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Hugh on Hair

by Hugh Masekela
Heritage Day

Chris Rock, the African American comedy megastar, movie actor, and film director recently decided on doing serious research about hair following a plea from his young daughters.

They dreamt of wearing “good hair” because of peer pressure from schoolmates and neighbourhood friends who had ceased to don their natural hairstyles. Their mates and buddies were now rocking Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian and European weaves, wigs or chemically transformed locks, even plastic and horsehair.

A seemingly dazed Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary went on to become an international box-office success in theatres around the world. African people’s hair has always been a universal issue of major intrigue and an amazing psychological jigsaw puzzle regarding their identity, image, self-esteem and heritage.

My maternal grandfather was a devious mining engineer from Scotland who married our Ndebele grandmother at the beginning of the 20th century. My mother therefore emerged as a “mixed-breed”, a “Mulatto”, a “Coloured” person with straight hair; in the Witbank-Emalahleni location of Kwa-Guqa inside Mpumalanga province where I was born.

My three younger sisters were “blessed” with semi-straight hair. Most of my mother’s light-skinned relatives had similar varieties of “good hair”. My own hair pursued that of our father’s texture and variety although it retains up to this day a slight softness inherited from mother’s side.

Dad was Karanga/Pedi and therefore not easily acceptable to many of my mom’s “Kleuring” relatives. In the townships, we were “Maasbigir”, “Amperbaas”. As a child I was subjected to regular mention of my mop as being “Kaffirhare”(Kaffir-hair). “Korrelkop”(Maize cob-row head), “Hottentotmat” (Khoi San [aboriginal South Africans] mat) and other derogatory terms associated with indigenous coifs. Such words came from my Afrikaans-speaking granny (when it was appropriate) when her “Oorlams” (Dutch-rooted) relations, many of whom were Ndebele and Pedi would say to her “Haai Joanna maar die kind het lelike hare, wragtig!”. I began to realize right then that the criticism of my people’s hair quality has subconsciously instilled in them a deep measure of embarrassment and shame over what sat on their heads.

When the apartheid regime came into power in 1948, it was romantically sentimental about treating and classifying the Afrikaans-speaking “Coloureds” as officially superior to us “natives”. Of exploiting tribalism, institutionalizing ethnic-grouping and establishing legal racism based on white supremacy. Not that the structures did not exist before or during colonial times. Only now they were administrative law, enshrined to an absurd level of constitutionalized slavery. Within all the ensuing racist insanity, those indigenous people who wished to acquire ”Coloured” status because of its “half-white” privileges straightened their hair with the aid of hot-combs, creating a putrid smell in the air, torturing the nostrils but guaranteeing the wearers success in the apartheid regime’s “comb-test”.

This examination ensured that if the comb did not get stuck in the hair but rolled smoothly over the head, then the examinee lawfully became a “Coloured”. The utter absurdity of it all still boggles the mind. Many women took the “cliff-dive” into hot-comb hair-straightening, skin-lightening and passing for identities as far removed as possible from African – or as Europeans loved to call us “Kaffirs” – regardless of how dark skinned they were. It caused deep pity inside my young soul to observe a people so ashamed their beginnings. It still does. How lethal the severe sword of oppression!? When I entered my late teens, I began to realize that African people were successfully being manipulated into believing not only that they were inferior to Europeans, Asians and Coloureds, but also that their own hair texture and its quality had to be perceived as unmanageable, uncivilized, primitive and backward. To be socially acceptable, Africans had now to contemplate upgrading the feel of their tresses to a level closer to that of real “Coloureds” (there were many fake ones), Asians and Europeans. Hair industries in the USA, Caribbean and South America emerged to exploit the hundred-and something-years-old inferiority complex of most people of African origin about their “nappy heads”. Ironically, one of the foremost pioneers of “soft” hair for so-called “Blacks” was a Madam Jackson, an African-American who went on to become a multi-millionaire from her transformatory initiatives early in the 20th century.

Shortly before I left South Africa in 1960 to study music in abroad, the hair straightening, wig-manufacturing and skin-lightening industries were taking root in Africa. Many women destroyed their beautiful faces, which often got badly burnt by the creams. The burns are called “chubabas” in Southern Africa.

In Central Africa; because of the hot humid weather, men and women turn yellow from the applications. In my African travels, I’ve seen some outrageous spectacles!!!

The most comical portrait that comes to mind is that of Ghana’s first independence cabinet of Kwame Nkurumah in 1957 where everyone is resplendent in traditional Kente-weave costumes with all the wives proudly sporting sparkling Indian-style wigs. I am pained whenever I view that portrait. I try to imagine the wives of a European country’s cabinet or female soldiers in Asian armies wearing African short hair wigs and I am really tempted to chuckle but the laughable probability rather saddens me instead.

Especially that Kwame Nkrumah is supposedly one the fathers of Pan-Africanism, (May Robert Sobukwe and Steve Bantu Bikos spirits rest in peace) the portrait blows my mind.

