Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Black Feminist Book Club: The Europeanization of African Hair

This year, I pledged to read more black feminist writing and I invited What Tami Said readers to join me. Right now, our Black Feminist Book Club is reading When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings. I welcome guest submissions on the content and themes of this book.

Doreen's contribution below is particularly timely, given the recent controversy surrounding a Psychology Today blog post by Satoshi Kanazawa, purveyor of questionable science, asserting that black women are objectively less attractive than other women.

written by guest contributor Doreen Akiyo Yomoah

When and Where I Enter has so far been a simultaneously uplifting, encouraging, and painful piece of literature. I have had my entire education within the American school system, from K-University, and something that we never, ever studied in much depth was the history of black women. Something I never got to do in school is study solely the history of black women, American or otherwise, even though I majored in history. Sure, I studied “African history” and “women’s history”, but it seems all the black people were men, and all the women were white.

There are many things about it that I have found simultaneously illuminating and disturbing in reading WAWIE. I knew that slave owners raped their slaves, but I never imagined that they also sent other slaves to rape them.

In some ways, not much has changed. The constant attacks on black women from white women and men, as well as black men, and in recent times, even black women express hatred against other black women (See: anything ever written about Chris Brown and Rihanna).

Since returning to Africa, I have learned in many ways that the mentality that led to slavery, colonialism, and the subsequent civil and human rights abuses against blacks by whites is not only still in place, but still being perpetuated by the people against whom it was used. In Chapter 11, Paula J. Giddings talks about accepting a uniquely black femininity, and that included rejecting the stereotypical images of black women, such as the “Mammy” and “Aunt Jemima” archetypes. Chandler Owen demanded that instead of continuing to cling to imagery of black women as being less womanly than their white counterparts, black women instead be honored as women “who have risen above insult, assault, debauchery….and abuse”, who have full agency , and do not exist to serve whites.

Colonialism and slavery, while taught as two different institutions (one took place in Africa, and affected only those who were not victims of forced migration, but were instead victims of the forced rule in their territories, raping of women, theft of land and property, and depletion of natural resources; the other took place on new soil and was an institution of pure slavery, in which blacks were not even regarded as people, where they were consistently and systematically degraded, dehumanized, violated, and abused). That said, there are many instances in which these two forms of imperialism have similar ramifications, both in the land from which the people were taken, and in the land to which they were forcibly taken (and in which others had their land stolen from them, the women raped, natural resources depleted).

As black women began to be recognized as feminine in the 20th century, the ideals of glamour and beauty began to be more pervasive, and black women began visiting beauty parlors and salons in droves. Additionally, it seemed whites were beginning to see black women in a different light as well.
The magazine Half Century said that “’ whiteness to [Europeans] is monotonous… A beautiful brown face in an assembly of white ones could not but attract attention”. The idea that this can be seen as a growing appreciation of black beauty is not slightly disingenuous. If whiteness is monotonous, that means it is ordinary; normal. That blackness is seen as a contrast to that is implicit its perceived abnormality. That sort of fascination with someone’s physical and uniquely racial characteristics is what led to colonialism, slavery, the Reconstruction Era, and independence struggles in the first place.

Photo credit: wojofoto
In the early 20th century, perhaps these features were favored, but during the colonialism and slavery eras, the features that made black women look different from their white counterparts are precisely what caused their dehumanization. As time progressed and black beauty was more appreciated, it still appeared to be a certain type of black beauty: The women featured on the cover of Half Century magazine had [mostly] “Anglicized features,” even though the magazine said that “there are many types of colored beauty.” Despite these “many types of colored beauty”, black women still clearly felt pressured to mimic European beauty. Skin-whitening products were introduced into the market, and one black woman even died after using such a product to mimic the European beauty.

Madame CJ Walker, a woman who is often taught in American schools as the first black female entrepreneur, figured out ways to improve the health of her hair, showing that black women at that point were so far removed from their roots that they didn’t even know how to take care of their texture of hair, although black women had been doing so for centuries. Although Walker is known for creating the straightening comb and relaxer, she in fact built her empire on hair care treatments and denied that “the ultimate purpose of her product was to straighten the hair”. However, this is difficult to reconcile with the idea that she introduced the hot comb to the American market, a tool whose sole purpose is to straighten black hair, and in effect destroy one of the most distinct characteristics of the race. [Editor’s note: I reconcile Walker’s success by understanding that she is no different from all “beauty” purveyors...no...all marketers who give you the “disease” (in this case, “bad” hair) and then suggest a “cure” (their product).]

Walker’s invention of hair straightening treatments was not without context. While it is understandable that blacks in America felt pressured by the majority to downplay their features which stood out the most against the backdrop of whiteness, why, too, in Africa, are women pressured to straighten their hair?
The othering of black features has not gone away, even as we have moved into the 21st century. In 2000 (when I was in high school), a friend of mine asked me why “black people had such big noses and lips.” Aside from the stupidity of expecting me to be able to answer such a question, (as if she could give me an explanation of her own racial features) it was the clear that she saw her features as being the norm.

Colonialism was arguably the worst time in African history, beginning in the late 19th century. However, during this period, whites were a ruling tyrannical majority against a black majority. How then, did European beauty standards become so pervasive here as well? How did Ghana end up in a situation in which women who choose to wear their hair natural (and to me, even wording it this way is problematic-natural is how it is, well, naturally. If anyone is making a choice, it’s those altering their natural hair to straighten and weave it out) castigated? The overwhelming majority of television programs and movies feature women with straightened hair, and even when I try to point out how problematic it is for us to be destroying ourselves, I am just brushed off with “You just hate white people” from blacks, and “So? We also take part in beauty rituals” from whites. As though any of their beauty rituals involve mimicking the features possessed by the majority of people who possess the most economic and political power in the world. As though those beauty rituals involve actually destroying something that they have possessed for centuries, and didn’t begin destroying until the colonialism era.

Although the histories of blacks in North America and blacks still in Africa diverged as soon as the slave trade began, there are still similar themes that keep cropping up and still have ramifications for us today. No matter where we live, it seems we are unable to escape the ubiquity of white standards of beauty, no matter how different our histories.

Doreen is a vagabond who currently lives and works in Accra, Ghana.


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