“... if Black girls had long hair”

  • Hlonipha Mokoena WiSER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Keywords: Cheikh Anta Diop, black hair, “natural”, Model C schools, black modernity, hair story


In his book entitled The African origin of civilisation: myth or reality? (1974), the Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop makes the observation that, ‘The whole aspect of the world would be changed if Black girls had long hair’. I did not think about the full implication of this statement until a student in one of my classes asked why Diop could assert that the pharaohs of Egypt were black when in the images he knew of them, they did not have “Afros”. Thus began my search for images and histories of black hair. Never would I have imagined that this research would be relevant outside of my seminar course called “African civilisations”. When the students at the Pretoria High School for Girls ignited a conversation about hair and its regulation by schools in August 2016, my already prepared presentation was converted into a written lecture, and I attempted – through the use of archival images and video clips – to answer the seemingly simple question “what is  black hair?” I was puzzled by the problematic question of what kind of historical evidence hair is.

In this article, I consider the volatility of the subject of black hair. I begin with Diop’s counterfactual and consider the “unfinished” project of black modernity through the politics of hair and hairstyling. I end with the “hair story” as a new mode – enabled by YouTube, vlogging and other social media – through which young black women particularly, express their rejection of the conformity that is often implied in social and written regulations of their hair.