African Hairstyles – The “Dreaded” Colonial Legacy

│By Nonkoliso Andiswa Tshiki, Gale Ambassador at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa│

My primary school had very strict rules regulating how the African students’ hair should look when we were at school. Hair extensions, for instance, were prohibited. Students were only allowed to have natural hair hairstyles which were deemed neat, such as cornrows. We were particularly prohibited from having dreadlocks; disobeying this rule resulted in expulsion. I am aware that many other school authorities in the rural areas in South Africa forced students to cut their hair so short throughout their schooling career they were effectively bald.

The History of Africa Module at the University of Johannesburg

The History of Africa module at the University of Johannesburg, where I am now studying, offers students the opportunity to expand their understanding and interpretation of the main topics and issues the African continent has historically faced. The module gave me the chance to explore numerous African history-based academic materials on platforms such as Gale Primary Sources. The study of the history of Africa is interdisciplinary, encompassing subjects from various fields such as Anthropology, Sociology, International Relations, Development Studies, Politics and Religious Studies.

As part of this module, our honours class had the thrilling opportunity to read a book authored by Professor Luise White, entitled Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. In this book, White uses urban vampire legends as primary sources to reconstruct a colonial African history. She explores multiple aspects such as biomedical care, religious practices, the division of labour, citizenship, censorship, women’s property ownership and rights, the labour force, diseases and wildlife – as experienced by Africans and Europeans in East and Central colonial Africa. For our assessment, we had to write an essay reflecting on our understanding of the book and White’s approach to the use of vampire tales in the study of the history of colonialism. Our lecturer also asked the class to consider how we, as scholars, should treat “evidence” of events that may not have occurred, but which people believe to have happened.

The Importance of Studying African history

The importance of studying African history is rooted in its ability to deepen our understanding of world history more broadly, and how it relates to current events in Africa. Furthermore, it provides students with the opportunity to develop an evaluative and analytical mind, acknowledge the variation of human practices and rationales, and comprehend how they impact on politics, economics, and society. As a result, history in the African context can increase awareness, openness and respect for differing points of view.

The History of African Hair

As part of my studies for this module, Gale Primary Sources allowed me to explore and read up about the many events and attitudes in colonial Africa that led to “dreadful” perceptions surrounding Black hair in Africa. In ancient Africa, hair was a significant symbolic tool which was utilised to communicate different messages and meanings about peoples’ social status, heritage, culture, religion and many other aspects of African societies.

One thing I quickly realised is that views and attitudes towards hair (and how they have changed) have been very different in different regions of Africa. The primary source below highlights a potential topic for analysis in this area – that women cutting their hair short could actually be an act of self-liberation and assertion of freedom, that women in North Africa were trying to communicate this by cutting their hair into a bobs. It might have symbolised that they were choosing to cut ties with culturally exploitive norms or gendered norms of femininity. This would be an interesting topic to study further in an essay!

Bhuttacharji, Haidri.
Bhuttacharji, Haidri. “Women of North Africa.” The Labour Woman, vol. 24, no. 6, June 1936, p. 87. Women’s Studies Archive, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/ZRRLHK829250308/WMNS?u=rau_itw&sid=bookmark-WMNS&xid=70576c49

I also found Gale OneFile: World History provides information that elaborates on the significant symbolism of hair in traditional African culture. In 2018, Adetutu Omotos presented a paper (available in Gale OneFile: World History) in the Journal of Pan African Studies which argued that hair was very important in ancient African civilizations. Hair represented one’s family history, social class, spirituality, tribe and marital status. Varied tribal groups used hair to show social hierarchy as early as the fifteenth-century. According to Mark Gordon, quoted in Omotos’ paper mentioned above, in ancient Africa “men of some tribes used to cut their hair only for the mourning for a death of a close relative which meant that a mourner’s spirit was desolated by the loss of a loved one. When they cut their hair… they had to dispose of it in a ceremonious way… they put their hair that was cut off in a river. Since they are a part of the earth they always put themselves back into the earth”. This article also provides interesting connections between past and present, including responses from a focus group discussion with selected African women which probed why they change their hairstyles, straightening their hair, and putting on wigs and weaves:

Omotoso, Sharon Adetutu.
Omotoso, Sharon Adetutu. “Gender and Hair Politics: An African Philosophical Analysis.” Journal of Pan African Studies,Gale OneFile: World History https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A572943744/PPWH?u=rau_itw&sid=bookmark-PPWH&xid=744033a2
 Images of the blog post author, Nonkoliso Tshiki, showcasing hairstyles – Tribal braids (on the left) and faux locs (on the right) – that were and still are popular among Africans worldwide. Images taken in 2018 by Nonkoliso Tshiki.
Images of the blog post author, Nonkoliso Tshiki, showcasing hairstyles – Tribal braids (on the left) and faux locs (on the right) – that were and still are popular among Africans worldwide. Images taken in 2018 by Nonkoliso Tshiki.

