Locs of Love White Rules, Black Hair by Esther Armah

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Esther Armah

Dreadlocks. For the best part of a week, they became national headlines. One teenage boy with excellent grades and a head full of dreadlocks ignited headlines when Achimota, the school that denied him entry due to his hair, came under fire, was accused of discrimination and was hauled into the headlines to answer: why?

Why deny him entry, why adhere to rules that were created when they could be evolved to reflect where we are now? Why double-down when challenged? Why ignore your own school reputation of celebrating innovation and excellence and negating the norm? Why deny academic excellence? Why?

The answers are part of an uneasy, unhealed history that manifests in Black hair and on Black bodies but fails to fully name and reckon with its source.

Colonialism’s legacy and stench is all over this story. At its heart are the innocent schoolkids whose brilliant grades and bright prospects got swallowed and then elevated, then swallowed again in the ensuing war of words.

I listened to morning radio as commentators highlighted what they described as the potentially ludicrous amount of time that would be spent in the salon if there weren’t rules about hair. These can seem like reasonable arguments, however because they are not applied to all the children, they are not. They are prejudicial. Time is spent on every single thing in school, that includes self-care.

 

The teenage boy’s two sisters at another school, St. Johns Grammar, then became the focus too. They are triplets.- two girls and one boy. They all have dreadlocks, as does their father.

Others got dragged in, and thousands weighed in. From the Ghana Education System, to legal perspectives, to cultural perspectives, the discussion has been passionate, opinions strong and perspective diverse.

These dreadlocked, brilliant triplets  should not be the focus, and the target of attention, nor of our ire. Our school system is what requires the most careful specific scrutiny. The teenage boy is now at a new school. Achimota’s loss is another school’s gain.

 

This is much bigger than one school’s loss and another’s gain. It is about the direction of our education system as a whole, it is about what it means to be black in Ghana, and how the manifestations of that are policed due to a legacy of colonialism.

That is true here in Ghana. It is true globally. These are global battlegrounds targeting Black hair in places of education.

In America, it has broken down into America’s policing and politicizing of black children’s hair, and then weaponizing their hair to deny them access to education. It is another form of discrimination that has been fought for centuries, and continues to show up in hurtful ways for those children and their families. It is a reminder too of a history where the policing of Black bodies is normalized and the expectation that their Blackness adapt to white society’s vision and version of ‘acceptable’ is rooted in racism. It should not be allowed to stand.

Scholar, author and visionary, Ghanaian-American, Dr. Yaba Blay created an entire care package, inviting other women who wore their hair in dreadlocks, to show love to a little girl in Oklahoma.  Her name is Tiana Brown, she was 7, a straight-A student, and like the Ghanaian triplets, she wore her hair in locs. She went home crying after being told that in this Oklahoma school, dreadlocks were against school policy. Their exact language was:- “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Her parents chose to remove their daughter from the school. This story made local news headlines and then became a national – and indeed global – story.

In South Africa, black school girls in Pretoria High School protested their school policy about natural hair. They described teachers repeatedly pulling them out of class, critiquing their natural hair as ‘messy’ threatening them with scissors – saying that they would chop their hair off. Another student spoke about being met with snide remarks such as ‘their hair needs to be tamed’.  Others spoke of teachers telling them their hair needs to lie flat, which as one student observed means putting chemicals in their hair which they said was painful. She added that what they were asking of the girls was to look as white as possible. A petition was created to support these schoolgirls, and it gained 20,000 signatures. This space was about the lingering legacy of apartheid and dangerous, deadly delusions of white superiority and black inferiority.

Clearly short natural hair in Ghana’s schools doesn’t look – and isn’t about looking – white. But, the attitude to dreadlocks which is a hairstyle peculiar to a black people is about an extension of policing our hair that is rooted in negating the styles of natural afro hair.

Hair is language, it is landscape and it is – and has been – a site of oppression by white authorities who are using the way our hair grows to critique who you are in your natural state. Dreadlocks are an extension of a critique about natural hair.

This then, is more than a war of words about hair. It reveals how a legacy of untreated trauma from the anti-blackness that fueled colonialism and its ongoing grip of even follicle curricula continues.

It invites other questions. What does it mean to be independent as a nation? From whom are you independent if another nation’s rules guide how we treat and engage our bodies, and how we wear our hair?

Within Ghana, hair is certainly policed – especially on the bodies of women. There has been the notion of glamour attached to long, straight hair, to weaves, to wigs; and your natural hair being described and negated as bush, undesirable, unsexy and even unprofessional.  There has been that issue historically with banks, and on a podcast I hosted, one of my guests, Kathy Addy, shared her story about the way her natural short afro was demeaned and questions about her future were raised because of her hair style. Using words like ‘not professional’ ‘not tidy’ are all simply code for not white. They, of course, should be summarily rejected. There is equally the natural hair movement, with a celebration of wearing afro hair naturally and glorying in the myriad styles in which it can be worn, and the beauty of these different looks.

These challenges about dreadlocks and natural hair are about anti-Blackness. Such notions belong to nations that are not African. And yet here we are advocating, admonishing and administrating about this very issue. That it even became headline news with folks taking to social media and showing how white children’s hair was not subject to the same scrutiny and criticism that black children’s hair was subject to, is indicative of a discriminatory practice.

School is a place of learning, of discovery, of research, of revelation. It has been the place whre anti-Blackness is taught in order to shape children’s ideas of themselves, their future and their possibility.  This learning we are getting is still steeped in a system designed to quash critical thinking, stymie intellectual curiosity and condemn questioning of authority. That is a colonial education. Its remnants linger in classrooms, curricula, school codes and hair guidelines.

Three children, one school, and one hairstyle. It is also a story of a nation’s relationship to its blackness, its Africanness and its willingness to evolve to reflect the complexity, beauty and bounty of blackness. The story of our hair must be rewritten so it centers our blackness and how our hair grows, moves, is shaped and styled. That need not go against policy, it may simply recognize and reflect who we are as a people.

Our relationship to our hair as global black people needs a healing –  that too is education.

SOURCEBy Esther ARMAH
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