Friday, 12 April 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Issue of Black Women's Hair

Firstly, let it be known that I am a white female with blonde straight (ish) hair; it knows not whether to be curly or straight.  So this is a topic that I by no means know a huge amount about.  However, I am a huge fan of Chimamanda,which admittedly may allow for some bias, and I personally attended her talk on Americanah in Sheffield, in which I took notes (yes, I'm that sad and that big a fan!).  In what follows, is my view on what she has meant by her remarks such as black women's "hair is politicised" and I will endeavour to be as objective as I can.

A heated debate has broken out on Twitter regarding Adichie claiming that "African women with artificial hair suffer from low self esteem and an inferiority complex". Controversial indeed...if true.  However, having read and listened to the vast majority of interviews that have been conducted over the last few days, I am yet to find the primary source for this quote.

What I can speak confidently on, is the discussion on hair that took place in Sheffield last night which was a far cry from this outlandish remark.

A far more accurate quote that has been repeated is Adichie's comment that "hair is politicised" for black women.  This was expanded with the wonderful moderator questioning her on this and what she felt about stars such as Rihanna. Adichie spoke both humorously and seriously on the topic.  Her point was that maybe if someone like Rihanna could get rid of her "stupid, straight blonde wig" for just half an hour in her concert and show her natural hair that it could do much good: it would be a powerful role model and send a message that natural hair is okay. This was followed with her remarks that she could then replace her wig and then continue with the rest of the concert.

She also hinted at the power of the media to portray a particular image of beauty and that "straight, blonde" hair is what many girls are given to aspire to. This is certainly something I think all women can relate to, whatever your race or hair:  skin should be free of blemishes and you are fat if not a UK size 6. With hair that refuses to be either curly or straight, I have found myself straightening it over the last decade whereas in the 1980's it was all about scrunch drying with a diffuser as these were/are the acceptable way to appear.

Then  a shocking and serious point arose. Remember that Adichie lives in America; I often find myself shocked on attitudes to race in America. A member of the audience raised Michelle Obama and the fascination with her "bangs". She asked Adichie if she felt she herself had a larger role to play beyond writing about the issue and half in jest suggested she discuss the matter with Michelle Obama.  I was stunned to hear Adichie strongly express that it would not be possible for Barack Obama to be president if Michelle Obama allowed her hair to be natural.  Seriously? But sadly yes. Seriously. She went on to discuss her obsession with Michelle Obama and her fashion sense and how she follows her and pointed out how the children's hair has become straighter over time. She was deadly serious when she explained that she had no doubt that someone had "had a word" about the children's hair.

For some of us in the UK, this is shocking in the least.  However, it was affirmed a few minutes later by an American in the audience who spoke about how Michelle Obama had once had her hair sort of natural in a "relaxed, apologetic" kind of afro and there had been an absolute furuore about it. Yes seriously, Barack would not have got the votes if Michelle Obama had gone "natural". Hair matters.

What followed on from this was an even more shocking indictment of attitudes to African hair in America.  Adichie told the tale of how there had been an uproar when Michelle and Barack Obama had once punched fists on stage. 

The Obamas face each other and bump fists on stage. She wears a purple dress and he wears a dark suit. Several signs read "CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN" and several photographers take photos.

Many ridiculous reactions followed with Adichie mentioning "what are these weird black people up to?", "black panther" connotations etc.  In trying to ridicule and satirise the narrow mindedness of these reactions, the New York Times printed a cartoon of the Obamas as terrorists: 

As you can see, in Michelle Obama's case, they did this by giving her a gun and an afro! Shame on you New York Times.  And this is what Adichie is getting at: that currently, natural African hair is not acceptable and there needs to be a discussion.

The simple message is that there are places in this world where a black woman's hair is truly a political matter. If we return to Rihanna and the idea of a short amount of time with natural hair, Adichie's point is that there should be a "choice" available; a choice between having your hair a certain way because it is easier to look after or leaving it as nature intended because you are fed up of the chemicals burning your scalp, as in Adichie's case.

Adichie believes that it will be at least 100 years before a natural afro will be acceptable in the White House and I don't know about anyone else but this seems absurd.  Adichie has certainly achieved her aim of getting this topic discussed and let's hope it can influence attitudes.  A cynic would point out the media coverage it is gaining for her new novel, Americanah. However, I find it sad that sensationalised headlines or apparent quotes are overshadowing a much deeper issue that every human on the planet should be questioning. As Adichie says "there is no such thing as colour blind".  Race matters. But each race, and appearances of race, should be accepted.


As suspected, there was no such quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sadly there are still people misquoting her on Twitter.  A few hours after writing this, a response from Adichie appeared on 4th Estate Books website, setting the record straight.  You can read it here:'Of course I never said African women with Brazilian hair have low self esteem. That's absurd.' The article that was supposed to have this comment in can be found here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: 'My new novel is about love, race... and hair'

Oh, and my most exciting news of the year? 4th Estate Books tweeted me thanking me for this post and informing me that "Chimamanda enjoyed".  One very happy fan!


  1. But really, all this insertion of racial politics into a black woman's choice of hair is tiring and condescending to black women. I am a regular African woman and wear dreadlocks. Before that I used to chemically treat my hair to make it straight but most importantly manage-able. None of this any was motivated by any political considerations or pressures. My cousins in the village who are unexposed to western publications that reportedly glorify straight hair have been straightening their hair with home made hot combs as far as my earliest childhood memories go. Whether the world believes it or not, we are actually capable of making our own opinion on what is beautiful or not. That it may coincide with another population's definition of beauty is not something we should have to apologise for. Why is she glossing over the fact that while choosing straight hair, we also might choose purple nails, blue eye shadow or even colour the straight hair green? What racial brainwashing do we have to blame for the rest of the adornments?

  2. Thank you for your comment. It is great to hear other viewpoints.

    My interpretation of what she was saying was perhaps that there are places in the world whereby your choice of hairstyle does have an impact on the way in which someone is treated. She was not saying that there was anything wrong with straightening hair, just that you shouldn't have to do so to be able to succeed in life which I think is a valid point. Women have a tougher time achieving as it is and I for one think it is ludicrous that the way someone chooses to wear their hair adds to this. I don't think she was implying that it matters to everyone or that everyone's choices were influenced in that way but for some it is a consideration which should not be present.

    I am honestly sorry if you've found my post in anyway condescending to black women; that was far from my intention. In fact, Adichie herself points out that when anyone discusses race it often becomes filled with anger and closes the conversation that needs to be had. She is right in what she says about there being no such thing as "colour blindedness" and as a white woman, it can be a topic that is almost impossible for me to discuss without ensuing anger or in someway sounding condescending. However, I feel it is something that should be discussed, however difficult it may be.

    I do want to point out thought, that I have not remotely suggested that black women aren't capable of making their own decisions about beauty or that they have to apologise for it; to be honest I am dismayed that I'm having to even make that statement, the idea is simply ridiculous. In fact, I believe I admitted to having been stupid enough myself to being persuaded as to what should be defined as beautiful! But it does relate to the point that was being made: everyone should be able to choose to wear their hair, how they like, when they like and sadly that is not the case for everyone.

    Adichie has now responded to the inaccurate quote. I shall try and link it to here so you can see her personal response.