Natural Black Hair in "Americanah"

Cristen Conger

This passage in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's fantastic Americanah jumped out to me as a must-share addendum to our "Curly Hair Conundrums" podcast in which Caroline and I briefly discuss the historical and persistent racial discrimination directed toward black women's natural hair (more on that in a forthcoming podcast) and, later in the episode, how curly hair often is used as an on-screen visual metaphor for a female character's unkempt life.

This Americanah excerpt is from a blog post written by the novel's Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu titled "A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as a Race Metaphor":

...Ever notice makeover shows on TV, how the black woman has natural hair (coarse, coily, kinky, or curly) in the ugly "before" picture, and in the pretty "after" picture, somebody's taken a hot piece of metal and singed her hair straight? Some black women, AB and NAB, would rather run naked in the street than come out in public with their natural hair. Because, you see, it's not professional, sophisticated, whatever, it's just not damn normal. (Please, commentors, don't tell me it's the same as a white woman who doesn't color her hair.) When you DO have natural Negro hair, people think you "did" something to you hair. Actually, the folk with the Afros and dreads are the ones who haven't "done" anything to their hair. You should be asking Beyonce what she's done. (We all love Bey but how about she show us, just once, what her hair looks like when it grows from her scalp?)... Imagine if Michelle Obama got tired of all the heat and decided to go natural and appeared on TV with lots of woolly hair, or tight spirally curls. (There is no know what her texture would be. It is not unusual for a black woman to have three different textures on her head.) She would totally rock but poor Obama would certainly lose the independent vote, even the undecided Democrat vote.

To anyone who ever quips "it's just hair!" to downplay female concerns over the stuff that grows on the tops of our heads: Hair, particularly for women and arguably even more particularly for women of color, rarely ever is just hair.

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