Connect with us


The wonder of hair




Combing through history, J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to get to the roots of the problem in considering the centrality of hair as protest, in light of the recent actions of the hair police of Pretoria Girls High.

Hair. Over the past few days, the recent battle over hair at Pretoria Girls High School has triggered this writer to consider memories about hair, and the strength of its symbolism throughout history. For virtually anyone conversant with “The Bible” – either as literature or religious scripture – one of the most vivid tales in the whole corpus is that of Samson and Delilah.

Samson was the legendary strong-man-warrior of the Israelites who fell in love (and lust) with Delilah, a Philistine beauty – in midst of a decades long conflict between the two peoples. Delilah is eventually cajoled by her people’s priests into luring Samson into revealing the secret of his strength, or, as “The Book of Judges” has it, “And Delilah said to Samson: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherewith thou mightest be bound to afflict thee.’” In due course, after he teases her with several false leads, he does tell her truthfully that it derives from his long, flowing long locks of hair; hair, he explains, that has not been cut since the day he was born.

In a biblical example of some kinky bondage, she ties him up, cuts his hair to subdue him, and thus his strength evaporates. With that torment, he gives one last effort and pulls down the Philistines’ temple walls, crushing himself (and lots of others) in the process.

Aside from religious implications about giving in to the temptations of dangerous foreigners, this story might even be read as an ancient warning about the wiles of barbers and beauticians. And this story was the inspiration for French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ great opera that includes a stunning aria of love, lust, guile, and temptation, Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (My heart opens to your voice). Listen to it sung by the incomparable Jessye Norman.

More broadly, besides long hair being an obvious symbol of religious piety and observance, right through to the present for many societies, scholars of ancient civilisations explain that hair has, all around the globe, frequently been an obvious demonstration of great strength and virility on the part of its bearer.

Perhaps this harks right back to biological explanations that, just as with other animals, a luxuriant plumage of hair demonstrated the health and vitality suitable for yet other important purposes.

And perhaps, too, given prehistoric hominins’ shedding of most of their body fur as far back as several million years ago, long hair could well have been a vivid example of what Charles Darwin first described as sexual selection for reproduction and evolution of the species.

But on a more personal basis, I also had an epiphany about hair as an important, symbolic statement and opposition to oppressing forces. Nearly 50 years ago when I had (rather involuntarily) entered the US Army, in our first day on the training base, we were marched to a base barber for our requisite, severe, military-style cuts. Coming directly into the army from a university campus of the early 1970s and all that entailed, I had secretly hoped to keep at least some of my hair and my dignity.

So, when the barber asked if I wanted one of those right-down-to-the-scalp cuts or a trim that at least left a little bit of hair (but no moustache), I immediately selected the latter, got my cut, and paid my $1.50. But as soon as we had returned to our barracks, the drill sergeant in charge of us young recruits marched anyone with even a wisp of hair left on their heads right back to that barber to finish the job – and with yet another $1.50 to be paid out.

And along with that second cut, we received firm lessons in institutional hierarchy and dominance, and one’s place right at the bottom of a society – all conveyed through the symbolic nature of a simple haircut.

Living in the United States in the 1960s, the power of hair as a sign of something deeply important was almost impossible to miss. The great rock musical of the late 1960s was, after all, simply named Hair. In essence, the show focused on the last night of freedom for a young man with long hair who was about to enter the military (similarly involuntarily) and his fixation with his own hair – and that of others, as well as the problematic relationship he has with authority figures, starting from his mother, over his hirsuteness. This show came to audiences just as long hair increasingly was becoming de rigueur for both black and white young people.

(Watch a the movie version of the title song, Hair.)

For most whites, their long hair made them look rather like a whole tribe of people who rather resembled those popular pictures of wild-eyed Old Testament prophets. Meanwhile, young black people increasingly embraced the shape of the “Afro” – where one’s long hair was teased out into a kind of large, spherical orb of hair.

Take a look, for example, at the picture of this writer as a young diplomat and his South African wife, back in 1977, after returning to the US from Johannesburg. Over the years, as we have come to wax nostalgic about an earlier age, we have come to call this image our Angela Davis/Jerry Rubin (the latter a key member of the “Chicago Seven” anti-Vietnam War defendants) moment in time.

But the Afro had been preceded for years by short-cropped “ ‘do’s” or the application of all kinds of chemical hair treatments to straighten hair or give it a more subtle, “sophisticated” wave. In fact, the first female African-American dollar millionaire, Madame CJ Walker, made her fortune through the selling of hair treatment chemicals, patented heated combs, and a chain of hair salons to help African-American women “relax” and reshape their tighter curls. Such products – in America and abroad – still remain popular with many women. (Curiously, a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, read by legions of high school students in the US, reverses the idea of long hair as liberating. In Bernice Bobs Her Hair, set during the Jazz Age, the supreme, subversive act of defiance is her cutting off of her long tresses – and those of her cousin – just for spite.)

But, by the 1960s, politically aware African-Americans (and fashion conscious ones as well) began to adopt a new style, the Afro. According to some scholars at least, its origins – at least in more modern times – may have been inspired by the popularity of a travelling circus group, The Circassian Beauties, in the US over a century ago.

These women were supposedly (white) slaves liberated from the Ottoman sultan’s harem in the 19th century. The Afro may have gained its initial, modest traction in the years after the end ofdread slavery in America but it was not a wide-scale fashion yet.

But then, in tandem with the civil rights revolution, the rise of black power ideological consciousness, a growing social and political militancy by blacks on college and university campuses, and even on heads of sympathetic but distinctly edgy characters in such films as Foxy Brown, the Afro began to take on a distinct political meaning and texture.

And as a style it travelled around the world and became popular with inhabitants of many African states as well. (Concurrently, braiding and all those other elaborate hair sculpting treatments more indigenously from Africa began to make real headway in America – as fashion statements or expressions of solidarity with Africa.) Our own children had their own moments with braids as well, although the pain after washing them and allowing them to dry rather quickly encouraged a return to other forms of hair treatments like dyeing their hair purple.

And so all this draws us to the current uproar at Pretoria Girls High School where the school’s rules appear to have been used to rein in individual expressions of a nascent Africanist political consciousness on the part of teenaged, black, female high school students.

The protest against those school rules about appearance, grooming, hairstyles and similar matters appears to have been sparked by the unwillingness of one student to dispense with – or severely rein in – a rather bountiful Afro, if the photos are to be believed.

Almost immediately, her protest sparked a broader anger over all those school rules originating back in an earlier time. Her protest soon became a cause célèbre on the part of many people across the country as well, quickly provoking an intervention by the provincial head of education, as well as, eventually, a long-overdue and increasingly anguished rethink about the school rules, many of which dated back to the apartheid era. And, of course, this protest may also represent a deeper rejection of some previously dominant cultural values that so many black South Africans still must contend with in their daily lives. Things are still to be evolving out of this initial anger.

Hair seems to have carried a rich symbolic meaning for people through the ages – especially those who have felt themselves oppressed – and it has often been the way people have wordlessly displayed their anger and rage at their antagonists or oppressors. But along the way, through all these experiences, one thing has puzzled me for decades in my journey around the globe. And that is: why do so many young Japanese now dye their hair a rich chestnut brown colour? Is this an act of rebellion, a shucking off of the order of things in a country where 99.9% of all people have naturally occurring black hair – or is it simply a youthful fashion statement and an effort to demonstrate a kind of “mass individuality” against the crowds of people who seem to epitomise uniformity? DM

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Copyright © 2022. The Post Newspaper. All Rights Reserved