‘Hair can be such a bond in a community that a person acting out on their own, in order to say something, can spark a feeling, and reaction, in the community that they are bound to.’
Hair/Power: Essays on Control and Freedom
By Kajal Odedra
Published by 404 Ink
One of my favourite childhood memories is spending summers at my cousin’s house in Leicester after we’d moved to Derbyshire. We’d be dropped off by Dad for a few days then picked up what felt like months later. I can still remember being sat at my grandma’s (or Ba, as we called her), feet every morning as she combed my hair and braided it into plaits. I remember vividly in those moments with my Ba, feeling so loved. She spoke Gujarati, which I understood but I was fast losing my grip on the language as I spent more time in our new, predominantly white village. Little was said between us but the comb’s teeth on my scalp, through my hair was soothing, meditative.
During my childhood, Newhall had a population of less than 700, nearly all white. My community back in Leicester, that we visited regularly, was still our real home. There, we looked alike, we ate the same food, spoke the same way, used the same coconut oil to treat our hair. It was especially exciting to go back when there was a wedding. We would turn up a day or two in advance, the kids piling into my cousin’s bedroom, the women spending the days in the run up grooming themselves. I would hang around and watch the older girls painting their nails, picking out the flowers and clips they would pin in their hair, the smell of perfume and Mehndi and bleach swimming in the air for days. I longed for the day I would be allowed to join them, bleaching moustaches and soaking hair in oil. These were all things the girls at my school would never understand, my secret other world.
Hair and what we did with it, became a glue for our community in a way that nothing else really could. The closeness, the nakedness, the vulnerability in allowing ourselves to be groomed by each other. To this day, I feel a sisterhood with girlfriends when we’re getting ready to go out. Squeezed into the same bathroom to share a mirror. Combing our hair, curling our lashes, tweezing our chins. There is an intimacy in that room that is so pure it’s unidentifiable to the untrained eye, but feels as deep as though we are real sisters.
One of the many enlightening things that bell hooks said about community was that ‘beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.’ It’s understood most intensely by people I know of Black, Asian or Latino communities, those outside of white culture. There is an unspoken understanding that hair and the things we do with it are special and brings us closer. A sacred practice.
Campaigner Seyi Falodun-Liburd told me about growing up in North London. Her aunt taught her how to braid on her dolls and in turn Seyi taught her friends at school how to braid their own hair. The practice helped Seyi connect to her Blackness and with other girls in her school, managing a type of hair that wasn’t visible in the girls magazines when she was growing up.
‘As a child, hair was my first site of play and creativity. And it was also a guaranteed moment of intimacy between me and the women and other girls in my life. Whether it was my mum braiding my hair and asking me about my day, or lunchtime in secondary school when I’d braid my best friend’s hair while we all talked about boys and music – I remember the bonds created between us in those moments that were at the root of our community and culture.’
Throughout her childhood Seyi, like me, didn’t see herself in the culture. So while the other white girls could turn to the magazine shelves for advice as they navigated their adolescence, Seyi and her friends had to learn themselves and through community, tips and tricks being passed down through generations of Black women. They built up trust and sisterhood through lessons they couldn’t teach at the convent school she attended run by white nuns, or in the way white kids might learn how to do their hair by reading Just Seventeen. At fourteen years old, Seyi provided the girls at her school with a lunchtime service, plaiting their hair in return for a few quid. If the nuns ever came across them they’d put a stop to it, creating a tighter bond between the girls as they were othered by the adults in their school. Those early experiences were where Seyi first experienced the intimacy and connection that came from hair. Years later, she found that she had started to lose that connection when she straightened her hair.
‘When I started unlearning the harmful rhetoric around Black hair being unruly or difficult to manage, and understanding their beginnings in white supremacy I started feeling much more freedom in playing with my hair again. I didn’t realise that I had stopped, my focus had become something I could easily maintain while looking “professional” as I entered the world of work. Now bantu knots, canerows and flat twists are my go-tos, “professionalism” (read: white supremacy) takes a backseat to joyful expression and comfort.’
Hair doesn’t just bind communities, it’s a way to express and communicate powerful, complex emotions. Shaving one’s head is a sign in some Ethiopian cultures that the person is mourning someone they loved – an appropriately dramatic gesture for the more jarring experiences of the human condition. It is done in a ritual meant to help with the healing process of grief, to know that even though the person is physically gone, death has started a new form of communication between the living and dead. The shaved head is a language.
In South Africa there is a similar ritual, ‘for the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Tswana cultures, the occurrence of death is something that affects the whole community not the individual or individuals concerned. It is not only one person who is bereaved but the whole community.’ An individual’s hair doesn’t represent only them, but their entire community, something done to one’s own body can be healing for those they love.
Similarly, the 2022 movement of women in Iran campaigning against Islamic laws are attempting to hurt the regime they are under through communal action. Hair can be such a bond in a community that a person acting out on their own, in order to say something, can spark a feeling, and reaction, in the community that they are bound to.
Hair/Power: Essays on Control and Freedom by Kajal Odedra is published by 404 Ink, priced £7.50.
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