Black Hair (Part 1): It’s Political

Sheryl Underwood was not a name I was familiar with until a few days ago. I did not even know that she was black when I first read about the comments she made on American National TV, basically saying that Afro hair is disgusting, and nobody wants it. I initially thought “that’s an ignorant thing for a white woman to say”. I was not overly shocked. I assumed that being a white woman, Sheryl was not accustomed to Afro hair, and by calling it “nappy”, she was expressing in her own way her perception of how it was very different to her own straight hair (so I wrongly thought).

Then I was surfing YouTube and came across a video that had the footage of Ms Underwood making the remarks on the show “The Talk”. To my absolute horror, I discovered that Sheryl Underwood is a black woman. My jaw literally hit the floor!  How could a black woman make such remarks about her own type of hair?

She has since issued an apology which is good to hear (though I do not accept that she was misconstrued, seeing as she clearly makes a distinction between “curly nappy beads” and “beautiful long silky hair” of white people) but I’m not so concerned about her apologising. I don’t say that because I’m outraged at her, and feel that an apology won’t suffice. Rather, I’m saddened for her. I’m saddened that this 49 year old woman, who would no doubt have memories of an America only just forced to abandon a society of segregation, has through her life’s experiences and understanding of what is acceptable, come to the conclusion that Afro hair is undesirable.

It’s a very sad thing that Sheryl should feel that way, but I can just imagine why. Would America accept the First Lady if she were to leave her Afro hair as it is? How readily available are images in the media of black women with afro hair? I suspect that all her life, Sheryl has been taught that Afro hair is unacceptable, and she has come to believe it. In a shameful way, there is no satisfactory answer to the question she posed “who would want to save Afro hair?” or simply put: “who wants  Afro hair?”

Michell Obama

The fashion houses don’t appear to want it. That’s why you have a supermodel like Naomi Campbell (one of the rare success stories amongst black models) with no hairline left, because she has been forced to wear styles that hide her Afro hair, for decades. A friend of mine who models, was once axed from a job because the stylists on the shoot could not work with her “Afro hair”.

naomi campbell bald

Hollywood and TV producers do not seem to want it. When a black actress does appear in a film, you can just bet she’ll be wearing a wig or a weave. And it’s not always because that is how the actress would wear her hair anyway. I’ve read interviews of some black actresses who would prefer to wear their hair natural, but have to put in a weave in order to get the part.

The printed and televised media don’t want Afro hair either. Even on the front cover of black hair magazines, you’re more likely than not to see the model wearing a European weave or wig. Black newscasters who air on various news stations (with the exception of Al Jazeera), all have their Afro hair tucked away, or chemically processed away, out of sight.

It’s not fair to direct anger at Sheryl alone. We should question the society we live in that seems to dictate that Afro hair should not be seen. I am very encouraged though, that more and more often now, I see black women daring to bare their natural hair. I know that women wear their hair natural for all kinds of reasons, and many are not seeking to make a political statement by doing so. However I can’t help but feel that with every woman that starts to go to work, especially in the corporate field, with natural hairstyles, it takes down another brick in the wall that stands in the face of black women being free to be who they are, without fear of judgment.

Where Are The Black Owned Businesses?

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“I remember when there used to be two black owned shops here next door to each other” my mother said from the passenger seat as we were driving through Deptford High Street one afternoon. This sentence preceded a very strange sounding tale of rivalry and revenge. It was prompted by our passing a row of shops, all of which were now owned by Asians.

The tale went something like this: Once upon a time there were two shops selling African groceries, sat side by side on Deptford High Street. One was owned by Mrs A, the other was owned by Mr B. Mrs A’s shop started to do very well. Soon it became obvious that Mrs A’s shop was far more popular than Mr B’s. Then one day Mrs A became very ill. Within a few days she died in hospital. Mr B had been jealous that her shop was doing much better than his and so he had poisoned her! Mrs A’s children were left devastated at their loss, and soon the shop closed. In the meantime, word began to spread that Mr B was responsible for Mrs A’s death. People began to boycott his shop, resulting in its steady decline. Then Mrs A’s son seeking revenge, one day went and dowsed Mr B’s shop with petrol and set it alight. He succeeded in burning to a cinder Mr B’s shop, but he also got badly burned in the process, and scarred for life. Both shops were never to see black owners again. The end.

I had some questions about this story. How did people know Mrs A had been poisoned, and that Mr B was responsible? According to my mother, there was no confirmation, but people “just knew”. After all, these things happened in Nigeria, and so it followed that these things could happen in Britain amongst Nigerians. But whether or not the details of the story are true or not, it is a story that perhaps identifies some of the key reasons why we do not see more black owned businesses. Maybe if black people worked together more, instead of against each other, like the Jews do for example, then the tide would start to turn.

I am always puzzled by the fact that shops selling African and Caribbean food, and African and Caribbean hair and beauty products seem to all be owned by Asians. These shops stock products that African and Caribbean people will always flock to buy. They are cash cows. Has no black person cottoned on to this fact? I doubt that is the case. One theory is that Asians have ring fenced the hair and beauty industry, and force out black owners, either by their economic position of power, or by other means. For example I think of another tale that I have been told, this time about a black hair and beauty store in Peckham, owned by a Nigerian woman. Allegedly, Asian shop owners of the neighbouring shops had their eye on hers. They were constantly in touch with the Local Authority to find ways to have her shop shut down. Eventually they succeeded, and swiftly took over the shop.

With the knowledge that black people are to a large degree frozen out of the market dealing with products specifically tailored to many cultures found within the black race, I can’t put the blame entirely on black people for not owning more businesses. There are probably other factors to take into account as well, such as legacies, and connections that immigrants, or children of immigrants may not have to the same degree as those who come from a long line of descendants settled in the UK. However, I would like to see more black people in enterprise, because I often meet black people with ideas that could work. Those of us who are of the second generation, let’s leave behind the tendency of our parents to distrust one’s neighbour, or for one-upmanship for the purposes of showing off to others within our community. I feel other racial groups are respected more, because of their power, which is fed by their wealth. I believe those of African descent need to undo the damage caused by the “divide and rule” tactics of colonialism, and rise to their full potential of generating wealth and pioneering new ideas.