The following is the final instalment in Dr Claudius Fergus’ three part series on African textured hair: a historical, cultural and legislative perspective:
Unlike what obtains in many Caribbean Commonwealth states, Trinidad and Tobago’s Education Act does not define responsibilities of students or speak to the obligations of principals toward students. However, these elements are clearly spelled out in the National School Code of Conduct (NSCC).
Interestingly, the illustrations in the NSCC have an implicit, albeit positive, African bias: the three uppermost photographs portray mainly students and teachers of distinct African ethnicity, many of them sporting braids and corn rows.
The first in-text photo shows an African-/mixed-race student with straightened, ‘relaxed’ hair. The second in-text photo features a student with a distinct ‘dougla’ or Warao (or other indigenous) hairstyle, hair extending beyond the shoulders. Despite the prominent repetition of hair motifs in all photos, the Code is silent on hairstyles.
Item 3 of the ‘Rights of the Child’ affirms that the child has ‘the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, race, origin, colour, religion or sex’. It should not be assumed that the failure to include hair in the list of rights means that the authors of the Code did not consider hairstyle to be a natural, human or legal right. Indeed, the Code admits that the 15 rights mentioned are not exhaustive.
Accordingly, it is only necessary for the Ministry of Education to insert ‘hair texture’ and ‘hair styles’ after ‘race’ in order to afford the African child equal protection as mandated under the Constitution and elaborated in the EOA.
In regulating ‘Standards of Behaviour’, under the subheading ‘Dress and Grooming’, the student is warned that ‘failure to wear the prescribed uniforms and to be appropriately groomed as set out by the individual school rules is a violation of the National School Code of Conduct’ (emphasis added).
Cranial hair is intrinsic to grooming. But only students with African-textured hair have been consistently compelled—in order to be ‘appropriately groomed’—to adopt practices alien to their ancestral cultures. This absurdity must end now.
Make no mistake, every hairstyle is not appropriate for school. Let us consider two prevailing national trends in Africa. In Uganda, most schools require girls with African-textured hair to maintain it short (‘low-cut’) whereas girls of Asian, European and bi-racial parentage are allowed to sport long hair.
The rationale goes back to the mission schools of the early 1900s, where instructors believed it was impossible to look ‘neat and smart’ with natural African hair. The Ugandan authorities are currently facing public outcry against racial bias and demands for change of policy.
The Nigerian case provides a model for our own situation in the Caribbean. Arguably, no country in Africa has a more dynamic array of female hairstyles and head wraps than Nigeria. Girls there were not spared the humiliation of ‘low-cut’ in colonial times; some schools still persist with it.
Nigeria, however, has been actively engaged in promoting a renaissance of cultural nationalism, one element of which is the designation of every Friday as ‘Ethnic Friday’, when all Nigerians are encouraged to don traditional wear. This practice not only promotes national pride but also stimulates many aspects of the clothing industry, from local cotton production to weaving, dress-making, fabric printing, dyeing, batik and more.
Complementing Ethnic Fridays is the ongoing effort to preserve Nigeria’s rich tradition in hairstyles. Moving radically away from the low-cut colonial style, schoolgirls are required to wear different natural-hair styles on different days of the week.
For students of these schools, all forms of extensions and ‘relaxing’ chemicals are prohibited. The school authorities dictate the styles, avoiding those considered ‘loud’, meaning too extravagant.
The main school styles are the Shuku, the Patewo, the Calabar or Calabarising (individual braids), the Koroba, the Puff-Puff and the Kolese (corn rows or all-back). Some of the more exotic names (not exotic styles) include ‘June 12’, ‘Heavenly King’, ‘Who’s in the Garden’, and ‘Two Steps’.
Parents are expected to know what these styles are because the schools generally do not provide illustrations and yet do not permit variations from the style-of-the-day. The lesson here is that discipline is not compromised but at the same time, students are developing self-confidence and pride in their Africanness. National unity is also promoted because some of these styles are traditional to specific ethnic groups.
It is interesting to note that natural hair is also promoted in Nigerian universities. A case in point is the Nigerian Law School in Abuja, the capital city. In order to attend the Law dinner, female students must sport only their natural hair—no extensions, no weaves, no artificial braids, no chemical relaxers.
For some students, this means an entire week of natural hair, because they spend the preceding weekend getting rid of their processed hairstyles and may not have the time to regress to processed styles until the following weekend.
The forces of culturecide in the Caribbean also operated successfully in Africa. History has shown that the oppressed never surrendered completely to those forces. African-conscious movements in the Caribbean have renewed hope in the natural-hair movement, which some optimistically describe as the natural-hair revolution.
We have had this phenomenon before, as part of the cultural explosion of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The most iconic cultural symbol of the movement was undoubtedly the ‘Afro’.
The difference this time is that African Americans are benefitting from official policy and State law. In 2015 and 2017, the US military lifted the ban on ‘dreadlocks/locks’; in mid-2019, California extended the ban to civil society, criminalising discrimination against several African natural hairstyles in workplaces and schools.
To conclude, the St Stephen’s College affair is just one example of how our education system has inadvertently preserved the psychosis of self-hate in students of African ancestry. But the failure of the Ministry of Education to announce a policy of containment or legislative strategy is worse than the College’s infringement of the student’s right to a hassle-free learning environment.
We now have models on both sides of the Atlantic, not only for the protection of students but also for the repair of their broken psyche and restoration of self-pride and confidence in their humanity as Africans.
It is incumbent on governments of the region to ensure that they do not fail to do justice to this generation of students. Moreover, school Boards need not wait on government. Most certainly, their individual rules of conduct would have preceded the 2000 EOC and the 2009 NSCC.
This puts an obligation on these Boards to revise their respective rules, particularly where they facilitate discrimination against all categories of students.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One as Dr Claudius Fergus discusses Culturecide, racist subversion and the history of African hair styles like ‘Dada’ hair and ‘Bantu’ knots.
Or HERE for Part Two on the role played by the Education Ministry in the discrimination against African textured hair in Trinidad and Tobago’s schools.