In the city of Praia, we are greeted by women in the streets who carry coolers, bottles of water, and bowls of fruit that could weigh up to 70% of their body weight on their heads. Underneath these items lie a round traditional cloth that lie ontop of their hair. These women wear their natural curly hair, long waist-length braids, or headscarves while they navigate the city with large containers on their heads to attempt to sell fruits and vegetables to the locals. Other women and young girls wear their hair in a similar fashion while they go about their daily lives in Cape Verde.
The authenticity of black beauty has been diminished over time due to colonization and the overwhelming push-back of non-Eurocentric features. Perhaps the most pressing attribute of blackness that is under surveillance is hair. Hair discrimination in schools and the workplace is both a present an ongoing issue in the states. The policing of black hair makes the expression of black hair both personal and political. A quick Google search of “unprofessional hair” shows thousands of images of black women with their hair in its natural state. This is due to the standards of whiteness and the strategic dehumanization of blackness as many black people are ridiculed worldwide for the very hair that grows out of their head.
In the schools that I attended before Duke, braids (a popular hairstyle among black girls) were considered obnoxious and were heavily monitored by Administration. Such hairstyles allegedly violate the Administration’s Handbook of terms of style as students are “expected to be clean and neat in their personal appearance with hair clean and neatly combed. Only normal hair colors, hair lengths, and reasonable styles, considered neither a distraction nor inappropriate by the Administration, are acceptable.” This often excludes most styles of braids, braids that are longer than mid-back length, and braids of any color except for black. The hair length of boys was “not to extend below the top of a traditional collared shirt, not below the eyebrow in front, and worn in a type that is not any way extreme”. These rules eliminate any possibility for boys to have long curly hair, braids, dreadlocks, or flourishing afros.
There are hundreds of instances of hair discrimination that have gone viral- both in the United States and abroad. As my high school was 98% white, I knew that it would be easier for students of color to receive backlash for their hair. I wondered how conversations about hair were structured in Cape Verde, where people are taught, governed, and surrounded by people who look like them.
Here in Cape Verde, I see natural hairstyles flourishing. Women young and old are seen wearing their hair in slicked-back buns, puffs, or in a pulled-back afro that shows off each of their curls. Little girls run around with their hair in neat braids with the sounds of colorful beads rattling behind their every step. I have also seen a few girls wear their hair in braids while I was here, but it’s not nearly as common as it is in the states.
Most black girls in America flock to braids as a means of protective styling to maintain their natural hair. After speaking with a student that I work with at UNICV Kids, I got to learn more about the process of hair braiding in Cape Verde. My colleague expressed that hair braiders are easy to come by, but many people do not want to sit and get their hair braided for hours. When I inquired more about the price of hair braiding in Cape Verde, she carried on saying that it typically costs $1.500 escudos, or $15 US dollars. I was shocked to hear that roughly 8+ hours of intricate braiding labor only costs about $15 dollars when in the states, the absolute cheapest it will be in the US is around $85, (when it’s usually $100-$200 dollars) and that’s if someone is doing you a favor. I’ve also seen a handful of women with relaxed or intensely heat-damaged hair, but they were older adults. This gives an indication that a natural-hair movement has likely taken place in Cape Verde and allows me to question the current standing hair politics of the country.
Growing up in the states, it was common to see girls as young as four years old sit for hours while the relaxer took over their natural kinky and curly hair to make it more “manageable”. The relaxer was invented at the turn of the 19th century where strong chemical formulas work to unravel the natural spiral of curls and turn them into straight strands.
Often referred to as the “creamy crack”, the relaxer had generations of black women held subject to the incessant demands of uptake and daily maintenance. This was so that their curly roots matched the sleek, straight patterns of the rest of their hair. Though modern claims of the function of relaxer have shifted to say the purpose is to make black hair more manageable, its original intention was to help black men and women assimilate to whiteness by altering the natural appearance of their hair. Some black people strayed from the relaxer in the 60’s and 70’s with the rise of the Black Power movement and the afro, but many stayed loyal to the relaxer. The modern natural hair movement originated in the early 2000s but took off in black communities as early as 2015. With this, the growing desire to be natural is popular among younger generations, but older women are more likely to stay true to the relaxer.
I am curious to know more of the history of natural hair in Cape Verde. Was there pressure to use the relaxer in Cape Verde because the properties claimed that hair would be easier to manage, or did marketing sell the appeal of straight hair? Was there the same pressure to straighten or relax the hair in Cape Verde so that it may appear more “professional” or has natural hair always been embraced and accepted? Do braids receive the same backlash as they do in the states in the workplace, or do sleek buns dominate in professionalism? This information is hard to come by casually, but I will continue to ask my colleagues in Cape Verde about conversations of natural hair in order to get an idea of the rich history of the country.