Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Queens’ Legacy: The Colonial Stain

“We even say that we are black and proud. We even say that black is beautiful; O! We got to prove it, we got to prove it... ~~ Bright Chimezie. Nigerian Highlife singer/performer of the late 1980’s.

As soon as each of my kids turned 4 years old and started school, this incident never failed to occur within the first months:
Sons/ Daughter:  Mama, can you turn my hair into short spikes slicked straight up with gel or long straight hair hanging down like the other boys/girls in the class?
Me:  That’s impossible; Your hair is different and beautiful with curls.
Sons/Daughter: Why not? Why can’t my hair be like that?
Me: Because you are of a mixed heritage and this means that you got certain parts of you from papa and certain parts like your great curly hair from mama and one cannot make spikes from curly hair.
Sons/Daughter: Oh really? That’s stupid! It’s all your fault then!

{ Fast foward  to a few years later & puberty}

Sons/Daughter: Hey Maam, I so like totally looove my hair!!! I can do everything and anything with it! Loose braids cornrows, dreads, afro, a mohawk you name it! Everyone loves my hair and people, even strangers, are always begging to touch it.
Me: { smiling wryly and rolling my eyes dramatically} Wow, tell me about it...

Knowing what a sensitive subject this has proven to be in every black community, I took the time to really think this through before running my mouth pen like I usually do.
We, all people of african heritage whether americans or africans, have unanimously agreed en masse that slavery and colonialism have created massive pathological chasms in our collective psyche. We are quick to point out the pernicious consequences of these dark aspects of our history and have spent decades trying to heal.
I wonder then, how today we all can stand tall and proud and still be blind to what (in my opinion) remains one of the most deeply-rooted, ubiquitous and dangerous backlashes of slavery and colonialism: Our (female) collective denial and rejection of our natural curly hair. This collective denial of our natural hair by the use of weaves and sodium hydroxide a.k.a. relaxers, a.k.a “creamy crack”, to fit with the mainstream ideology of beauty, especially amongst the well-educated, is in my opinion a latent and therefore very lethal aspect of our painful history.  I call this self-colonization or the colonial stain.

Allow me to elaborate:

When I was growing up in the south-east of Nigeria, the current class/caste system roughly identified two groups of citizens: The good ones meaning: individuals with a strongly anchored western belief system and western domestication. These were usually the higher middle-class; western educated and therefore western in dress and appearance (hairstyle).
The bad ones, “bush” ones or the “Agboros” were the uneducated touts, peasants or riff-raffs. In general, people who reside anywhere where western influence is limited or adulterated like in slums and villages. These people were in my youthful eyes, pathetic, stupid, poor, dirty, to be avoided and even looked down upon.
Looking back now, it is clear to me that my peers and I were spoon-fed a certain set of values from birth. We were consciously and unconsciously domesticated with the collective agreement that the path to human development lay in striving to be as patriarchally western as possible. This agreement has unwittingly influenced every aspect of our lives; from the adoption of eating processed foods to our taste in music and arts and finally our perceptions of (female) beauty.
We learnt early, as all children do, the distinction between (our society’s definition of ) “good” and “bad”. Good behaviour led to rewards and bad behaviour to punishment.  We learnt to desire rewards and fear punishment. We learnt what the requirements were for attaining rewards: accepting domestication/colonization.  We humans, being social herd-creatures, have a natural tendency to seek out and identify with one another by means of uniformity. This means that we automatically find it more comfortable and rewarding to be similar than to be different. As we grew older, our craving for the rewards of social acceptance grew so immense that we no longer needed grown-ups to domesticate or colonize us. We learned to auto-colonize ourselves.

This theory, when applied to certain beliefs like the concept of beauty, is in my opinion the underlying reason why black women today have grown to prefer weaves and  creamy crack to natural hair. This is the reason why the fake black-hair industry is a million dollar industry in the hands of asians who ironically have no hair issues. This is the reason why black women spend thousands of dollars which they cannot afford, to keep living the lie. This is why women avoid activities like swimming and cannot wash their hair themselves at any given time because of fear of ruining their weave. This is the reason why something as natural as getting caught in the rain has the power of inducing a panic attack from a black woman.This is the reason why women torture themselves and put their health at risk by using lethal poisons and chemicals on their skin and on their young daughters’ skins; unconsciously passing on the tragic heritage by spoon-feeding her the belief that her hair, her natural state of being, her identity is no good.
This is the reason why today the most common physical characteristic of any given middle-aged to older african woman is shifting from obesity to a weave-induced receding hairline.

Before I continue, I would like to stress that I do not believe all western influences are detrimental to africans or that all african tradition is an embodiment of perfection. My discourse is primarily focussed on the deep-rooted negative corollary of colonial patriarchy on black women.
One way or the other, black women, are all afflicted with self-colonization. I know a lot of women would love to “go natural” but refrain because  we have no clue as to what to do with our natural hair. This is something our generation never learned.
I have had black women snap back angrily at me that the reason why they chemically straighten their hair or deploy a weave has everything to do with personal taste and nothing to do with wanting to look like white women. I believe them. Yet I question them on what the underlying motives are behind personal taste. Why would you prefer a hair texture and appearance that comes natural to caucasians? To me the answer staring us in the face is: because if we agree that straight hair is more manageable, attractive and desirable we automatically indicate that nappy hair is not. We all shook our heads patronizingly at Michael Jackson's self-denial and yet we are no better when it comes to hair.
This affliction has persisted in my opinion also because of the pejorative role which colonization has played in our female development of self-perception and consequently our sexuality.
We have no celebrated black female role-models ancient or otherwise. ( Don’t be quick to mention Oprah here because with her chemically processed hair, she is just as afflicted as the next woman) Our archives have forgotten records of these women but due to the patriarchal nature of all education, western or indigenous, history has remained His-Story not hers.
Ask any given black person who the historic figure Shaka Zulu was and he or she will be more likely to answer accurately than if you asked who Amina of Zaria was.
Triply disadvantaged by having been raised with a.  the wrong sense of physical self-appreciation, b.  a gaping vacancy in the department of black female role-models and c. innately downtrodden by the paternalistic nature of both our traditional culture and that of the colonial powers; it is of no surprise that black women had no choice but to opt for white women role-models as the norm on which to build their identity. John Lennon should have said “Black woman is the nigger of the world”.  

Luckily, all hope is not lost. There is a growing natural-hair movement in the states and in Africa. Unfortunately it is still not happening in multitudes. I have yet to experience the pleasure of seeing thousands of liberated black women hit the streets and burn their weaves as they go; the way women burned their bras in the 60’s. Still I am positive that this trickle will one day become a waterfall, because according to an old igbo proverb: when the walls of a house collapse, the roof is not left standing. When key black female figures all go natural, sooner or later tipping point will be achieved and the rest will be quick to follow.
Until then, I remain comforted with the knowledge that nothing that results from human progress is achieved with unanimous consent and that those who are enlightened before the others are condemned to pursue that light inspite of others, inspite of themselves.

The Igbos have a saying: Onye kporo oba ya nkpokoro, agbataobi ejiri ya kpoo ntu.
If you say your basket is useless, the neighbours convert it to a trash can. Meaning:
If you don’t value yourself, nobody will appreciate you.

I rest my case.