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“Don’t touch my hair … don’t touch my soul” Solange Knowles sang in her 2016 anthem. Some may scoff at the apparent connection between a black woman’s hair and her spirit. But the cultural significance of a black woman’s hair and her heritage transcends cultural perceptions of beauty. One of the first things stripped from the African women as they boarded the slave ships in shackles was their hair. Intricate braids, styles generic to their tribes – signalling their identity – were forcibly removed by the slavers. All traces of individuality and creativity were thrown overboard. Upon their arrival, they were branded and made to wear a headscarf by their (white) mistresses – elaborate hairstyles were strictly forbidden.
“Don’t touch my hair” is an imperative. It represents the black woman’s agency and refusal to be censored via her appearance. Slavery ended more than 200 years ago, so why do the editors, the art directors and the photographers still feel the need to “edit” out a black woman’s afro hair and features?
Well to put it plainly: “Good hair means curls and waves/Bad hair means you look like a slave.” The lyrics of India Arie’s 2006 song I Am Not My Hair offer another explanation behind the effects of slavery and physiognomy’s lasting influence on public perception of beauty. It also provides some context to the frustration felt by Nyong’o at her frizzy hair being treated as a flaw that needed to be erased from her portrait.
Nyong’o wrote: “I am disappointed that Grazia UK invited me to be on their cover and then edited out and smoothed my hair to fit their notion of what beautiful hair looks like. Had I been consulted I would have explained that I cannot support the omission of what is my native heritage. There is still a very long way to go to combat the unconscious prejudice against black women’s complexion, hair style and texture.”
You see this was never just about the hair. It’s about a person’s right to simply be. Confined for almost 500 years in the shadow of service and slavery, women of colour are increasingly demanding a say in how history portrays them. The decision to “edit” out a person’s natural features is not something that should be dismissed. It exposes a society that preaches liberalism and acceptance, but does not practise it. It uncovers a culture that champions inclusivity while excluding anyone that does not subscribe to their narrative.
Nyong’o objects that she was not consulted. The editors removed key features of her African heritage – without her consent. Her desire to encourage other women to celebrate what is still considered by too many an unconventional beauty was censored. In an insincere attempt to appear as though they had finally embraced diversity, black beauty and all that it had to offer – these editors have uncovered, yet again, the rotten stench of imperialism.