Mon | Oct 22, 2018

Bert Samuels | Hair we go again

Published:Wednesday | March 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Our hair, as a source of identity, came to great prominence in the 1960s and '70s here in Jamaica. We could not escape the potency of the Black Power movement of the times. We had Malcolm X, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers making headlines, and, as would be expected, Jamaica played a role in this movement, given its youth population of 98 per cent African descent.

Accepting our natural selves found its expression in the growth of huge Afros, also known as 'soul hair', which moved beyond a style for male and females alike, and became a strong statement that kinky hair was part of our black pride.

Let us not forget that this awakening was cast against the concept that African hair was 'bad' and, to get acceptance, you must 'do something' to it with a hot comb or with chemical treatment. Accepted tease words which, today, qualify as hate speech for our hair, saw us burdened with 'picky-picky' head, 'board head', or 'natty head'. The Rastafarian movement in Jamaica must be credited for its unique role in the struggle for acceptance of African hair in its natural form.

The status quo in Jamaica was not in favour of the Afro, whose crown of glory they found offensive. They used a broad brush to stereotype progressive minds wearing the Afro as left-wing radicals. If you decided to make the 'sacrifice' and wear your Afro, you could find yourself unemployed for years, irrespective of your qualifications. Banks, the majority of corporate entities, schools, and beauty contests practised their Eurocentric apartheid policy of marginalising African-descended Jamaican people who refused to straighten their kinky hair for acceptance.

 

Discrimination

 

This discrimination made way for radical members of the middle class who were 'conscious' to, in open defiance of accepted hairdos, proudly sport huge Afro hairstyles. The children of some prominent judges and professionals immediately come to mind.

The intelligentsia at the UWI also led the movement to wear their Afros, including Dr Walter Rodney, a Guyanese lecturer, whose pro-black teaching earned him the wrath of the government of the day, declaring him persona non grata, and effectively running him out of Jamaica when he was denied deplaning at the Palisadoes Airport (now NMIA) in 1968.

Prominent high schools were telling children to sit in the back of the classroom, as their Afros were blocking their classmates' view of the blackboard and, in general, students were harassed to discourage the wave of Afros being worn with pride.

The thing is, it took almost as much effort to maintain an Afro as it did processed hair. The night before involved twisting, plaiting, oiling, and wrapping up (for the ladies). Then, morning time, there was the loosening and picking out of the hair - yes, it involved its own comb, the Afro pick - and then the shaping with hands or a scarf drawn tight to get that neat and even look with natural, healthy hair.

The story being told by the attached photos of young high-school students in their Afros in the '70s is that, after the more intense resistance to this form of expression in the late '60s, and while resistance or discomfort with it had not totally evaporated, the fact is that high-school students were allowed to wear Afros to school.

Second runner-up for Miss Universe 2017, Davina Bennett, sporting the heretofore-prohibited Afro, made those who felt that the legacy of anti-black discrimination would never give her a fighting chance, fall silent by placing third - and to them I say, hair we go again - full circle.

- Bert Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and bert.samuels.@gmail.com.