By Panashe Chigumadzi
At the last Feminist Stokvel Hair Soiree on “The Problem with Kaffir Hare: Texture Discrimination”˚, our editor Panashe read some excerpts from books by black writers that spoke to various hair journeys. While Assata Shakur and Malcolm X share their youthful experiences with “conking” and “hot combing” “nappy hair” , Taiye Selasi’s insight into “black white girl hair” was important for the ways in which the white supremacist ideals that infiltrate our thinking, even within the “naturalista community”.
Excerpt from Assata: The FBI’s Most Wanted Woman by Assata Shakur (HSRC Press, 2014)
Most of our fights started over petty disputes like stepped-on shoes, flying spitballs, and the contested ownership of pens and pencils. But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible.
“Nappy head, nappy head, I catch your ass, you goin’ be dead.”
“You think you Black and ugly now: I’m gonna beat you till you purple.”
“You just another nigga to me. Ima show you what I do with niggas like you.”
“You better shut your big blubber lips.”
We would call each other “jungle bunnies” and “bush boogies”. We would talk about each other’s ugly, big lips and flat noses. We would call each other pickanninies and nappy-haired so-and sos.”
“Act you age, not your colour,” we would tell each other.
“You gone thank me when I’m through with you, Ima beat you so bad, I’m gone beat the black offa you.”
“Black” made any insult worse. When you called some-body a “bastard”, now that was bad. But when you called somebody a “Black bastard”, now that was terrible. In fact, when i was growing up, being called “Black”, period, was grounds for fighting.
“Who you calling Black?” we would say. We had never heard the words ‘Black is beautiful’ and the idea had never occurred to most of us.”
I hated for my grandmother to comb my hair. And she hated to comb it. My hair has always been thick and long and nappy and it would give my grandmother hell. She has straight hair, so she was impatient with mine. When she was combed my hair she always remembered something i had done wrong the day before or earlier that day and popped me in the head with the comb. She would always tell me during these sessions, “Now, when you grow up, I want you to marry some man with ‘good hair’ so your children have good hair. You hear me?” “Yes, Grandmother.” I used to wonder why she hadn’t followed her own advice since my grandfather’s hair is far from straight, but i never dared ask. My grandmother just said what everybody knew was a common fact: good hair was better than bad hair, meaning that straight hair was better than nappy hair.”
When my sister Beverly was little, i remember teasing her about her lips. She has big, beautiful lips, but back then we thought of them as a liability. I never thought of them as ugly – my sister has always seemed very pretty to me – but her lips were something good to tease her about. I once told her, “With those big lips, the only thing you’ve got going for you is your long hair; you better never cut it off.” I will never know how much damage all my “teasing” did to my sister. But I was saying what everybody knew: little, thin lips were better than big, thick lips. Everyone knew that.
There was one girl in our school whose mother made her wear a clothes peg on her nose to make it thin. There were quite a few girls who tried to bleach their skin white with bleaching cream and who got pimples instead. And, of course, we went to the beauty parlour and got our hair straightened. I couldn’t wait to go to the beauty parlour and get my hair all fried up. I wanted Shirley Temple curls just like Shirely Temple. I hated the smell of fried hair and having my ears burned, but we were taught that women had to make great sacrifices to be beautiful. And everybody knew you had to be crazy to walk the streets with nappy hair sticking out. And of course long hair was better than short hair. We all knew that.
Excerpt from Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2013)
“Besides, there’s your hair. Hers was” – gesturing – “bigger. A cloud. A constellation.”
“A world. Your isn’t” – touching her dreadlocks – “horizontal.”
“You don’t like my white-girl hair.”
“Don’t like your what?”
“My dreadlocks. My white-girl hair.”
Laughing, always laughing, “Aren’t dreadlocks Jamaican? Afrocentric at least? Do people still say that? Afrocentric?”
“Yes. White people.”
She was laughing now, changing the subject, blowing O’s. “Think about it. Barring Rastafarians, the real ones, religious ones, what kind of black girl grows locks? Black girls who go to predominantly white colleges, that’s who. Dreadlocks are black white-girl hair. A Black Power solution to a Bluest Eye problem: the desire to have long, swinging, ponytail hair. That braids take too long after a while, the extensions. But you still need a hairstyle for running in rain. Forget the secret benefit from affirmative action; this is the white woman’s privilege. Wet hair. Not to give a shit about rain on your blowout. I’m serious.”
Excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X By Alex Haley and Malcolm X (Penguin, 1965)
Shorty soon decided that my hair was finally long enough to be conked. He had promised to school me on how in how to beat the barbershops’ three- and four-dollar price by making up congolene, and then conking ourselves.
