Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Hair Post (Live from Liberia!)

In the whirlwind of preparation, I didn't get the chance to let you all know ahead of time, but I am in Liberia with the Lott Carey Mission School, visiting with students. Please forgive the typos, lack of pictures, and any other aesthetic concerns. I have to type quickly while I have electricity!

I've started and stopped this blog post several times because my feelings on hair range from "I am not my hair" to "my hair is a major part of my image and presentation to the world." I've come to realize that both statements are true.

Last week, a very good friend of mine remarked that he saw a black woman and a white woman seated next to each other on the train. with identical ponytails. He said he was "sad." I immediately responded defensively, "With high dropout rates of black boys, I find it hard to be particularly sad about something like a woman's choice in hair style." I added, rather curtly, "Women across the world from all cultures struggle with the concept of beauty; white women tan, Asian women shade their face from the sun, and black women straighten their hair."

My own hair journey isn't particularly unique. I haven't had a relaxer in over 5 years, and about two years ago, I colored my hair for the first time. Usually, my hair is pressed straight, but every now and then I wear my hair in it's natural wavy/curly state. There is a divide within the natural community about whether pressed or colored hair is natural, and while I respect all sides of the argument, I consider my hair natural.

I'd love to say I went natural in an effort to throw a metaphorical punch at the Western standard of straight, silky, soft, and as my friend says "wispy" hair. But that's not true. I'm natural because it's healthier, it rids me of the (expensive) dependency on relaxers, and I love the versatility of being able to switch from wavy to straight. Plus, natural hair is less irritated by heat and color than chemically processed hair.

Typically when talk begins about people straightening their hair to look white and the cultural/political implications of this or that kind of hair, I reflexively reply that "the style of your hair is a personal choice. It's all beautiful if it makes you happy! It's just haaaaair!"


I landed at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. At the time of writing I have seen dozens of Liberian women in the streets, at the mission campus, and of course at the airport. While their clothing ranges from traditional to American and their features are by no means homogenous, one thing is almost universal: they all have some type of hair supplements. Weaves, wigs, braids, long silky ponytails, lace fronts... you name it, it's here. I couldn't believe it! I've always naively believed that in Africa, I could find a strong contingent of women proud to wear their hair in its natural state. Of course I knew that the world has been infected by the belief that straight hair, fair skin, and light features are most attractive, but I desperately wanted to believe that in Liberia (the descendants of freed American slaves!) there was a dedication to tightly coiled, rich, dark and kinky hair.

As I said before, I dismissed my friend's claim that the matching ponytails were "sad." But I'm beginning to understand the sentiment. In this oppressive heat, I can't imagine being so driven to add more hair to what I already have! What would the world be like if the standard was tightly coiled, kinky hair? Or better yet, what if we lived in a world where an Afro, locks, straight hair, curly hair, braided hair, wooly hair, silky hair, and all other types were seen as equally acceptable?

Could this happen? I'm not sure. Is your hair a reflection of who you are or simply a hassle to deal with in the morning? Is it sad that people feel the need to change the texture of their hair? Share. I will share the comments and this post with my brothers and sisters here in Liberia.