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The Capital and Cost of Hair in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

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Hair is a physical marker of difference onto which social signifiers are imprinted. Hair of all kinds is reshaped and chemically altered by different processes in order to exploit socially established notions of beauty. In this way, hairstyles and hair function as social capital. Nevertheless, hegemonic interpretations of Black hair and hairstlyes inscribe additional levels of cultural and political meaning onto the ways that Black womyn decide to style their hair. Korbena Mercer, a professor in History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University, notes, “All black hairstyles are political in that they each articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of ethnic signifier with both social and symbolic meaning and significance” (Mercer 5). These “social and symbolic meanings” work both for and against Black womyn’s efforts to negotiate what Adichie refers to in Americanah as the American “tribalisms” of “race,” “class,” “ideology,” and “religion” (Adichie 227). Because the “tribalisms” overlap and contrast in complex ways, each containing its own inherent and often unspoken hierarchy and signifiers, what becomes “capital” within one social sphere functions as “cost” in another. Adichie’s Americanah demonstrates how African-Americans and Africans in America try to negotiate this capital and cost, give and take of social power, within American “tribalisms” through an alteration of hairstyle to conform to social and economic needs.

Hairstlye is such a constant presence in the novel that not a page goes by without reference to it: afros, kinky coils, TWAs (tweeny weeny afros) straight weaves, cornrows, twists, raucous curls, box braids, and dreadlocks. Hair plays a crucial role as a symbol and metaphor of race in the United States and as a marker of difference in the novel. Adichie’s Americanah complicates the literary picture of Black hair signification in US society. In Americanah, black hair functions as “social capital” in the manner described by Pierre Bourdieu, acting as “credentials” for membership in different groups constituted by intersections of region, race, ideology, or class (Bourdieu 51). Further, according to Bourdieu, social capital, like all other forms of capital, suffers under a law of “conservation” in that “profits in one area are necessarily paid for by costs in another” (Bourdieu 253).

Adichie uses hair to demonstrate how the political and personal become knotted together. Throughout the novel, hair is used as a metaphor, specifically African hair, and the effort and expense womyn go in changing it, the weaves and braids, the chemical relaxing to force it to be smooth rather than curly or kinky. Texturizers, relaxers, oils, pomades and hair butter are repeatedly discussed throughout the novel.

Adichie is interested in hair as an entry point to talk about other issues. Hair plays an important role for African and African American womyn. Interspersed with details about Ifemelu’s hairstyles are musings on the place and function of hair in society. In Americanah, hair is a political declaration and expression, a symbol of identity and liberty, a source of conflict, and more. In her ethnographic study, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness, Ingrid Banks examines “how hair shapes Black women’s ideas about race, gender, and beauty culture,” concluding that “black girls and women use hair as a medium to understand the complex identity politics that intersect along the lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, power, and beauty” (Banks 19). Hair is a critical part of Ifemelu’s identity construction. Ifemelu’s hair, particularly when worn naturally, conveys a sense of African identity for Ifemelu, strengthening her position as an African/African American womyn. Ifemelu’s cornrows and Afro puffs play a large role in her transformation from person to racial category.

            The politics of black hair is very much alive as the narrative begins with Ifemelu waiting for a train to take her from Princeton to Trenton to find a hair braiding salon. Considering that there are no hair braiding salons in Princeton, Ifemelu has to take the train to that "shared space of … Africanness" called Trenton (Adichie 126). In the mostly White or light-skinned community of Princeton, White or “lank” hair is the social capital that is exchanged for financial capital by the ease with which its owners can come by hair services (3). By contrast, African hair functions as social cost, which similarly becomes financial cost in that its owners must try to obtain hair services outside the community, thereby incurring not only the cost of the services, but the additional costs of time lost and money spent in travel to a place that does offer these services.            

It takes more than six hours of sitting in a hot salon for Ifemelu to get the medium kinky twist with extensions that she wants. Inside the salon, Ifemelu conflicts with the braider Aisha, who complains that unrelaxed hair is too difficult to brush, while Ifemelu gently chides Aisha’s perceived lack of knowledge saying in a proselytizing tone, “It’s not hard to comb if you moisturize it properly” (15). For Ifemelu, natural hair is part of an ideology, but for Aisha it is an unnecessary obstacle that makes her job more difficult.

The tribalisms of race, class, ideology, and religion intersect at the Trenton braiding salon that frames the first four parts of the novel. The space itself is symbolic of a class and racial-based divide. At the hair braiding salon, "They would, she was sure, talk about her after she left ... They would laugh with derision, but only a mild derision, because she was still their African sister, even if she had briefly lost her way" (126).  Adichie is weaving and braiding, and the more time she leaves Ifemelu in the shabby, overheated salon, the more clearly the strands of her story come into view. 

