There was a popular mini-series on Netflix earlier this year chronicling the life of Madame CJ Walker and how she became the first self-made millionaire by developing and selling cosmetics and hair care products targeted at Black women. It was Gandhi who said “desperation is the raw material of drastic change” and our World of Warcraft fans are probably familiar with “desperation breeds ingenuity”. Desperation was the premise of CJ Walker’s business as she suffered from dandruff and other scalp related issues. Walker developed numerous products to combat these hair related issues and invented the world’s first hair-straightening formula for kinky hair.
There have been numerous reactions to the Netflix series, with some critics arguing that Black women are just getting to the point of loving their natural hair – so why show something that would “encourage” us to want to straighten our hair? Others look at the series and see a story of a powerful Black woman who literally made something out of nothing and paved the way for the many Black entrepreneurs and business owners that came after her. My question, however, is – is our idea of self-love so fickle that one series can unravel it? As a people, have we really evolved if a TV show can influence us that drastically? The answer to both questions will vary depending on who is answering as well as when it is asked. If you guys are anything like me you’ll know that there are some days when you feel like a QUEEN and other days where you wonder if you deserve to even stand in the palace gates. This feeling does not take away our queendom, instead, it adds layers to the majestic beings that we all are.
When I first arrived in China I was wearing braids. As an extrovert, I naturally bask in attention and boy oh boy did I get it from the Chinese people. A Black person was already an anomaly – but a Black girl with braids…in my district!? Unheard of. So of course this warranted picture taking, ending with me being posted on their WeChat moments.
To be honest, I didn’t mind, but when I took out the braids, boy did the questions start. “Where did all the beautiful hair go?”, “your hair is so short now”. Outwardly I laughed and brushed it off but subconsciously I toyed with the idea of getting braids again just so the questions would stop and I’d be regarded as “beautiful” again with my ‘long hair’. This is a sad truth that I haven’t even uttered aloud – and if we’re honest most of us can relate. How many times have we done our hair in a bomb style and changed it because it looked ‘too black‘, ‘too foreign‘ or because we didn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves?
On the other end of the spectrum is interactions within our community, other Black people. Whenever I met up with other black people they would ask “Why is your hair so curly? “Are you mixed? Does your mom have nice hair or does your dad?” These questions were all from people with beautiful hair often covered in wigs, and while I appreciated their compliments it made me sad. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good wig, however, based on my observations wigs are worn even more here than at home. I’ve even heard a story of a girl dating a man who has never seen her natural hair because she has insisted on wearing wigs around him. This is something that a lot of females struggle with: will our fellow Black brothers accept us bonnets and all or would they prefer a “Molly” who doesn’t need to use castor oil before bed?
In the Black community, we have allowed ourselves to be divided into bad hair/ good hair where good hair is seen as Type 1, 2 and 3 while Type 4 is labelled as ‘bad hair’. While categorising isn’t necessarily a bad thing it is the value attached to that categorisation that continues to trap us. We have allowed these labels to become permanently ingrained in our minds as we continue to weave their tales about who we are into our daily lives and pass it down as tradition. Bob Marley aptly put it when he said “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our minds”.
If you’ve been living in China for any amount of time it will slowly chip away at you. At first I thought this was a bad thing, however I’ve come to realise that it’s just us simply rediscovering ourselves…call it the renaissance of our soul. For far too long we have kept reliving the wounds of colonialism and its descendants. We have not had a chance to heal properly without the unmitigated gall of cultural appropriation pricking us on all sides. Black women feeling afraid to wear afros because it’s not demure enough, Black men not wearing locs because they would be seen as a thug. Yet it is being portrayed in movies as “cool”, Chinese people are now wearing braids and the men have even developed some swag with the loc do. Not only that but we ourselves have kept picking at the scabs, checking after every heartbreak, every disappointment and every betrayal if our scars were the cause. Thereby concluding in our souls that we, in our natural states, are unworthy.
We have allowed this mentality to be passed down from the plantation to the present as we retell the same stories. “Find a white spouse so you can have mixed babies” “Find someone with good hair, so you can make pretty babies”. We would do well to remember the painful realities that created these ideas, namely the rape of enslaved women. The slave master would take a liking to you and you’d be chosen to enter the house. The others on the outside looking in saw it as a privilege to be chosen because that meant less physical work but mentally it was probably just as taxing. Something we’re all paying for to this day.
We have attached so much of our identity to how others perceive us that often times when we look in the mirror we don’t recognise who we see. Our soul has been beaten and battered by this world and their idea about who we are. But do you know who else has been beaten and battered? Until they could no longer recognise themselves? Our forefathers… and just like a phoenix who rises from the ashes of its predecessors, so too will we.
I’ve shared my truth; now will you share yours?
Shauna Reeves is a Jamaican native currently living and teaching in China creating her own version of "eat, pray, love". A young woman with a curious mind as well as a passionate reader; this is Shauna's first foray into writing. The gift of gab and storytelling is one of those skills passed down from her dad, who used to regale the family with many lores.