Black Hair in Focus offers a nuanced discussion on the power, politics, and beauty of Black hair

SOCA’s event both celebrates and contextualizes Black hair in socio-political history

Award-winning short Hair Love was shown to kick off the discussion on Black hair. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

On June 30, SFU Students of Caribbean & African Ancestry (SOCA) hosted Black Hair in Focus: The History and Politics of Black Hair, a live online discussion on how Black hair has been coded, stigmatized, and valued throughout history. As a silent observer in the discussion and someone who has never faced discrimination over, nor pressure to change the appearance of my hair, this discussion was incredibly informative and eye-opening. The histories and personal stories shared were both tragic and triumphant, and the inner socio-political complexities of something as benign as natural hair were laid bare in frank, honest discussion.

The conversation opened with the stated goal of using the space to embrace Black hair. In setting this tone, the workshop audience viewed the animated short film, Hair Love. The film is about a little girl’s foray into the care and styling of her Black hair on her own ahead of a visit to her mother in the hospital. The story gradually reveals just how important the success of this endeavor is to her, as she and her mother have a strong bond created through her mother’s hair-styling vlog. Though it takes effort, patience, and “a whole lot of love,” she and her father eventually pull off a successful style and go to the hospital. There, the viewer learns that the mother has lost her own hair, presumably due to cancer treatments. 

Even on the third viewing this short still makes me cry like a baby. But more than its emotional impact and gorgeous animations, the film subtly expresses some of the key issues Black hair — in particular, natural Black hair — has faced throughout history. The scenes where the hair comes to life and literally wrestles with the characters can be interpreted as a “wrestling” in double consciousness of physical characteristics and individual identity, against the external gaze and prejudices of society. Similarly, the shame, disappointment, and defeat expressed in the temporary decision to hide the messy hair under a cap represents having Black individuality and Black beauty subordinated, shamed, and devalued by white, Eurocentric standards of aesthetics and respectability. The decision to open the Black Hair in Focus event with this short was therefore brilliant in not only starting on a bright, colourful, and emotional note, but in setting the stage for the topics and conversation to follow.

Guiding the discussion was a slide presentation covering three overarching topics: history, resistance, and the Modern Natural Hair Movement. Interspersed between historical facts in each category were media clips and calls for reflective sharing of personal thoughts or stories, which made for an engaging delivery. 

Understandably, the event discussion dealt with the history of colonization and slavery, particularly how Black hair has always been positioned as a political focal point in the oppression, resistance, resurgence, and celebration of Black lives. Examples were given of how shaving Black hair was used as a means of cultural genocide, as well as how the thickness of hair was used to test racial purity. Discussions frequently centred around what sort of signals natural Black hair gives in societies where white values are coded into the desirability of some aesthetics over others. 

One participant shared, “I’m from Zimbabwe [where] the school system [ . . . ] follows the British school system and that includes rules, code of conducts, and how to wear your hair [ . . . ] I grew up thinking that my hair was sub-par and my true texture needs [sic] to be hidden.” Conversely, stories of solidarity, self-love, and empowerment in taking pride in one’s natural hair were also shared and celebrated.

Most striking to me was the discussion around what constituted “good” Black hair, and whether this entailed straightening it or letting it appear natural; whether it meant always having full, thick hair, loving the hair one has, or even augmenting hair. The general consensus of this discussion was that there is not “one” way to have or express “good hair.” The similarities of this idea with that of there being no one way of being a “good woman” in a feminist perspective really resonated with me, and made me feel more connected with the perspectives being expressed.

One thing not covered in this event was a more thorough discussion on how Black hair is cared for and maintained in its many presentations. Fortunately, SOCA is planning another event on this very topic, and I look forward to being an observer in that workshop as well.

Follow SOCA on Facebook at SFU Students of Caribbean & African Ancestry or on Instagram at @sfusoca for more information on upcoming events. A shortened recording of this event can be found on their Facebook page.