Libidinal economies of Black hair:

Subverting the governance of strands, subjectivities and politics

  • Shirley Anne Tate Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds.
Keywords: Hair, libidinal economies, decolonial, anti-Black racism, affect, aesthetics


Beginning with an auto-ethnographic account of my experiences of hair, I draw on newspaper coverage of school exclusions and the banning of Black girls’ Afros and boys’ cornrows in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa. I do so in order to analyse the racialised ‘libidinal economy’ (Wilderson 2010) of Black natural hair as a transnational surfacing linking the African continent and its diaspora. In the twenty-first century, these hairstyles are objects of commodity capitalism and can adorn heads transracially. However, I contend that they remain troubling for schools when they become forms of surfacings for Black bodies. The symbolic, political, material and affective connections made between hair, “race”, and racism – that is, hair’s racialised libidinal economy – is the frame through which the analysis of contemporary readings of Black natural hair as “dangerous” and negatively affective in terms of fear, disgust, contempt and shame, is pursued. The examples cited show that Black natural hair is vulnerable to political, aesthetic, psychic, social and affective attack by the ideology, politics and practice of the white/whitened state as it operates through school policies. Thus, I contend that Black natural hair, as it surfaces the Black African descent body, is connected to anti-Black institutional racism. Reading “hair stories” as texts on surfacings illustrates the affective entanglements of an anti-Black world shown through attacks on Black natural hair’s “unruly” strands, textures and styles. Hair’s affective entanglements, normalising aesthetics and anti-Black institutional racism contained within school “rules of conduct” on “acceptable appearance”, drag colonial ideology on “race”, respectability and aesthetics into contemporary negro-phobia. However, Black natural hair as surfacing also signifies Black transnational affiliation in its (re)turn to twentieth-century Black anti-racist aesthetics within contemporary Black decolonial hair politics focused on “naturalness”. This focus illustrates that there is Black political, social and psychic vulnerability alongside agency, which refuses to be silenced within the relational life of Black natural hair as it comes up against white/whitened power.