I took the little list of ingredients he had printed out for me, and went to a grocery store, where I can get a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-size white potatoes. Then at the drugstore near the poolroom, I asked for a large jar of vaseline, a large bar of soap, a large-toothed comb and a fine-toothed comb, one of those rubber hoses with a metal spray-head, a rubber apron and a pair of gloves.
“Going to lay on that first conk?” the drugstore man asked me. I proudly told him, grinning, “Right!”
Shorty paid six dollars a week for a room in his cousin’s shabby apartment. His cousin wasn’t at home . “It’s like the pad’s mine, he spends so much time with his woman,” Shorty said. “Now, you can watch me-“
He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them into a quarter-sized Mason fruit jar, then started stirring them with a wooden spoon as he gradually poured in a little over half the can of lye. “Never use a metal spoon; the lye will turn it black,” he told me.
A jelly-like, starchy-looking glop resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs, stirring real fast – his own conk and dark face bent down close. The ongolene turned pale-yellowish. “Feel the jar,” Shorty said. I cupped my hands against the outside, and snatched it away. “Damn right, it’s hot, that’s the lye,” he said. “So you know it’s going to burn when I combi it in – it burns bad. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.”
He made me sit down, and he tied the string of rubber apron around my neck, and combed up my brush of hair. Then, from the big Vaseline jar, he took a handful and massaged it hard all through my hair and into the scalp. He also thickly Vaselined my neck, ears and forehead. “When I get to washing out your head, be sure to tell me anywhere you feel any little stinging,” Shorty warned me, washing his hands, then pulling on the rubber gloves, and tying on his own rubber apron. “You always got to remember that any congolene left in bums a sore into your head.”
The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire.
I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off.
My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I was cursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head.
He lathered and spray-rinsed, lathered and spray-rinsed, maybe ten or twelve times, each time gradually closing the hot-water faucet, until the rinse was cold, and that helped some.
“You feel any stinging spots?”
“No,” I managed to say. My knees were trembling. “Sit back down, then. I think we got it all out okay.”
The flame came back as Shorty, with a thick towel, started drying my head, rubbing hard. “Easy, man, easy!” I kept shouting.
“The first time’s always worst. You get used to it better before long. You took it real good, homeboy. You got a good conk.”
When Shorty let me stand up and see in the minor, my hair hung down in limp, damp strings. My scalp still flamed, but not as badly; I could bear it. He draped the towel around my shoulders, over my rubber apron, and began again Vaselining my hair.
I could feel him combing, straight back, first the big comb, then the fine-tooth one.
Then, he was using a razor, very delicately, on the back of my neck. Then, finally, shaping the sideburns.
My first view in the mirror blotted out the hurting. I’d seen some pretty conks, but when it’s the first time, on your own head, the transformation, after the lifetime of kinks, is staggering.
The mirror reflected Shorty behind me. We both were grinning and sweating. And on top of my head was this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair-real red-as straight as any white man’s.
How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror in Shorty’s room. I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.
This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”-and white people”superior”-that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.
Look around today, in every small town and big city, from two-bit catfish and soda-pop joints into the “integrated” lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, and you’ll see conks on black men. And you’ll see black women wearing these green and pink and purple and red and platinum-blonde wigs. They’re all more ridiculous than a slapstick comedy. It makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost his sense of identity, lost touch with himself.
You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called “upper-class” Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. One of the reasons that I’ve especially admired some of them, like Lionel Hampton and Sidney Poiter, among others, is that they have kept their natural hair and fought to the top. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it-as I finally did.
I don’t know which kind of self-defacing conk is the greater shame-the one you’ll see on the heads of the black so-called “middle class” and “upper class,” who ought to know better, or the one you’ll see on the heads of the poorest, most downtrodden, ignorant black men. I mean the legal-minimum-wage ghetto-dwelling kind of Negro, as I was when I got my first one. It’s generally among these poor fools that you’ll see a black kerchief over the man’s head, like Aunt Jemima; he’s trying to make his conk last longer, between trips to the barbershop. Only for special occasions is this kerchief-protected conk exposed-to show off how “sharp” and “hip” its owner is. The ironic thing is that I have never heard any woman, white or black, express any admiration for a conk. Of course, any white woman with a black man isn’t thinking about his hair. But I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk-the emblem of his shame that he is black.
To my own shame, when I say all of this I’m talking first of all about myself-because you can’t show me any Negro who ever conked more faithfully than I did. I’m speaking from personal experience when I say of any black man who conks today, or any white-wigged black woman, that if they gave the brains in their heads just half as much attention as they do their hair, they would be a thousand times better off.