Misguided Movement: The Neoliberal Move Toward Natural Hair Part 1 of 3

Published by: Zari Sundiata

The Black Panther party was involved in a serious struggle for freedom from state terror and police brutality against our communities. These sisters protest addressing Huey Newton’s incarceration represent a true movement for self-determination, not individualistic self-expression.

We are a world people, a potentially powerful people without power and we need to know why. We have been a natural attraction for other people. That was the basis of the crisis in Africa 3000 years ago. This is the basis of the crisis in the African world right now.

—John Henrik Clarke1

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For African2 women, the move to reclaim our African heritage by wearing our hair “natural” was rooted in a serious effort toward African independence. The movement during this political era was spurred by the independence struggles in the African world against colonialism on the continent and internal colonialism in the Americas. To be unaltered chemically was an outward manifestation of a politic and a movement whereby the primary goal was a genuine structural change in the lives of African people worldwide, not merely a personal choice about one’s appearance. With the intense struggles of the aforementioned period currently on ebb, it is becoming more pervasive to embrace African hair texture within the context of the neoliberal tenets of consumerism, power through personal choice, and elite ideals of beauty (i.e. a bougie (bourgeois) embrace of “Blackness”). An economically privileged sector of African women have access to a who’s-who of “natural” vloggers in Ebony magazine, high end “natural hair” salons, decadent “natural” beauty pageants and conferences, “natural hair” products in Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, Macy’s and Walgreens, features on the Tyra Banks show, Oprah, and other talk shows. Let us not forget the highly publicized, documentary film produced by Chris Rock, Good Hair; a movie that was centered on African women’s pathology as typical of any attempt at addressing colonial legacies in popular culture.

Similar to the cultural cooptation of Hip Hop, Jazz, the Blues, and all other cultural expressions of African people, the benefit of this development is being realized by the multi-billion dollar beauty industry which has no interest in the social and economic development of African women.  Unfortunately, the turn to bring the “natural hair movement” into the policies of neoliberalism, have led African women to also embrace the common idea that we need to authenticate ourselves through consumerism.

The “new age” manifestation of “natural hair” is completely devoid of any political organizing for Pan-African liberation. This so-called “movement” allows a privileged few to participate in the so-called “Diva” culture where they operate as self-interested, beyond black, imitation Barbie dolls with African hair texture. Many of these women wholeheartedly declare that “we have arrived!” Nevertheless, with the mass incarceration of African people all over the world, and African women’s incarceration rising, these declarations of “arriving” are reminiscent of the common sentiments expressed with the election of Barack Obama. The politic of further inclusion in the empire is a logical extension of the civil rights movement to integrate and be given equal rights within a system that is dominated by the ideals of personal ascension through assimilation.

So what is neoliberalism and why does it pose such a social and economic crisis in the world? In economist David Harvey’s book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, he provides a concise definition that provides a clear framework for understanding neoliberalism:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defense, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit.3

colonialismIn examining the historical uses of the words private property rights, free markets, and free trade we can better understand how these ideals favor a small, white, economic elite who are the ultimate benefactors of all industries. The initial stages of European colonization/slavery served as a fundamental basis for what Karl Marx describes as, primitive accumulation. 4 In essence, the concept of primitive accumulation is the process whereby early merchants gained the initial capital to start capitalist enterprise. In other words, how did people gain the resources to start production and foster its constant renewal? The start of this process was by colonizing the world through theft, slavery, and the general barbarity of dehumanizing most of the world’s population. As a consequence of Africans being the primary source of enslaved labor, and an object of capital, there is a built-in element of inequality that would render our individual efforts to enter the free market and engage in free trade underdeveloped, and in many instances ineffective. To put it simple, the white folks had a head start off our backs that cannot be reversed in a system that has cosmetic changes through neoliberalism (i.e. Black CEOs and entrepreneurs) but continues to operate on the same basic theory.

  1. John Henrik Clarke, Africans at the Crossroads: African World Revolution (Trenton: African World Press Inc., 1996), 401.
  2. We do not acknowledge the borders which separate African people in the world into nationalities that Europeans created (i.e. African-American, Afro-Brazilian, Kenyan, South African, etc.)  Our use of the word Africans refers to origins, for a more detailed definition see footnote 2 in our article “Decolonize This? Properly Defining Settlers Part 1 of 2”.
  3. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.
  4. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992), 873-75, 915.