Sat | Apr 4, 2020

Bert Samuels | Hair attack hare-brained

Published:Saturday | January 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

"Just be yourself" is what the parents of many children say in an effort to keep them grounded. Unfortunately, the reality for African-Jamaican children does not permit them to be themselves.

They live in a country where, to be accepted, they need to 'do something to their hair', or, I guess in some communities, to 'do something about the blackness of their skin', hence the prevalence of the bleaching we are witnessing today.

In Jamaica, both men and women invest hugely in processing their skin and hair for acceptance. I recall that two weeks before our Davina Bennett was on her way to Las Vegas for the Miss Universe competition, a Jamaican 'browning' and friend of mine asked, "Where she a go wid her kaya head?" and "How dem a go rest the crown pon it?" For young readers, 'kaya' refers to the straw-like fibre taken from coconut husks (coir).

This contradiction in societal values looms large in Jamaica. Our Pulse models, sought after on the international stage, are bringing great glory to Jamaica. They invariably are natural-haired and very dark-skinned Jamaican women.

Rastafari is a huge part of Brand Jamaica, making a direct contribution to the country's international appeal, regarding our language and culture. On the other hand, a young man looking like Bob Marley would have difficulty registering many private schools here, along with a few remaining government-aided schools. Until 2003, a Rastafarian who was sentenced to imprisonment in Jamaica had his locks cut upon entry to our prisons. Today, many judges (female) wear their hair in dreadlocks.




The issue of grooming was alluded to in a recent Gleaner article titled 'Afro in school up for debate - Reid'. Education Minister Ruel Reid asked if "she (Davina Bennett) would have been banned from attending school if that were her hairstyle", referring to her Afro. The minister is also reported as saying that he intends to engage citizens as he seeks to make policy regarding grooming in schools. I welcome this approach and think the new policy should be guided by:

- Our Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, or place of origin.

- The fact that even private schools have a duty to uphold the constitutional rights of our students.

- The prohibition of school administrations telling black children to 'do something' to their natural hair.

- The acceptance and recognition of Rastafarian children's admission to schools.

We must begin to accept that what constitutes grooming for one hair type will not suffice for others. African people with lengthy hair can style it northward, while other races flow southward. Who are we to deem the southerners acceptable but the northerners untidy, and hence unacceptable? African people's hair grow in coils; the hair of others grow in a straight direction. It is as discriminatory to ask the coil-haired to straighten, as it would be to ask the straight-haired to coil!

The self-hate that is deeply rooted in our concept of beauty and acceptance in Jamaica needs urgent attention from psychologists. What is painful is that we live in a country where the majority of us feel that we need to so something to correct our natural selves because to be ourselves is to be ugly, and to look like races other than ourselves is to become acceptable. I end with a quote of encouragement from Bob in his song, Rasta Man Live Up, for all those who have been marginalised by our institutionalised racism, "Grow your dreadlocks. Don't be afraid of the wolf-pack!"

- Bert Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to and