“…reflecting on the braided and afro-heads of our jegenna (warriors) …winning the Battle of Adwoa, in defense of our dignity and sovereignty. If it was good enough for our ancestors why is not good enough for us?”
Hair, an “American tribal love-rock musical,” is an award winning 60’s play which emerged out of the counterculture hippie movement. The long haired personalities in the play, filled their flowing manes with flowers; symbols and statements of love, freedom and resistance against the status quo. The play ran in hundreds of cities in the USA, Europe and the world. During the same ‘60’s, the Black Panther Party was founded by Americans of African descent, countering racism and other forms of social and political injustice on their own terms, in and for their own communities. They famously donned large Afros and wore dashikis, growing from an Oakland area phenomenon to an over 68 city wide movement with thousands of members, all in Fro’s. Also rising in the 60’s was the Rastafari Movement whose devotees wore what is commonly known as dreads or dreadlocks, reflecting African roots. The word “dread” referenced Rastafarians fear or dread of the Most High, while on the other hand referred to the fear or dread that non-Rastas were said to experience upon encounter with the Rasta Man. This perception based on Rastas natural indigenous appearance juxtaposed to the “clean-cut” X-British colony choice of coiffure, typical for Jamaicans. Suffice it to say, hair in the 20th and 21st centuries have been front and center of counter-culture and resistance as well as expressions of spiritual and cultural identities.
Historically, however, Africans, have donned endless and exceptional hairstyles, an essential part of identity including one’s social status and belonging, be it to a family, a clan or a tribe. The hairstyle of a young girl entering puberty, or a young male seeking a wife, or an elder in mourning, the list is endless. In bridging the gap on the discourse on hair, then and now, and specifically as it relates to natural hairstyles for people of African descent, especially women; we still find ourselves in a quagmire of conflicts.
Did you know wearing natural black hair impacts opportunities for employment, housing, education and even health care, emphasis on women and youth? Be it afros, braids, bantu knots, cornrows, locks or other expressions of culture and identity through hair; why are qualified Black women with degrees being counseled by concerned kith and kin to straighten or cut natural hair or wear wigs in order to apply for certain posts? Why do schools on the continent and abroad deny admission to children and adolescents of Africa descent who wear natural hair various reasons?
We know that in the African Diaspora, anything too black or African is perceived as an affront or inappropriate to the status quo. And yes in 2019 there remains public outrage and outcries for justice based on discrimination against natural hairstyles, including locks. In a loss for Black hair in 2016, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission verse Catastrophe Management Solutions, ruling that “…refusing to hire someone because of dreadlocks is legal”. However, just last month New York City Commission on Human Rights found that, “…judgment and mistreatment of people because of their hair or hairstyle will be considered a form of racial discrimination at work in school, or in public areas in the city.” Acknowledging the landscape of race and social inequality in the US is one thing, but what about right here at home in Africa?
Why should an African woman, proud of her heritage and hair be discourage or judged wrongly on appearance because she is not in straightened or imported hair from India? Why should students in South Africa to Kenya be denied education because of natural hair? Are African’s attitudes towards their identities influenced by Western standards so much that we deny our history and culture? Shouldn’t African hairstyles be encouraged as part of the Pan African narrative of an ‘Africa on the rise’? Should we mainstream African culture in professional and institutional environs, especially in consideration of Women’s Day? Does media/TV depiction adversely impact attitudes and policies on natural hair? These and other questions will help shape the upcoming LETS’ TALK ABOUT LOCKS… Art Exhibition and Colloquium on Saturday March 9 at bluSpace on Bole, curated and moderated by yours truly.
LETS’ TALK ABOUT LOCKS… will address heritage and identity as we explore perceptions and biases on African-ness as related to hair. Panelists include Adwoa Kufuor, Regional Gender Advisor, UNOHCHR; Victoria Maloka, Head of AU’s Gender Outreach; Child Psychologist Zahara Legesse-Kauffman, M.A. MSW; Pastor Zerubbabel Beta Mengistu, aka Pastor Zee, Beza Ministries; and Fine Artist Merid Tafesse, creator of the illustrations published in I LOVE LOCKS children’s book. It is safe to say we intend a 360 degree perspective. But as I close, I am reflecting on the braided and afro-heads of our jegenna (warriors) who defended Ethiopia against Italian invasion, winning the Battle of Adwoa, in defense of our dignity and sovereignty. If it was good enough for our ancestors why is not good enough for us? Happy Adwa Day.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.