Though Ifemelu begins the novel with her hair in braids, the reader comes to realize that she has done so after a couple of years spent straightening her hair. As a teenager in Nigeria, she wore her hair in a variety of styles, sometimes braiding it, hot-combing it straight, or wearing it in twists.

Since she came to America, she had always braided her hair with long extensions, always alarmed at how much it cost. She wore each style for three months, even four months, until her scalp itched unbearably and the braids sprouted fuzzily from a bed of new growth (250).

In the United States, she continues to wear her hair in a variety of styles until she graduates from college and interviews for a job in marketing.

Perhaps the most clear representation of Black hair as social capital is the advice the main character, Ifemelu, receives from her career counselor, Ruth, “a caramel-skinned African-American woman” (248). Ruth says, “Lose the braids and straighten your hair. Nobody says this kind of stuff but it matters. We want you to get that job” (250). This advice echoes Aunty Uju’s earlier claim that, in America, “if you have braids, [employers] will think you are unprofessional,” a claim that the newly arrived Ifemelu receives dubiously (146). In order to gain membership in the United States’ professional class, Ifemelu has to adopt the signifiers of that class, in this case signifiers based on a White standard of beauty, an assertion supported by Ifemelu’s hairdresser who, after having rinsed the chemical relaxer from Ifemelu’s hair says, “Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!” (251).

Then Ifemelu straightens her hair for the first time because natural or braided hair is considered to be unprofessional (Adichie 119, 202-204, 211-212, 216-217, 296-298). Ifemelu attributes the meaning and power of straightened hair to Western influence in the novel. To straighten one’s hair is to live in conformity with the dictates of state normality, which is ensured by involvement in particular flows of capitalism and desire. Straight hair marks black womyn as attractive and valuable commodities.

Importantly, Ifemelu does not romanticize or desire whiteness. Examining her restyled hair, Ifemelu feels “the verve was gone” and that “something organic” had been lost (251). Straightened hair is a symbol of how African-American womyn can become slaves to their hair- trying to control it at all costs to fit into US society and specifically the workplace. Later, after she “breezed through the [job] interview,” Ifemelu thinks about whether she would have made the same kind of positive impression if she had “walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro” (252). In return for straightening her hair, Ifemelu gets the job. Straight hair is a sign of the forced embrace of whiteness through reproductive means and it marks some black womyn as more acceptably desirable, thereby altering their relationship with work. In this schema, straight hair signifies upward mobility either through desirability or participation in certain labor practices. Consequently, the social capital needed to join the American professional class is purchased at a considerable mental, emotional, and personal price.

Every character’s hairstyle is discussed in the book, and several characters are defined by their hairstyles. Kelsey, an “aggressively friendly” white womyn goes into the salon and asks if someone can braid her hair “like Bo Derek” (232). Kelsey wants to adopt a signifier of the Black community, yet she associates the signifier not with blackness, but with Bo Derek, a white womyn with blonde hair and blue eyes. Kelsey’s decision to change her hair to look “like Bo Derek” contrasts with Ifemelu’s decision to alter her hair for her job interview (232). While Ifemelu’s choice effectively marked a change of class association necessary to gain financial benefits, Kelsey’s decision seems nothing more than whimsy. When Kelsey realizes that the braiders use hair attachments, she exclaims, “I used to think African-American women with braids had such full hair!” and then refuses the offer to use them in her own hair (234). Kelsey’s refusal of attachments is an implicit refusal to join the social group. Because she is white, and therefore a member of the dominant social group, Kelsey can refuse this signifier and yet face no social repercussions from this action.

Ifemelu’s decision to adopt the signifiers of American professionalism simultaneously mark her difference from the intellectual group within the Black community that rejects chemical restyling of one’s hair. This choice illustrates the deep entrenchment between working bodies and aesthetic assimilation.

Similar to other members of social groups, Kelsey’s lack of knowledge about Black hair constitutes an example of “misrecognition” that functions as “symbolic violence of…powerful groups that allows the naturalization of domination” (Navarro 19). This is evident as well in Curt- “the Hot White Ex’s” response to the wound the relaxer produces. Curt disapproves of Ifemelu’s straight hair because he feels that it rids her of her identity. Although, initially opposed to the result of the relaxer, Curt softens when she shows him her burnt scalp. In that moment he responds with compassion, and she “had never felt so close to him as she did then, sitting still on the bed, her face sunk into his shirt, the scent of fabric softener in her nose, while he gently parted her newly straightened hair” (Adichie 252). If professional success was not a sufficient reward for assimilation, her decision to straighten her hair leads to increased intimacy with her boyfriend. This collapse of hair straightening, the mobilization of white sympathy followed by desire that can be interpreted as a moment when Ifemelu becomes raced and gendered, and professional success, indicates a lot about the assumptions that surround black femininity.  

