UNRULY: Subverting Body Terrorism By Celebrating Black Hair
As part of our #BodyPositivityInColor campaign and in recognition of Black History Month, Sherronda J. Brown writes about the larger implications of society’s policing of natural Black hair through a lens that provides cultural and historical context, emphasizing why hair should be a focus of Body Positivity discussions for Black people.
This essay contains descriptions of dehumanizing, anti-Black violences.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade—the systematic abducting, displacing, and enslaving of Africans across the globe—has left a lasting impact across the entire diaspora. Black History Month exists as a means to celebrate the power, innovation, and groundbreaking work of the many children of this diaspora who have made significant contributions to our history and culture. It is a time to observe their timeless excellence, but it is also a time to contextualize their achievements by acknowledging the adversities that stood in their way and often continue to stand in ours.
Black history, unfortunately, is uniquely marked by a disdain for and coveting of Black bodies, and we have been dehumanized based on how our bodies have been understood in the white imagination. Understanding this lack of humanity and personhood afforded to us is imperative to understanding the relationship Black people now have with the government and the law, as well as our relationship to our own bodies. Dred Scott sued to be recognized as a person in 1857 and was denied that right by the U.S. government. That decision was overturned with the 14th amendment in 1868, but the concept of Blackness as non-human and animalistic did not magically disappear from the social psyche and the white imagination. Legally, Black people were considered “human,” but were still socially and culturally regarded as subhuman.
The way our bodies have been viewed within and used by a white-dominated society has been a significant and particularly gruesome part of our dehumanization. In 1888, The Mercury published an anecdote from a man about his encounter with a foreign physician in Philadelphia who wore peculiar shoes:
“I remember that two or three years ago I incidentally referred to a prominent physician of this city wearing shoes made from the skin of negroes. He still adhered to that custom, insisting that the tanned hide of an African makes the most enduring and the most pliable leather known to man…
…A young society lady of this city wears a beautiful pair of dark slippers, the remarkable lustrousness of whose leather invariably excites the admiration of her friends when they see them. The young doctor who presented them to her recently returned from an extended foreign tour, and he told her that he had purchased them from a Turk in Alexandria, and that he did not know what sort of leather they were made of, but he supposed it was the skin of some wild animal. As a matter of fact, the skin came from a negro cadaver, which was once prone on a Jefferson College dissecting table, and the leather was prepared in Womseldorf. The rosettes on the slippers were deftly fashioned from the negro’s kinky hair.”
Abductors not only used our ancestors for forced labor and sexual gratification, but also took from their bodies at will. A few years ago, YouTube user Yisreael Ben Yehudah uploaded a video displaying a 200 year-old chair he was restoring for a wealthy family from Georgia. When he removed the fabric, he discovered that the chair had been stuffed with hand-picked cotton and hair. “Imagine how many slaves it took to fill this chair with human hair,” he laments, astounded at how much there is.
Our ancestors were told that their kinky hair was dirty, ugly, and inferior, only to then have it taken from them and deemed appropriate to be used as a product in service to whiteness and white indulgence—whether that be to provide the cushioning beneath fancy upholstery or to be shaped into delicate rosettes affixed to shoes made from the skin of a “negro cadaver”.
The exploitation of Black bodies in this hideous fashion is merely one facet of a much larger impression. It’s a practice that is indelibly linked with the methodical governing of our hair, a matter of Black existence that has historically faced scrutiny and policing alongside Black sexuality and Black reproduction. Black people, especially womxn and those assumed to be womxn, have a unique relationship with our hair and how it becomes understood through white ascendant ideals of respectability and personhood. The joint forces of anti-Blackness, patriarchy, paternalism, and misogyny continually converge, placing Black womxn in a space where we receive the brunt of these discriminations through racialized and gendered forms of violence.
Under ordinance of the Tignon Laws, Black womxn were obligated to cover their hair in public. The edicts were introduced in the 1780s in New Orleans by the Spanish colonizers as a way to curb the social progress of the Black people there. Along with prohibiting Black people from renting apartments or purchasing liquor, they also demanded that Black womxn wear tignon wraps over their hair in order to signify their inferior social standing and to prevent them from drawing the attentions of white men and the ire of white women with their elaborate, adorned hairstyles.
