't until after my hair had broken horribly three times in a row after relaxing, after growing a full head of hair by braiding my hair for a year, that it dawned on me that the stuff might not be good.
But even then I thought it was probably my own hair until I came across an article titled “Relaxers Can Cause African Americans' Hair Loss.” Literally translated: Relaxers can cause hair loss. It stated that Dr. Miller, a dermatologist at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, said that as many as 73% of black women suffer from relaxer induced alopecia. That is, hair loss due to the use of relaxers. This was a real shock to me.
How is it possible, I thought, that the 73% of women who suffer from hair loss due to relaxers, just continue straightening? This issue has haunted me for years.
Why did I think, are we black people so bad with our frizzy hair? Because even when I compare it to women of other races, the difference is huge. My non-frizzy friends experimented with their hair at least as much. From perms to coloring, braiding and even relaxing, but after one bad result, at most twice, they definitely stopped. Especially if the hair strands were broken down to the scalp.
Why did I think, do we frizzy hair go through where the hair breaks? Where did the obsessive compulsive behavior to have smooth hair come from? The simple explanation of self-hatred was too short-sighted for me.
Bad vs Good Hair
Going back to our history which, contrary to popular belief, started not in the West, certainly not with slavery, but in Africa, I learned how important hair has always been in African culture. Haircut was an intrinsic part of one's personal identity. You could not only read from it to which nation a person belonged, but even recognize the social status of a person. Chapels were often also a means of communication between the sexes to seduce, challenge or convey that the person was not available.
From the moment we were transported as slaves to the West, the hair we wore with pride has been structurally denigrated.
First our hair was shaved, then as slaves we didn't even have time to take care of our hair while our curls were exposed to the hot sun every day. As befits African culture, the link between social status and haircut was made here and soon the unkempt frizzy hair was associated with the slave work on the plantations that no dog wanted to do.
The hair of the house slaves, on the other hand, was looked up to because they were relatively better off as the offspring of the planters with hair that was less frizzy and a lighter complexion.
These developments, spanning more than 300 years, have laid the foundation for the distinction we use to this day: good and bad hair.
If you don't believe the bad hair delusion is still alive, look around. The numbers don't lie. Our behavior literally says that anything is better than frizzy hair; broken hair, synthetic hair and weaves with false hair from all other nations.
The solution to hair breakage nowadays is a weave to camouflage the bald spots and the shame, but the cause of the problem, the obsessive compulsive smoothing of the hair, is ignored.
Frizzy hair is not a natural human right
The fact that “bad hair” is undeniably alive is clear, but I don't think this could be the only explanation for why the vast majority of black women literally destroy their hair.
I relaxed and curly myself because I wanted smooth hair and weaved and braided because my hair had broken off in several places. Of course I was ashamed of my broken hair, but more than that I was sad.
Why did I think, as a privileged person who didn't grow up with the delusion of bad hair, did I myself obsessively compulsively destroy my frizzy hair in my pursuit of smooth strands?
When I read about the dance school that denied a 12-year-old ballerina entry as long as she didn't wear her hair in a sleek bun, the second penny dropped.
For those unfamiliar with the case, this girl followed the rules just fine and wore her hair in a ponytail as prescribed, but because the hair was braided and frizzy, that was not accepted. Only after her mother had made a case for not wanting to straighten her 12-year-old daughter's hair was she allowed again, after she was found in the right by the judge. ( Read: Dancing with Frizzy hair is allowed?)
This was the umpteenth case of a black person who had to get her right in court to wear the hair frizzy.
That's when it dawned on me that Black people are the only race on this planet who needs court permission to wear their god-gifted hair naturally. What is a birthright to every other creature on Earth is not self-evident to a Black person with frizzy hair.
Not only did it become clear to me why women have such a high barrier to walking with frizzy hair, even if they really love their hair. It also dawned on me then that even in this new Millennium there are still injustices directly related to our slave past that affect everyone whether you are privileged or not. However, my research was not over.
When seeing the movie “Traces of the Trade” the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Traces of the Trade is the original title of an impressive documentary about slavery in America. Film director Katrina Browne follows in the footsteps of her ancestors DeWolf, the greatest slave traders in American history.
Together with nine family members, she travels the route of the slave trade that has made her ancestor James DeWolf the second richest man in America. The same route as Katrina herself tells that laid the foundation for the fortune that made the descendants not only a prominent but also a very privileged family.
Departing from Bristol, an exemplary city in the US state of Rhode Island, where the first DeWolf settled, the group heads to a slave fort in Ghana, a ruined plantation in Cuba, before returning to America. It is not an easy trip. There is no blueprint for confronting such a violent past and emotions run high.
I was dumbfounded when I realized that those emotions on the silver screen, the incomprehensible yet painfully deep feelings of this privileged White family from America, were hardly different from our Black families from Suriname, just when It's about the slavery past.
Although the contrasts cannot be greater than those between white descendants of slave traders from a country like America and black descendants of slaves from a third world country like Suriname, the deep-seated, hidden emotions of centuries ago almost match: shame, pain, sadness and sorrow. . Feelings directly related to an unresolved slave past, no matter which side of the coin you're on.
Why else would a mother tell her daughter your hair is uglier than a monkey's pubic hair? Why might someone cringe painfully at a simple comment like “what is your hair frizzy? Why else do we women of the diaspora choose to destroy our frizzy hair rather than show it off normally?
Bad hair uprooted
When the picture was complete for me, I also understood why I do what I do. In my way I hope with the help of you reading this, frizzy or not, I can contribute to help process this unspoken piece of slavery past.
Through kroeshaar.com and going-natural.com, every visitor can digitally view the beauty and versatility of frizzy haircuts and distribute them via social networks. The exhibition “Bad Hair Uprooted” is there to illuminate frizzy hair literally differently than in the stereotypical way, in real life. Of Miss Frizzy Hair I hope to launch models that can show a broader picture of the Black woman in the beauty world and on the catwalk. And now I also offer hair products with the Going Natural brand that are made for the optimal care of frizzy hair because, at least as important as processing our slave past is the pursuit of healthier hair for the Black woman.
Mireille Liong is a Social Web Preneur and owner of the websites kroeshaar.com and going-natural.com. She wrote this piece on the occasion of 150 years of Keti Koti.
This piece is part of the exhibition of the same name, which also includes a lecture. The exhibition has since been shown in four countries; America, Suriname, Curacao and Paris.
The aim is to highlight and discuss frizzy hair issues. You can support the project by ordering the digital version of the book. You do not have to pay any shipping costs. You can order the book by clicking on the following link: Bad Hair Uprooted, the Unknown History of Frizzy Hair.