By Barbara Gloudon
Last weekend at the Miss Universe beauty pageant held in the USA, an unmistakably black girl with black people hair took home the title. Zozibini Tunzi, the ebony-skinned beauty from South Africa, stunned pageant viewers in many ways. In a sea of flowing tresses, she stood with her short, nappy afro and claimed the crown.
“What’s the big deal?” a friend asked. “It’s just another cattle show.”
My friend, the cynic, went further: “Nowadays, when surgeons cut, carve, plump, and reshape human bodies into figures that defy gravity and logic. What kind of beauty are they judging anyway? Perhaps the body shapers should get a crown too!”
But for some people who pay attention to these competitions, this new queen brings something different.
In the media, Tunzi is quoted as saying, “I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful.”
While there have been occasions when dark skinned ladies have grabbed the top spot in Miss Universe and Miss World, they have generally had “tall hair” to ease the sensibilities of the Eurocentric judges and fans.
As black people, we’ve had a complicated relationship with hair. Millions are spent on our hair. Lotions and potions and added strands and all manner of things are applied to head top and head back every day across the world.
This is not just a woman thing, either. Men spend thousands on hair plugs and at barbershops too. Fashion locks smoothly groomed and heading towards the tailbone and corn rows with intricate twists and turns can be found on male and female heads nowadays.
Even as this focus on follicles becomes more commonplace, it still causes a stir in some quarters. Reports still come in about employers who insist their workers maintain a certain look which they claim to be more appropriate for the work world.
Translation: No more than an inch high for men and for the women — creme it, or weave it. I come from a far back time when white-skinned Jamaicans or very-pale brownings were at the service counter. The closer to European standards of appearance the “better”.
“Bald head, picky head need not apply/ We nuh waan nuh ole naygah, no Rastafari,” said the song, even though back in the ‘60s and ‘70s ‘Black Power’ gravity-defying afros and dreadlocks were carrying the swing.
Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of the natural hair trend, and schools and workplaces have been challenged to consider how to deal with black people hair.
Some have had to be forced by public pressure or court order to ease up on the Eurocentric views of hair care. There is still a long way to go before we accept ourselves.
This brings us to the Miss Universe Jamaica costume debate. Our young Jamaican queen was sent out to represent the nation in a costume which was an ode to Annie Palmer and the Rose Hall Great House.
Jamaican social media and other chat-bout spaces lit up with questions about the relevance or appropriateness of using Annie Palmer as the inspiration for the white, ruffled, feathered, and bejewelled costume. History is what it is. We cannot hide from the uncomfortable facts of our past, but how we choose to view these elements is what we have control over now.
Back in time, when I was also wearing an afro, I took on the Annie Palmer story in the national pantomime, The Witch. As we often do in Jamaica, we tek bad sinting mek laugh, and the power in the storyline was given to the “slaves” and they showed the “white witch of Rose Hall” how tings really go!
I took artistic licence with a story that was not at all pleasant. There was no hiding from the horrors of slavery and the challenges our ancestors fought against to eventually claim their freedom. It wasn’t easy to weave this history into a production that could be enjoyed by the pantomime going audience.
I suppose everybody has the right to interpret things as they wish. I’ve heard the complaints about the Rum Tour which bypasses the roots of sugar and “unpaid labour” in Jamaica. Shhh, don’t say the “S” word for the tourists to hear.
They’re here to enjoy sea, sand, and such-the-like. I wonder if the estate owners think the tourists don’t know or have a vague idea that something not so sweet went on in the Caribbean for over 300 years?
History is not for the faint-hearted. If you stop to think about it, this week will be part of history that our children will have to face, when headlines counted quadruple murder spree in Kitson Town, the National Road Safety Council pointed out that we’ve killed more than 400 on the roads, and a life sentence was passed on animals who beheaded a mother and daughter because the don told them to. I don’t know why we continue to create this kind of history.
As we come to the season of love and joy that is Christmas, and we prepare to end the decade, maybe we will make the change and create a better history for the next generations. (Jamaica Observer)