This world constantly demands that we diminish our Blackness for the comfort of others, and we are too often coerced into conforming to white supremacist ideals of beauty and propriety for our survival.
The list of ways Black people have been targeted by anti-Black hair governance is a long one, and it includes far more than I have room to discuss here: Black braiders have been fighting unfair licensing laws for years. Several states have required that these stylists “endure hundreds of hours of unnecessary coursework and pay thousands of dollars before they can legally work.” Black people have been fired, denied jobs, and discharged from military service due to unfair anti-Black regulations and deeply held beliefs about the “unprofessionalism” of Black hair. Black members of the Army only recently gained the right to wear some traditional Black hairstyles without being considered in violation of uniform regulations. Black children have been sent home from school, suspended, and threatened with expulsion for wearing their natural hair or Black hairstyles, which are seen as either a “distraction” or dress code violation. South African teenagers were forced to lead an entire insurrection to be able to wear their natural hair to school in 2016. It’s still legal to discriminate against locs in the workplace and during the hiring process. Still fresh in my mind is the moment we witnessed a high school wrestler have his locs chopped off at the command of a racist official while adults stood by and did nothing to prevent it.
For Black people and people with Black children, our Body Positivity conversations have to also include Black hair. It’s imperative to foster in our children, and ourselves, confidence and a sense of pride about this part of our Blackness. Even when Black children can be suspended or expelled for wearing it to school. Even when the Black adults in their lives are losing their jobs or are sometimes unable to secure employment because of it. Black children are told, in so many ways, that this amazing part of their bodies is something that they should be punished for. It’s our responsibility to actively combat that, for them and for ourselves.
This world constantly demands that we diminish our Blackness for the comfort of others, and we are too often coerced into conforming to white supremacist ideals of beauty and propriety for our survival. It’s a painful and deeply damaging experience—having our hair policed in this way—and it sets us apart from how people of other races experience body terrorism. I carry the knowledge of this entire history, and more, with me daily. Years upon years of abuses and dehumanization manifested through the governing, appropriating, despoiling, and degrading of Black hair.
It’s important for me to know the weight of this history when I firmly plant my feet in it, stand in my truth, and say that our hair is woven into the very fabric of our Blackness, and our Blackness is divine.
We continue to be reprimanded for our natural hair in ways that directly affect our educational, professional, and financial mobility, because others are constantly seeking to destroy this fundamental part of us, only to pilfer it to adorn their own bodies with. Blackness routinely becomes situated as something which is fashionable only when it is taken from us, dissected, disemboweled, and worn on other bodies. It’s a fashion that only Black people are prohibited from wearing.
The way our hair has been regarded as too offensive and unacceptable to be worn freely on our own bodies, but suitable enough to be used as fodder for the various lavish accoutrements made for the comfort and extravagance of whiteness is just one of the many violences that we experience under the cloak of white supremacy. It evokes within me a sinking and blistering feeling that I have not the words to fully describe, but I believe it is important for us to understand this history as we consider where we must go from here, where Body Positivity must go from here. It’s important for me to know the weight of this history when I firmly plant my feet in it, stand in my truth, and say that our hair is woven into the very fabric of our Blackness, and our Blackness is divine.
Building relationships with our bodies in ways that subvert and buck up against colonialist, elitist, capitalist, and racist ideologies about Blackness is a necessary form of resistance. Black hair—cottony, kinky, unruly, knotty, gravity-defying, forever breaking the teeth out of combs and shining with Blue Magic and Pink Lotion, nappy Black hair—and the intentional affirmation of it must be included and remain in Body Positivity conversations. If we are truly invested in a movement for Body Positivity, we have to consider the entirety of our bodies. We deserve to let our ancestors dance freely in our hair without threat of reprimand from the state, employers, or educators, and knowing the history of how Black hair has been and continues to be unfairly governed makes our insistence on loving it that much more powerful.
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