Black femininity in these formulations is not only separate from white normative standards of beauty, but works to resist them. The texture of Black femininity’s relationship to the state is gritty. Rather than seeing Ifemelu’s scab as a wound, however, the reader might interpret it as a sign of her body’s resistance to assimilation. Here, the discourse of difference that was activated by white sentimentality is mobilized as black power. Seamless straight hair gives way to waves, curls, and kinks that move away from the state, interrupting narratives of compliance by seeming to be buoyed by their own force toward something else. 

In Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s reaction to her burnt scalp, one sees the ways in which this white sympathy works to stabilize the impossibility assimilation of the black femelle body. It reifies her social position as Other and wounded, thereby calcifying normativity as symbolized by ascension through the capitalistic ranks, as a property of whiteness. The stabilization of whiteness and the desire to feel for others is a marker of its own type of market desire.

Later, Curt complains that the magazine Essence, whichIfemelu subscribes to is “racially skewed” because it only features Black womyn (364). Curt frequently misrecognizes the full power of race and racial signifiers because he is a member of the dominant group, a group which continues to reap the benefits of controlling social capital while concealing its true involvement in supporting and maintaining class differences (Bourdieu 54). According to Bourdieu, this concealment is crucial to the effectiveness of social capital (Bourdieu 54). If the group is produced by “mutual recognition,” then misrecognition by the more dominant group effectively affirms the limits of the less dominant group, consequently diminishing its power within the greater social structure (Bourdieu 9). In this manner, misrecognition is “transformed into symbolic power (or legitimacy)” which conceals the “origins of social inequalities” within a “mystifying discourse” (Navarro 19).

After she straightens her hair for work, Ifemelu blogs about the connection between professionalism, attractiveness, and straight hair. Her blog reads,

Ever notice makeover shows on TV, how the black woman has natural hair (coarse, coily, kinky or curly) in the ugly ‘before’ picture, and in the pretty ‘after’ picture, somebody’s taken a hot piece of metal and singed her hair straight? Some black women, AB and NAB would rather run naked in the street than come out in public with their natural hair. Because, you see, it’s not professional, sophisticated, whatever, it’s just not damn normal (367).

In Adichie’s commentary, the reader   sees a clear line drawn between straight hair, standards of attractiveness, and the ability to participate normatively as a member of the capitalist state. While black womyn might straighten their hair because it makes them legible as a certain type of subject- one who complies, who has capital, if not agency, and through the workings of capital is able to enjoy a certain amount of negotiated freedom-it is not the case that black womyn who do not straighten their hair exist outside the workings of the neoliberal state. Black womyn become desirable as emblems of the possibility of assimilation through capitalism and technology. In this reading of the pressures of assimilation, it is the impulse toward hierarchy and classification that produces straight hair as desirable. Blackness can supposedly be controlled and suppressed through capitalism and technology into a productive working body. This body wants to take part in the norms of capitalism by minimizing the ways in which it articulates difference.

            Furthermore, the process Ifemelu must undergo to straighten her hair, tethers her to the market because she must buy products in order to have straight hair. One sees this linkage vis-à-vis the production of Black womyn as consumers of relaxers and weaves, spending thousands of dollars a year on these commodities. The underside of this narrative is that the possibility of assimilation is repeatedly undermined by the mobilization of the pain it causes.

Doing “nothing” to one’s hair can be recoded as a form of passivity in which one “fails” to conform to capitalist norms. While this formulation retains the political codedness of black hair, it compels people to think critically about the way agency is operating in these discourses. From this point of view one sees that black femelle agency, when applied to the discourse of hair, is constructed as an impossible bind. Agency is visible in forms of capitulation while resistance vis-à-vis staying “natural” is celebrated.

In reducing black femelle agency to hairstyling options, the actual problem of agency has been obstructed. To make hair agency and political agency equivalent, this schema assumes that social change comes from black womyn not straightening their hair, that unstraightened hair is the axis on which power, capital, and desire turn. This line of reasoning forgets that even the possibility of agency is scripted by the conditions of society.

Additionally, the pressure to conform to a white standard of beauty is framed as a legacy of miscegenation during slavery and the practice of segregating slaves according to appearance. During slavery, black womyn with less kinky hair and lighter skin were imagined as favored and considered more conventionally attractive. During slavery, Black womyn who were lighter-skinned, or had straight or curly hair, or White/European facial features tended to be house slaves and Black womyn with darker skin tones, kinky hair, and broader facial features tended to be field slaves (Patton 4). This racist legacy and African American internalization of this White supremacist racial classification brought about the desire for many Black womyn to alter their outer appearance to conform to a Eurocentric ideal that has and may continue to lead them to loath their physical appearance.

