Hair in Americanah

Last year I took a course specifically on Antebellum history and the “Old South.” A  section of this course was based on the styling and empowerment of hair involved with African American slaves and the power with which it held in revolting against slavery.  A shortened version of this would be to say that while slaves were unable to really express themselves openly one of the most prominent ways for female slaves to carve out some scope of identity was their hair.  In the loss of cultural identity through lack of names or the replacement of names rather, hair became a focus point for power and solidarity amongst slaves in a world where getting any form of power was incredibly difficult.

With this in mind I think that Americanah plays with the ideas of hair and the power that it holds in both racial identity and social status.  The novel itself does a wonderful job of starting with hair being the catalyst for movement with which to get the story going.  It literally puts us on a train that moves us out of the world of the upper class white Princeton, to Trenton, a location where a significant portion of the population is black and the predominant social class is lower so that our main character, Ifemelu, can have her hair done properly.  We then move into the past so that we see Ifemelu’s mother’s hair getting cut off as her identity changes and she moves to Christianity, or a form of it at least.  Later in the novel we see both the fact that she has to unbraid her hair to get work in America and that her best friend has blonde highlights.  Eventually she forms the website to embrace African hair and moves away from the ideals that American civilization has put upon her.  At one point the character Curt is astonished by the amount of pain that Ifemelu must go through in order to actually straighten her hair but Ifemelu doesn’t even really think about it anymore and it seems that his reaction is more eye opening than being burned and blistered.  The fact that eventually we discuss Michelle Obama’s hair and that it doesn’t actually look that way naturally along with the eventual assumptions that anytime you visit an African hairdresser you’d like to get your hair relaxed we see that this issue is ostensibly never-ending.  It seems that the entire novel could really be and is moved around the idea of hair and it would be an interesting thing to see the entire novel as solely blog posts on hair and no background on Ifemelu at all.

I’m curious to see if there are other novels or works out there with very similar aesthetic appeals and if there are counters to these that focus on things specifically besides the issues that can be seen.  Victoria had mentioned the novel White Teeth as having an example of identity with hair.  And Chalice had actually mentioned a documentary by Chris Rock titled “Good Hair,” which talks about black hair ( I haven’t watched this yet but here’s a link ).  If people have some suggestions here I would greatly appreciate it for my own archive of books.

The more our group discussed these problems, the more I wondered when we crossed the line that caused self-identity to become a commodity.


~Big thank you to my group for our discussion Tuesday as it helped me solidify some of my ideas with this work.~

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