I Wanted to Ask Him, What That Hair Do?

In Beauty by Yannick Mutombo

Show me your favourite childhood picture from the early 2000s, and I will show you an era trafficking almost exclusively in clumsiness, where everything is either oversized or ill-fitting, sometimes both. Like say, the trendy jean shorts and the fast-food combos, the haircuts given to unsuspecting Black boys – no ifs, ands, or buts. Back then we weren’t quite what you could call nappy headed. Our hair grew in little black tufts, and as soon as it reached past half-a-centimeter it was trimmed like wool and woven into carpets.

Buzzcut season came every two months or so. We had no choice but to weather it with fades that ran skin-deep, given there were no guards on the clippers. Do you remember your first time in a barbershop? The laminated poster with the numbered haircuts hanging on the wall in the waiting area: a quick headcount reveals how many styles are off-limits; chances are it was most of them. I didn’t like the styling cape they tied around my throat, or the sting of rubbing alcohol dripping down the back of my neck once my scalp was barren. Dad would say, “You look more presentable this way, nappy hair is ugly.” White kids would say, “Can I call you Little Bill?”

Good hair grows in kinks. But the thing is, having curly locks causes friction with the head of state. In my case, it was my father and his rigid tongue, his speech often full of platitudes that did nothing to assuage my apprehensions over my limited aesthetic choices. Bearing in mind that he was hairless my whole life, I wondered if he remembered what it’s like to have any. Be it a side-swept bang, a classic middle part, a silk press, a bottom fade, a flat twist: I wanted to ask him, what that hair do?

At the very least, I knew that it didn’t tickle our foreheads or fall gracefully onto our shoulders. Our hair attracted attention without making us beautiful to look at, he seemed to be trying to tell me. I believed him, and so did Bryan, then Klevin, each of us born three years after the other; our haircuts were scheduled within thirty-minute intervals. We contented ourselves to daydreaming as we sat in the barber’s chair, wrestling our feelings of shame at being nappy-headed Black boys. Until one day we no longer had to. It seems my father conducted his own woolgathering, a thread which made him realize he had misconceptions about our hair, and how they were woven out of logical fallacies. Now fifteen-years-old, Klevin seldom leaves the house without his durag, my father barely bats an eye. I want to understand what business he had to mind, which ones he left bankrupt; because if there is one thing that no longer serves us, it is an outdated school of thought.

The Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence from Belgium the same year my father was born. Ten years later, in 1970, Congo was considered to have one of the best educational infrastructures in Africa. Between 1970 and 1974, the country grew in nationalism and anti-colonial sentiments, feelings that were exacerbated by then-President Mobutu Sese Seko: he ordered citizens to abandon their Christian names in exchange for African ones; businesses that were owned by foreigners were sold to native-born citizens; schools that were still run by Belgian missionaries were reappropriated and turned into State schools. The economic outcome was disastrous, and within a few years, businesses were returned to their original owners; church schools were reinstated by 1976.

Very quickly, independent Congo began to look eerily similar to her captive self. Church schools were sometimes Catholic, other times Protestant, but they were alike in their ideologies about Europeans – whites were the superior race, Africans were below. Belgian textbooks upheld a fundamentally racist perspective of Congolese people, supposing that though we had the ability to learn from the benevolent Europeans, we would always be inherently inferior to them. And so, despite the colonial era having ended, assimilation to Belgian culture continued to be the standard: Children were taught in their native tongues, but also in French, and most schools required them to follow Belgian dress codes. When my father was young, this was one of the ways you could differentiate between children whose families could afford to send them to school and those who could not. Schoolkids wore well-ironed button-downs and had their heads shaved frequently to show that they were civil and kempt; delinquent boys wore soiled trousers and the stuff that made them dirty seemed to grow out of their heads.

Hair policies are widespread across African schools. Usually, they are intended to prevent students from donning “distracting” hairstyles, and they are supposed to promote uniformity across student populations of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. But ultimately, they uphold racist sentiments towards afro-textured hair. To this day, many Kenyan public schools have a “no-hair” policy requiring students of all genders to shave their heads. The same goes for Uganda, but quite frequently these policies are only enforced for Black students. In 2016, Evelyn Nalugo and other students at Nabisunsa Girls School in Kampala, Uganda brought attention to their school’s selective reinforcement of the no-hair policy, frequently allowing Asian, white or mixed-raced students to grow out their hair.

Short hair policies in African schools originated during colonialism. When European missionaries opened the first mission schools in Kenya in 1908, they demanded that students were to cut their hair down to the scalp, seeing as Black hair was “unsightly, ungodly, and untamable.” This created an ugly precedent: in schools where students are allowed to keep their hair, rigid policies placed on hairstyles and grooming are permeated with anti-blackness, insinuating that the natural way our hair grows is suggestive of innate inferiority. Take, for instance, the controversy surrounding Charlotte Kabamba at the Catholic University of Congo in Kinshasa, who was denied entrance because of her “uncombed” afro-puff hairstyle she had worn one morning in mid 2018. Interestingly, this seemed to be a difficult year for Congolese women with natural hair, because a few month after Kabamba caught flack for donning a ‘do that was deemed unruly, Dorcas Kasinde made headlines – granted, for winning the Miss Africa 2018 beauty pageant – but also because of her carefully tended afro which  accidentally caught on fire moments after she received her crown.

Some ten-thousand kilometers away in suburban Ottawa, Canada, on a particularly languid February evening, I thought about these things as I stood in a pool of my own split-ends. Now that I have grown to love the shape of my skull – like an inverted egg with the kinda round, kinda pointy tip where lies my chin – to lose many of my hair follicles to the scalp folliculitis I was diagnosed with over the summer, baldness is my most habitual state. Perhaps things wouldn’t be this way if I had been taught to cultivate my hair rather than to crop it.

Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t start using conditioner regularly until I turned seventeen? Imagine if I had a consistent hair care routine all those years, I would have beautiful healthy hair like my friends. A big thing is keeping your hair moisturized, Llamar says. Misting it with rosewater and oiling the scalp with a mixture of castor, almond, hemp, Teatree and mango-lime every few days. To wash, a homemade shampoo of aloe and castile soap.

“Would you ever shave your head?” I ask.

We are sitting on the couch in the living room of their apartment as Llamar puffs from the joint. A cloud of smoke rises around their locs.

“No,” they say. “Without my hair, I would go blind.”