by Jenny Mitchell
Entering the gallery, you’ll see it in a case,
dark strands gathered close, size of a fist,
taken from a Negroid head. Long-denigrated
in the West a sign explains – Known in the past
by several names – Bush, Wool, Nest.
Nothing indicates why it was kept,
low temperature maintained, no air
beyond the seal, light so dim I must bend down
in order to look close. Did hair fall from a head
blighted by disease, gathered up like gold?
Was the owner male or female – afro worn as crown
or Black Power sign? Did a master pull it out,
punishment for burning crop? At night,
a woman screamed, scalp alarmed,
forced to make this sacrifice.
Is she screaming still, running through the woods,
bald patch covered up? Or standing firm
in jail, blood trickling down her face?
Does she demand her hair returned,
placed back on her head, a self-made wig?
People shuffle past the case to see
much grander sights – Turner’s painting
of the Zong – black hands raised above the foam.
Who cares to contemplate the hair
that could be mine – Bush, Wool, Nest.
British History is Black – Black Hair
Writing about Black hair is like using a language I barely understand, one that speaks of culture, status and the unbearable loss and legacies of British transatlantic enslavement.
Haircare for Black people can take time and includes, at its best, an aspect that is meditative and bonding, allowing for stories to be created and histories shared. However, time (or free time) to enjoy this process was one of the many things stolen from the enslaved ancestors who survived enforced labour on Caribbean plantations for only seven years, on average. It seems clear that in such harsh circumstances there would have been very little time for leisurely haircare and familial bonding.
Was a whole language and map of well-braided hair destroyed? Was damage also done to the contents of the mind, leading to chaos and confusion about self-esteem? Does this destruction still impact Black people/family dynamics? How can financial reparations for enslavement, even if it ever became available, take this into account?
Besides all this there are huge fortunes to be made as a result of the dysfunction unleased on Black hair by an outrageous history. The fake hair industry is worth billions worldwide, and so we have the situation where Black women buy the hair of Asian women from predominantly white-owned companies, whilst patriarchal armies of white officials seek to ensure Black people do not wear their natural hair to school or in the workplace.
My poem Black Hair tries to bear witness to this historical chaos, and to honour a natural source of power, connection and love.
The poem is in the forthcoming pamphlet Family Name, published by Nine Pens.
Jenny Mitchell is a winner of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, the Poetry Book Awards 2021 and a joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. She also won the inaugural Ironbridge Prize, the Bedford Prize and the Gloucester Poetry Society Open Competition. The best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, is one of 44 Poetry Books for 2019 (Poetry Wales), and a second collection, Map of a Plantation, is an Irish Independent ‘Literary Find’ and on the syllabus at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest collection is called Resurrection of a Black Man.