To watch the Royal Reed ceremonies of KwaZulu and Swaziland with the young maidens in traditional threads, tall reeds in hand, fills one with so much admiration for the regalia, the music and the dances. However on realising that the majority of the heads are crowned with black, blonde, platinum and rainbow-coloured wigs and tresses, I tend to cringe with overwhelming amazement. Are the Kings really admiring the headdresses??

When I arrived in New York City, I could not find a barbershop in Harlem that would afford me a haircut. Almost all “Negro” men’s heads were wrapped in straightened, chemicalised “Hairdos”. They would inform me that only very young “Negro” boys wore natural hairstyles aside from Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, (and most of his team); footballer Jim Brown and a small minority of prominent African males. Very few “Negroes” of the era wanted to be associated with the continent of their roots. “Ya’ll, got fruits and vegetables in Africa?? I’m an American; I ain’t no African, man!! I’m a Negro!!” They would assure me of this fact in dismissive, agitated and angry tone of voice.

Miriam Makeba, Odetta, Abbey Lincoln, Cecily Tyson, Maya Angelou and few others who wore their hair natural then; were deemed to be strange women. People who were doing the opposite considered “Own natural hair” as almost bordering on terrorism, paganism and extremism; they felt threatened by the look.

Most whites viewed it as typical examples of cheeky, troublemaking “Nigras”.

To me, this negative disposition felt like arrogant censure and negation of my heritage’s exceptional history and its glorious contribution to human knowledge in several fields of the arts, sciences and philosophy.

With the emergence of “Black Power” revolution spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael in 1967 finally tearing down American white racist stereotypes about African peoples, many former “Negroes” began to wear dashiki shirts with “headmops” that became known as “Afros” or just “Froes”.

For a while, the African diaspora was captivated by a new pride over their naturalness. Alex Haley’s “Roots” television hit series in the mid-1970’s tracing his family history back to ancient Gambia in West Africa was a massive international smash and powerful stimulant. It caused African traditional couture to gain a large following around the world. However, the euphoria was not to last long. By the 1980’s, the return to Western and Asian wigs and extensions pointed to a U-turn from what had seemed like beginnings of an ultimate African renaissance.

Today, African women the world over spend tens of billions in dollars to acquire Brazilian, Indian, Chinese and Peruvian locks, many from heads of the dead. From a traditional perspective, the practice is macabre and ghoulish.

Skin lighteners are back in full force. The new fads and fashions are a vilification and denigration of centuries old African tradition and heritage. I am thrilled by the welcome discovery of scores of African hairstyles that are possible because the tresses are, malleable enough to sculpt into dazzling looks in all colours. On the other hand European and Asian hair only hangs downward unless fastened and clipped with all manner of pins and needles. It seems to lay so strangely on African molded features.

From my viewpoint, manipulation of African people to look down upon their natural beauty and their subsequent exploitation by international skin-lightening cream, hair extension and wig retailers is truly a tragic return to the thinking that was prevalent during my childhood, teenage and coming-of-age days when we had to listen to talk of “Kaffirhare”, “Korrelkoppe”, “Hottentotmatte”, “nappy heads”, “plantation cotton-pickin ‘Nigger’ Looks” and all other terms that mock our origins. Today we use glossier and smarter words today but they still remain demeaning.

I have registered the Hugh Masekela Heritage Foundation to (i) attempt restoring back into our lives knowledge of our historic past and researching the genealogy of every family. Also to (ii) interview every aged person 85years and older so as to capture whatever memories, wisdoms and ancient know-how they might still be able to recall. All the information will be preserved and stored in databases for access to our past.

(iii)To encourage the relearning of mother tongues, poetry, praises and literature for present and future generations to possess as a mirror against consumption by other cultures, (iv) To revive artisanship study in the areas of indigenous manufacture of household goods to elevate the study of carpentry, construction, weaving, linen manufacture, design, stone-masonry, mosaic, art, traditional music, dance and sport. Hopefully, this initiative will aid us to gradually cut down on our blatant consumership of foreign goods and cultures, subsequently turning us into a seller society instead of the buyers that we are today.

In view of all I have stated above, it would be hypocritical of me to appear in photos with people donning foreign wigs, chemically–altered hairdos, extensions, Asian, European, and South American extensions except in cases where if I refuse could result in my imprisonment, deportation or demise.

In conclusion, I do not wish to stop anybody from the choices they make or the cultures they want to serve themselves as fodder for. I am only begging not to be forced to join the dive of the lemmings or sheep over the cliff. As you can surmise by now, I have personally had a very depressing hair life. Today and everyday these days appears to be a “bad hair” day. Painfullest is to watch government officials, “celebrities”, prominent women in business, media, sports, religion and education wearing these devices with so much deep pride, aplomb and joy; especially the old grannies who are at an age where at which nobody is “looking” anymore. I’m surprised to see people of the African female community who look like themselves in newspapers, magazines, journals, television, theatre and concerts. It is as rare a sighting as seeing an albatross.

Many employment establishments will not have them. We are living a “bad hair” life. Welcome to another “bad hair” day.

I hope that the next time I mention hair, people will try to seriously consider the afore-mentioned history before getting their feathers ruffled.