Tangled Roots

My relationship with my hair has always been problematic. A thin line between love and loathe, drastically influenced by circumstances within my surroundings that in various ways compelled me to conform to “traditional” beauty standards while relegating my own to a flawed status.

I was born and raised in a small district in St. Elizabeth. While I was constantly surrounded by elements of my culture that reinforced my identity as an Afro-Jamaican woman, I was often faced with many elements that challenged it as well. In an independent Jamaica, the foul stench of colonialism still lingers. The impacts of this revealing itself in the ways many Jamaicans of African descent regard their beauty—that has long been contested by European standards. This gives way to colourism—where Jamaicans of lighter skin complexions are often afforded greater privileges influencing the widespread practice of skin bleaching among the darker-skinned population. Ultimately this affects the way most Jamaicans associate themselves with their physical African traits.

For me, my hair was always seen as a part of my oppression.

I remember the very first time my hair was chemically straightened. I was nine and only in the 4th grade. My mom who had enough of the struggle required to grasp my thick kinky curls into three pigtails every morning for school—breaking a couple combs and hair-clips in the process—made the decision to “smoothen” my hair to make it “more manageable”.

“Yuh hair did suh pretty and nice when yuh did a baby, mi nuh know how it get suh picky picky,” she  would bellow every morning—referring to the soft curly locs I had as a baby which as I grew older transformed into a thick, coarse wool-like head of hair. My mom dipped into the box of Just for Me Relaxer Kit, retrieving the chemical straightener she would apply to each section of my hair she had parted with a big plastic comb. I remember the first burns as the chemical penetrated my scalp and the silky, flat and lifeless tresses that were the end result.

At the time, I hated it. I hated that my hair was no longer able to hold afro puffs and bantu knots. I hated that the only beauty that was associated with my hair came from its taming. After a few months of putting up with my reluctance to get regular 'touch ups', my mother gave in and agreed to have me grow the chemical out and have my hair return to its natural state. I couldn't be any happier. At this time we could call this youthful innocence as I was not yet impacted by the society surrounding me that dictated what 'good' or 'beautiful' hair was.

Then came high school and all that hope gradually diminished. My seven years spent at Hampton School ignited a series of transitions influencing the way I felt about my hair and my identity.

Kabrena Robinson

Hampton School is one of those institutions in Jamaica established during Jamaica’s British colonial rule. This school in particular, was established from the trust fund of Robert Hugh Munro—who was a free man of colour in the 1700s that instructed his nephew in his will to set up a school in the parish of St Elizabeth for underprivileged children.

Today the school remains on land that was once a British owned estate, with the same colonial-style buildings that ironically once schooled mostly children of white, privileged, Jamaicans. While the faces of many Black children like myself fill its classrooms today, the school in many aspects carries on long-standing traditions that heavily perpetrate its colonial past.

The rules that existed both written and unwritten aimed to “refine” our rough-spoken Jamaican Patwa. “Talk like a lady! Only standard English, please!”, the headmistress and teachers would regularly chant. Then there were rules surrounding hairstyles. “No single plaits, puffs, afros or twists allowed,” the rules read—a clear indication that the styles our mothers would once adorn our beautiful natural hair with would no longer cut it. The only way to get around this rule was by way of conformity. So there it was as we knew it, an unwritten rule when entering Hampton was to just have your hair chemically straightened to make it easier to adhere to the rules and not be singled out. So like everyone else, I obliged unwillingly, once more.

While in high school, as I battled through various stages of puberty, the glorified view of my natural hair that I once held was replaced by my need to fit in. I often compared myself to girls in my class who had lighter skin and longer, silkier hair—all of which afforded them special privileges and attention from teachers, students and the opposite sex. I wanted nothing to do with my natural hair and made sure of it by getting it straightened as soon as any natural growth would sprout from my roots. For me, the closer I was to my natural hair, the less I deemed my beauty as valid. This went on for six years.

In my seventh and last year of high school, something happened that changed my entire perspective. I began to take a keen interest in reggae—roots reggae in particular. Around that time, the Reggae Revival movement—which consisted of a group of young Jamaican artists aiming to repopularize the genre, was in full effect. I began listening to a variety of music from Luciano to Kabaka Pyramid, The Marleys, and Chronixx—all bearing messages that amplified the importance of Black nationalism. I would read words from Marcus Garvey and Leonard Howell. Through these powerful influencers, I acquired knowledge on the Rastafari movement. The more I learnt, the more I developed a sense of Black pride, the more my kinks re-appeared, unaware of the fact that I had turned a blind eye to fitting into the normalized standard that my school and the rest of the society around me upheld.

I then made the decision to loc my hair and became more in touch with the principles of the Rastafari movement, which in every sense provided an escape from the colonial conditioning that I had been accustomed to all my life living in Jamaica. My locs were an important part of the transition being an essential component of Rastafari. The hairstyle which originated in eastern Africa was worn by warriors in Kenya and people of ancient Kemet and Nubia. What it symbolizes to Rastas in Jamaica is a defiance of Eurocentric and colonial influence on people of African descent. This resonated heavily with me.

Many were skeptical of this new found interest that I had acquired which was not surprising given the negative stigmas about Rastas that still exist in Jamaican society. Rastafari remains as a separate community within Jamaica—with a deep-rooted history of being chastised, discriminated against and persecuted at the hands of the Jamaican government and people for their rebellion against colonial ideologies and religion, greatly reflected in the country's social, economic and political structure.

This embodied the ongoing struggle I had experienced throughout my entire life with accepting the natural hair on my head as part of myself and my heritage and how society around me attempted to tame and suppress it. It is a struggle that many Black women face, where our natural beauty is regularly put on trial for not meeting the standardized worldview of what is considered beautiful.

What was most important about this journey was rediscovering the importance and power of choice. By unlearning these preconceived beauty ideals and the internalized racism instilled by Eurocentric societies, I was able to retract full authority over what is deemed as beautiful for myself.

This goes way beyond sporting a natural head of hair; it is about having agency over my blackness. I believe this is essential for all black women whether they choose to go natural or use weaves or chemical straighteners to style their hair. It is about freedom of self expression and choice.

It took me a while to reach a stage of growth where my hair is no longer a burden but a part of my celebration. For me, it was a step towards rediscovering my identity as an Afro-Jamaican woman. Now my hair is much more than strands of locs on top of my head, it bears a story, a journey. It is now an extension of myself, my culture and my people.

My hair represents the longing for a physical closeness with my 'Africanness'. My hair is a symbol of growth and resistance. My hair is a celebration of independence. My hair is me, an Afro- Jamaican woman, personified.