Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Meaning of Black Hair: Chris Rock, IMF Restructuring and Curly Kits


I notice Chris Rock (such a bummer that the You Tube of him on Leno from a previous post was pulled--trust me it was hilarious)is releasing a documentary entitled "Good Hair" exploring the meanings and issues associated with...well..."black hair". I didn't have to go very far to read lots of stories and reviews of it. Salon has three stories, specifically, on the documentary and ancillary links that pull up stories on Michelle Obama's hair and Tyra Banks' weaves. I haven't done a full Google on it but I was playing a little a game with myself betting that if it hasn't happened already, Stuff White People Love, will have a reference soon to black hair. If Salon is so obsessed with the issue isn't that a safe bet?

If you check out the commentary added to my last post you will find an interesting discussion about the ways that anthropologists walk the thin line of "relevance". I suppose the consensus is that we all use our cultural dialogues to begin the discussions but, in the end, we all want to move beyond to achieve the ultimate "relevance". I want to thank Barbara Miller for commenting and inviting us all to use the resources which support her textbook. Here is a link to her blog, Anthropology Works. It looks awesome.

So, reading about the Chris Rock documentary was fascinating in and of itself but it was more fascinating for me because it took me back to my original fieldwork days. I think I have mentioned before that I was in Tanzania during its initial IMF restructuring. I arrived on a pre-fieldwork 3 month visit in 1985 and then returned a few months later for a full year. During that time the deal was struck and the currency devaluation, government jobs layoffs, and deregulation of the economy slowly unfolded. I say slowly maybe because of the way I perceived it. I saw small signs of it before I left Dar es Salaam and headed up country and each time I returned to Dar I would see specific and dramatic changes. I remember standing on the street in shock staring at the bars of Kenyan Cadbury's chocolate spread out on a street vendors mat. This was a country I had come to know as lacking petrol, bread (no wheat flour)...oh heck, why bother to try to list. The country had nothing. I had to boil all my water and filter it because there was no bottled water at that time. At one time, surviving as an anthropologist was awkward beyond belief trying to figure the ethics of relying on a black market currency and then under currency de-regulation the constant re-assessment of the value of my grant clashing in my head with the local perspective of value that was taking over my daily thoughts--it was all too much disconnect.

But that was all terribly selfish reflection because in the midst of this the Tanzanian people were struggling with their new world. The borders were fully open and the markets de-regulated. Consumer goods were now available (even if few could ever afford them). And Tanzanians at all educational and class levels were debating the changes and the debates centered around "black hair", specifically "curly kits": those packages of chemicals and curlers which gave one the Billy Dee Williams-Jheri-Curl-kitted-look. Tanzanians at that time called them "curly kits" and they were the one object everyone wanted and everyone hated everyone else for wanting.

I suppose every anthropologist has stories about the things they were asked to obtain from the power of their whiteness, their otherness, their wealth and power; that thing that in the closed world of our grad student minds we forgot we had until thrust into the new role of connected outsider. They have a convenient label for it in Tanzania: mzungu, the Kiswahili word for "outsider". Literally? People who go around and around aimlessly. Nuff said. One of the first personal (not shouted out) requests I got was from the wife of one of my then-husband's contacts in Dodoma. She pulled me aside and asked me for birth control and a curly kit. (For those of you interested in the birth control issue. Tanzania, at that time, had only Soviet birth control pills available. The great ole' USA wouldn't supply anything other than the wing an a prayer rhythm method. It took HIV/AIDS to get the condoms in. Don't get me started on those policies and laws. Bastards.)

Next thing I knew the letters to the editor sections of the one English language and the two (that I recall) Kiswahili papers were full of righteous indignation about the issue. I devoured the letters, struggling valiantly with Swahili in its real--non-classroom--version. The debate was early Chris Rock. People warned of the dangers of losing natural African beauty (I always think of the late, great Miriam Makeba here). The arguments quickly moved into condemnation of a system which allowed scarce hard currency to be wasted pandering to individual vanity. The country needed so much. A generation of people raised in the beliefs of pulling together for the common good and then experiencing the disillusionment of its failure can have some powerfully interesting discussions about free market economics and choice. By the time I left, I saw a few glistening curly heads in Dar but never encountered one up country. Whatever politics and sense of identity might have been associated with sporting the Billy Dee look could be afforded by too few to count. But it made for a hell of a paper debate while it lasted.

BTW, you are damn right I walked away from that Fruit and Nut Bar in a wave of sanctimony. Then turned right around, came back, paid several dollars for it, devoured it on the spot in a non-Tanzanian wave of gluttony. I can't, honestly, say that it tasted all that good having been without for months. And, no, living in my own glass house, I don't dare toss a stone at those wanting perfectly curly, perfectly shiny hair. But Tanzania does need a lot more than that.

1 comment:

Judy Jacob said...

I have been following your blog for sometime... though this is my first comment here.

Thought would drop by and send you this site for your opinion before I start using it with my class.