Black Hair: Defying Gravity and Institutional Racism since the 1700s

They passed a law making it illegal to expose black hair in public. Black women turned the law into a fashion statement.


gorgeous african women
"Africa my love" by Lutricia Roux on Flickr.

Let’s be honest: black hair is an art form. It’s expressive, infinitely creative, stimulates the imagination, and has emotional resonance. From its gravity-defying dimensions to the way it bounces and breathes and unapologetically holds space, it doesn’t get more versatile than black hair. Whether it’s a thick afro, a blowout, braids, twists, cornrows, locks, tight or loose curls, or bantu knots, there truly seems to be nothing that the varied textures of African hair can’t achieve. But this beauty and nonconformity has also resulted in the over-policing and subjugation of black hair for centuries.


Of manes and misconceptions


Two weeks ago, the international swimming federation FINA banned Olympian Alice Dearing (who will reportedly be the first black woman to represent Britain in the Tokyo Olympics) from wearing a swimming cap that accommodates her voluminous hair, stating that the cap doesn’t “follow the natural form of the head.” The swim cap, made by UK-based brand Soul Cap, was designed specifically to protect black women’s thicker and curlier hair textures and styles, which often can’t fit in the one-size-fits-all caps that cater to Caucasian hair.


According to Soul Cap, FINA explained their ban by basically stating that competing athletes have never required or used caps of that size and configuration. Problem is, competitive swimming is an overwhelmingly white sport so it’s no shock that inclusive swim gear hasn’t been a consideration. How could it be when swim caps were specifically created for Caucasian heads? Widely available swim caps don’t accommodate the drier texture of tightly curled African hair, and pool chemicals strip black hair of its natural oils, resulting in damaged, brittle hair that is prone to breakage.


Speaking from experience, I know exactly what it feels like to try to fit all my hair into a swim cap. I tried it once and ended up tossing the cap across the room because not only did the cap keep sliding off half my head, but the tightness of the material triggered an instant headache. So I swim capless and the hair maintenance afterwards is a nightmare. Lucky for me, I can choose to swim once a year. Olympic swimmers don’t have that luxury.


The idea that the cap doesn’t look “natural” also reinforces the colonial mentality of whiteness and Eurocentric features as the “norm” and the standard against which all things are measured. It excludes an entire category of people who dare to love their hair as it naturally grows, rather than suppress their crowns to fit archaic beliefs. It also signals that there are still spaces in which people of African descent just do not “belong.” And for a sport already lacking in diverse representation, the ruling risks further discouraging black athletes, particularly black women, from competing.


Frankly, I thought this news story was a joke when I first read it. Do bigger and better fitting swim caps give athletes an unfair advantage we don’t know about? Do they somehow have magical performance-enhancing properties that annihilate competition? If that’s the case, then ban away. But I highly doubt it. If anything, it puts black swimmers at a disadvantage since they have more weight on their heads so more of a drag in the water.


But black hair has been a site of resistance against racism and white envy for centuries.


Black hair made illegal

creole woman in red turban
"Creole in a red turban" by trudeau licensed under CC.

In 1786, Louisiana Governor Esteban Rodriquez Miró passed a law that required African and Creole women to cover their hair with headscarves in public in an attempt to downplay their beauty and symbolically lower their stature in society. The “Tignon Law” was intended to control black women’s physical appearance in public because they attracted the attentions of white men and therefore threatened the social status of white women. It was basically white envy enshrined in law.


But the legislation didn’t have the desired effect because rather than shrivel beneath a law intended to shame them, black women turned the law into a fashion statement that further accentuated their beauty.

african woman illustration
"African woman" by olga murillo on Flickr.

Rather than wear dull headscarves, they wore bright, colourful headwraps that they elaborately tied and adorned with beads and jewels and ribbons. Basically, they used their hair as a form of resistance and launched a full-on black girl magic offensive. Now, whether this was intentional activism or just an instinct to slay by DNA is besides the point.


To this day, the African tradition of wearing elaborate and colourful headwraps is ubiquitous in global black culture. And though the headscarves go by different names in different regions, the effect is universal : STUNNING.



Respect the CROWN


Fast forward to the 21st century and black hair is still struggling to assert its right to be respected and accepted in schools, work environments, sports competitions, and even the military. This has serious ramifications because it often comes down to an ultimatum between an individual’s identity/ cultural heritage and their professional/ social/ economic advancement. And for children, it’s especially detrimental because it often means missing school, suspensions or expulsions, bullying, social isolation, and low self-esteem.


The problem is so widespread that black activists came together in 2019 to create the CROWN Act; the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair” legislation to protect against race-based hair discrimination in education and employment. National CROWN day was celebrated on July 3rd.


gorgeous african woman afro illustration
"Afro Flower" by luciefly on Flickr.

Segregation in Swimming


Following the backlash around its Soul Cap ban, FINA announced earlier this month that it would review its ruling and consider how to be more inclusive, but make no mistake, the struggle for black hair autonomy continues.


And racist practices of the past continue to have a generational impact on the black population today. For instance, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, African-American kids drown at rates over seven times higher than white kids because a vast number don’t know how to swim. And according to Swim England, over 90% of black adults and 80% of black kids don’t know how to swim.


There could be several reasons for this. For one, it could be a result of the deeply rooted trauma of our African ancestors being trafficked across large bodies of water. And enslavers naturally wouldn’t have wanted their captives to learn how to swim (if they already didn’t know how) if it could offer a means of escape. Then up until the 1960s during the Jim Crow era in the U.S. and the Apartheid regime in South Africa, black people were denied access to public pools. When public spaces were forced to integrate, white folks abandoned the public pools, many of which were then drained or doused in acid.

So while white supremacist systems continue to obsess over how to control, confine, and appropriate black hair, I’ll be right here watching my glorious mane do its divine work: grow thick, strong, thrive, and continue to defy gravity.


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Thank you so much for reading. Hope you enjoyed this love letter of sorts to black hair. I'd love to know your thoughts so please do take a few seconds to like and comment and let me know if it was a good read or if it could've been improved in some way <3


All feedback welcome.


Much love and blessings,


M