“Dreaded” African Hair

When the slave trade commenced in the fifteenth century, captured Africans were sometimes forced to shave their hair as a way to humiliate them because of how they tremendously valued their hair. There were claims that the colonial authorities would touch the Africans’ hair and say that their hair felt like pubic hair and that such hair was dirty and unprofessional. Thus, some Africans felt that the shaving of the African peoples’ hair was one of the many strategies that colonialists used to strip Africans of their identity and force them to forget their culture. Some missionary schools were believed to require African children to shave, and with time shaving in Africa became a culture where African children received heavy punishment in schools for not shaving their hair.

During the Mau Mau Rebellion – which occurred during the period of 1952 to 1960 as riot against colonial rule in Kenya and immensely contributed to Kenya’s independence – some African men and women were said to have rebelled by growing their hair, an act that was dreaded by the colonial authorities, to a point where anyone who had dreadlocks may have been attacked and even killed. As a result, some people now believe that the name “dreadlocks” originated from this rebellion by some African groups which colonists “dreaded”. This created a stigma around dreadlocks, meaning some African parents began to associate dreadlocks with criminal activities. To this day there are still some jobs and schools that do not enrol blacks with dreadlocks because “locs” are still regarded as being “dirty” and “inappropriate” for formal environments.Gale OneFile: World History provides sources that evaluate the perceived interpretations of dreadlocks, as seen in the screenshot below, which shows an article from the Journal of Pan African Studies.

 Botchway, De-Valera N. Y. M.
Botchway, De-Valera N. Y. M. “… The Hairs of Your Head Are All Numbered: Symbolisms of Hair and Dreadlocks in the Boboshanti Order of Rastafari.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 12, no. 8, 15 Dec. 2018, pp. 20+. Gale OneFile: World History https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A572943745/PPWH?u=rau_itw&sid=bookmark-PPWH&xid=d3c3101b

Attitudes Towards African Hair Perpetuate Imperialism

As a result of this history, Africans have for years been trained and informed to despise their hair because it differs from that of other ethnic groups. The message is frequently shared (overtly or covertly) that natural hairstyles are seen as ancient and unprofessional in the modern world, forcing women to straighten their hair to fit into European standards of beauty and professionalism. In her article “Visual Representations of Black Hair in Relaxer Advertisements,” Khulekani Madlel analysed the political and degrading elements embodied by visual media adverts about the unpleasant natural state of Black hair which were represented in a South African magazine, True Love1. Such media representations of black hair aimed to persuade black women to conform to using products that made their hair more “manageable” and “acceptable” in the modern world, highlighting the underlying racially discriminatory elements in South Africa and Africa at large. This has perpetuated double standards, cultural imperialism, and ignorance among many people in terms of understanding the history of hairstyles. I was able to learn a great deal about gendered and politicised perspectives of African hair in Africa from the source below, an article by Sharon Adetutu Omotoso from the Journal of Pan African Studies available in Gale OneFile: World History.

Omotoso, Sharon Adetutu.
Omotoso, Sharon Adetutu. “Human Hair: Intrigues and Complications.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 12, no. 8, 15 Dec. 2018, pp. 1+. Gale OneFile: World History https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A572943743/PPWH?u=rau_itw&sid=bookmark-PPWH&xid=b7944cca

“Don’t Touch My Crown, Don’t Touch My Pride”

In her song Don’t Touch My Hair, Solange Knowles declares “Don’t touch my crown, don’t touch my pride”. These lyrics draw upon and reiterate the perspective that African hair is extremely important to the identity and heritage of Blacks in Africa, and recognises that this has historically been abused, offering a strong rejection and stand against such abuse. As white colonial rule often involved dehumanising Africans, many within Africa felt that British colonists capitalised on the fact that hair held significant meaning in ancient Africa, and was highly valued by different African groups. Demolishing something that was of great importance to many within Africa led to the alienation and elimination of African cultures and values, significantly contributing to colonial ambitions to conquer and control.


If you enjoyed reading about the complex history of African hair and colonialism, you might like:

Blog post cover image citation: Image by Suad Kamardeen, available on Unsplash.com.

  1. K. Madlela. ‘Visual Representations of Black Hair in Relaxer Advertisements: The Extent to Which It Shapes Black Women’s Hair Preferences and Attitudes towards Hair Alteration’ Taylor & Francis Online, 1 (25 April 2018), 50.
Nonkoliso Andiswa Tshiki

About the Author

Nonkoliso Andiswa Tshiki is a Gale student ambassador and Historical Studies honours student at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She is passionate about the role of the media in the shaping of societal views and norms. Her work focuses on the representation of contraception in multiple languages via different media platforms during the 1960s to the 1970s in South Africa. Nonkoliso wants to pursue a medical law qualification one day. In her spare time, she reads fiction and her favourite books are from the Hlomu book series by Dudu Busani Dube which consist of Hlomu the Wife, Zandile the Resolute, Naledi: his Love, IQunga and Mess.