In the novel, Ifemelu’s hair falls out in clumps. “And then her hair began to fall out at the temples. She drenched it in rich, creamy conditioners, and sat under steamers until water droplets ran down her neck. Still, her hairline shifted further backwards each day” (257).When the chemical relaxers start to cause Ifemelu’s hair to fall out, her friend, Wambui, encourages her to “go natural” (257). He understands that she is uncomfortable with this hairstyle and argues that straightened hair has been preventing her from living the way she wants to:

Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. That picture you sent me, you had your hair covered on the boat. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do. If you go natural and take good care of your hair, it won’t fall off like it’s doing now (257).

Wambui’s argument frames the issue in terms of liberty versus imprisonment, the natural versus unnatural, appearance versus substance.

In Ifemelu’s quest to save her hair, she stops straightening her hair and cuts off the damaged hair, leaving her with a natural, short Afro. Initially, she struggles with how to properly tend to her kinky hair. She calls in sick and avoids going to work for three days because she’s nervous about the way she will be perceived.

Ifemelu seeks refuge on the website, HAPPILYKINKYNAPPY.COM. The online forum is a virtual community of Black womyn who call chemical relaxers “creamy crack” and make and sell natural hair products (262). Ifemelu soon discovers that membership in this community is not only connected to actual hairstyles. Credentials for membership are signaled through the use of an insider language: “Women with hair as short as hers had a name for it: TWA, Teeny Weeny Afro” (263). Language here becomes a way of legitimating members ethnic identity and racial consciousness within the social group. On the online forum, she learns how to best tend to her hair and how to feel good about it, and wear an Afro with confidence.

Nevertheless, apart from the online community, Ifemelu’s return to natural hair in the form of “a very short, overly combed and overly oiled Afro” is met by a range of responses that point to the numerous ways in which natural hair is misrecognized (262). A coworker asks Ifemelu, “Does it mean anything? Like, something political?” (262). Here, the decision to no longer straighten her hair situates Ifemelu as liberated, strong, political, and sexy.

 Yet, the critical reactions, one receives from coworkers, strangers and friends, informs why several people and even Ifemelu would decide to have her hair straightened. In the cafeteria, “Miss Margaret, the bosomy African-American woman who presided over the counter” initially asks if Ifemelu is now a lesbian and later wonders if Ifemelu’s hair is the reason she decided to leave the company (262). Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, now assimilated into American professional culture as a doctor, describes natural hair as “scruffy and untidy” (269).

Importantly, not straightening one’s hair is read as the production of an alternative, natural form of beauty. At one point, Ifemelu goes to a farmers’ market with her white boyfriend, Curt, and is verbally attacked by a black man, who says that Curt, a white man, is only with Ifemelu because of her wild hair. At this point, Ifemelu’s hair is in a short Afro, Adichie writes: “One day, at the farmers market, as she stood hand in hand with Curt in front of a tray of apples, a black man walked past and muttered, ‘You ever wonder why he likes you looking all jungle like that?” (263). The man implies that Curt is only with her because she symbolizes the exotic and wild. The offhand remark that this man makes to Ifemelu references this slippage between the political, the natural, and the sexy.

Reflections on hair take up a considerable amount of space in Americanah. Adichie explains the intricacies and difficulties of having to leave one’s hair processed and supports African womyn wearing their hair naturally. She calls attention to the problems one encounters upon relaxing one’s hair in an informing manner. The narrative of unstraightened hair as a form of resistance to white norms is the logical counterpart to the narrative that posits straightened hair as a strategy of assimilation. Straightened and unstraightened hair are imagined to be two sides of the same issue, with the distance between them framed as a matter of agency. Straightened hair is read as a symptom of submission; straightening hair marks the acquiescence of the black body into the flexible and desirable shape of the normative. Unstraightened hair is seen as an active rebuke against norms.

As stated by Bourdieu, as long as this kind of misrecognition continues, the roots of inequality in a society will continue to go unaddressed and unchanged (Bourdieu 14). Within American society, the persistent view that African American hair expression is strictly dictated by an attempt to attain white standards of beauty is a kind of misrecognition that maintains social inequalities. To resist this, Adichie suggests we must complicate our knowledge and views surrounding Black hair by recognizing the heterogeneous nature of Black America, its many classes, ideologies, and regional identities.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americnah. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2013. Print.

Banks, Ingrid. Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness. New York:        New York UP, 2000. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "The Forms of Capital." The Forms of Capital by Pierre Bourdieu 1986. N.p.,    n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.             <  capital.htm>.

Mercer, Kobena. "BLACK HAIR/STYLE POLITICS - Amiel and Melburn Trust." PDF Drive.    New Formations, 1987. Web. 2 Dec. 2016. <      politics-amiel-and-melburn-trust-e258085.html>.

Navarro, Zander. “In Search of a Cultural Interpretation of Power: The Contribution of Pierre Bourdieu.” IDS Bulletin 37.6 (2006): 1–22. Print.