About two months go, Chimamanda Adichie said to Claire Cohen of The Telegraph: “I have so many revolutions I want to launch.” Should we be worried that the queen of contemporary African fiction is heading for the hills with armed militia to launch guerilla attacks on the establishment? My guess is that there is no cause for worry. After all, the first of the “many revolutions” is a revolution of hair. Don’t be fooled though. The language of the campaign has something of the grand rhetoric of an Amazonian Adichie saving black women from white women’s hair.
At the forefront of the revolution is the natural hair movement. The principal creed of the movement is to avoid anything that chemically alters the hair, with the exclusion (I am guessing) of hair dye. Even when a black woman choses to add extensions to her hair, it should not be unnaturally straight artificial hair. This is how Adichie puts it: “Most black women add extensions to their hair. But I argue that they should be like our own hair.”
In the various statements she has made on the issue, Adichie makes the assumption that African women who straighten their hair chemically or add straight-hair extensions do so because they have been socialized into thinking that their natural hair is not beautiful. She was barely three years old when she was ingrained with the idea that “straight hair was beautiful” while “[her] hair was ugly.” But at some point, she had to ask herself: “why do I want my hair to look like white girls’ hair?”
If the comments on the popular Nigerian fashion blog Bellanaija are anything to go by, the response of African women to Adichie’s hair campaign has been slightly more negative than positive. Criticism centers on the racial slant of the campaign and on the suspicion that she is attempting to legislate on what some perceive as a personal matter. Growing up in a “color blind” Nigeria, it was not until Adichie came to live in America that she realized that she was black. This racial awareness seemed to have been significant for her subsequent realization that there is something absurd about a black woman wearing a white woman’s hair. She went to America and discovered that she was black and in the process of negotiating the complexities of this new identity saw the light of natural hair. There are those that wonder whether she might be mistaking a personal evolution for a racial feminist revolution. Besides, Adichie has said time and time again that race tends not to be a helpful way of thinking of difference in African societies. So why would she anchor her ideas about hair on racial difference? Is the question of hair fundamentally a problem of race?
Let me simplify Adichie’s feelings about hair: there is nothing innocent or superfluous about hair. Hair is also not entirely a personal matter. Hair is political. The way we carry our hair says a lot about our sense of self, but most importantly, makes a larger point about what we think of our race. An African woman who carries straight hair in any shape or form is, on some level, suffering from racial inferiority complex.
I have chosen to set aside the problem with the term “natural.” Is there such a thing as a purely natural hair? Is she not aspiring towards an illusory ideal of the unprocessed, untouched, undamaged hair when she speaks of natural black hair? White or black, hair is something that has to be cared for but also disciplined, forced to do things that it is not “naturally” meant to do. Isn’t hair that strange body part—that lies somewhere between a pet and a plant—that we are always trying to bend to some other (unnatural) use?
Adichie is right on one very important point. Hair is political. What I’m not too sure about is whether race is the best way to frame the politics. First of all, there is something simplistic, too easy about the assumption that African women wear straight hair because they want to look white. Hair cannot be reduced to race in the same way that race cannot be reduced to hair. It takes much more than hair to make a woman black or white. Even more complicated is the question of what it means to desire to be like another race or to want things that another race might have. Cultural appropriation—literally taking for oneself something that belongs to another culture— is a constant in a globalized world. It would seem as though what African women are doing with straight hair is an act of cultural appropriation except that we are not used to that script—that script where we are not the victims, where we are the ones doing the taking. When they take our culture, it is appropriation. When we take their stuff, we are victims of self-loathing. You might object and say to me: there is a fine line between mimicry and appropriation. But has postcolonial theory not told us that mimicry is a myth? Every repetition comes with its own difference and therein lies power—the capacity for a black woman to take a “white” (awkward adjective since straight hair is not even a white woman thing) woman’s hair and do her own thing with it.
In her readiness to make a program out of changing the way people think, Adichie is very much in her element as an African writer. Recall Chinua Achebe’s lovely essay, “The Novelist as Teacher?” It’s been more than 40 decades since the essay was written but its legacy is still alive in novelists like Adichie. Achebe wanted to teach fellow Africans “that their past was not one long night of savagery;” Adichie that their hair is not ugly.
Achebe based his obligation to teach Africans on something he calls “the wound in [the African] soul.” Africa’s “subjection to alien races” had “brought upon the African psyche” some kind of injury from which it had not “fully recovered.” This wound that Achebe sought to heal using his novels is “racial inferiority.” Since Africans had still not “put away the complexes of years of denigration and self abasement,” it was “part of [his] business as a writer,” “to help [his] society regain belief in itself.” Achebe is here essentially grounding his literary and cultural project on the claim that Africans are afflicted by some form of racial complex. Adichie’s hair campaign seems to be based on an analogous assumption—the assumption that African women are afflicted by a negative self-image. But isn’t it somewhat démodé to argue for the necessity of one’s political work by evoking the figure of the racially insecure African?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of initiating some kind of African female bonding around the question of hair. It’s just that Adichie could have used a different tactic. She could for instance have said that relaxers are not healthy treatment for hair. She could also have simply said that straight weaves are lovely but aren’t the only way to make your hair look beautiful. That way we don’t cut up the world into African women who wear their hair natural and so have an adequate measure of self-love and racial self-esteem versus African women who relax their hair and so are suffering from self-hate and the inordinate desire to become white. The discussion can then actually be about natural hair, something that all black women technically have in common irrespective of how they choose to carry their hair. The conversation is no longer: Switch to natural hair to save yourself from self-loathing and the desire to look white. It becomes: isn’t it cool that we can do all this fun stuff with our natural hair?