Black hair in and from India

You may not have seen Chris Rock’s movie, “Good Hair”, but I’m convinced that much of India has. What leads me to believe this (in spite of the country’s proud preference for Bollywood over Hollywood) is the number of conversations that I had during our three week trip this Dec/Jan that went something like this:

Indian man:   Your hair, it is different …

Sindiso:   Yes …?

Indian man:   Is yours?

Sindiso:   Yes, it’s mine.

Indian man:   You buy?

Sindiso:   No, it’s my own hair.

Indian man:   How like this?

Sindiso:   It’s just twisted, like this [I demonstrate with one of my locs]

And then they’d ask – or, without asking, just reach out – to touch my hair. They often still had a skeptical look on their faces.

What was the subtext of the conversation? It seemed that they were incredulous of the fact that the hair on my head could be natural rather than “mine ’cause I bought it” as we like to joke about weaves.

For those of you who don’t know what a weave is, it is a hair piece that is either glued or sewn onto the base layer of one’s real hair in order to give the weave-bearer different textured hair than her own: usually big, bouncy curls or, most often, sleek, pin-straight hair. There’s a whole industry built around this type of hair – a very lucrative one, at that. Watch “Good Hair” for details.

Where does India fit in with this? Well, the hair used for weaves has to come from some place, right? And much of it comes from Indian temples where Indian women with long locks have shaved their heads as an offering to their gods. The monks comb and clean the hair out, stitch it together in rows, mass-package it and sell it to wholesalers who service the black diaspora’s need for quote-en-quote normal-looking hair.

It’s just not considered beautiful to have natural, kinky/nappy (said with some disdain), black hair. For women with ambition, you can be sure that the establishment world is not welcoming of anything outside of the norm defined as white hair. As “Good Hair” partly explains, black women consequently feel that they are left with two options: either straighten your own hair with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals (they really can burn!) or plait your hair and hide it under somebody else’s that’s sewn onto your head.

You don’t believe me? During my gap year in England, at the end of High School, I went into Harrods in London to apply for a job: I had long, beautiful (I thought) braids made of a combination of my own hair and some synthetic hair. I was told I couldn’t be hired unless I had straight hair – they did not accept braids or dreadlocks. I looked around and saw for myself that the handful of black women working there all had relaxed/straightened hair or weaves.

As another example, some of you may have caught the furore around Malia Obama spending her first summer in the white house with braids on her little head rather than the relaxed/straightened hair she usually wore. It would seem that even kids can’t get away with a natural look … And, as a consequence, some parents start their kids on the “creamy crack” early. The youngest I’ve seen is 18 months old. Kids are told: “you need it straightened so that it’ll be beautiful” and  “one must suffer for beauty”. These are sayings I learned young.

Needless to say, this is a situation where the personal truly is political!

In our three weeks in India, it became plain that enough Indians are aware of where their hair is going. Even in a place where it seemed that most people had never seen a black person in person (a topic for a later post), black hair was hyper-politicised. The most enlightened statement my young micro-locs (that is, small dreadlocks) drew was, “just like Bob Marley”. I dare say, not! As much as I love some of Bob Marley’s music, I do not think of my locs as falling into the same – Rastafarian – genre. But, it would seem that whether it’s Harrods in London, Washington DC in the US or New Delhi in India, I can’t stop others from thinking them such. And, I’d say that there’s something not quite right about a world in which it is my natural hair style (gotten without risking cancer or having someone else’s hair on my head) that is regarded as what’s abnormal.

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