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July Books

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July 29, 2010

July Books

Non-fiction by Prince, graphic novel by Hill

by Kim Petersen, Ndija Anderson

The Politics of Black Women’s Hair
Althea Prince
Insomniac Press: London, ON, 2009

Black women’s hair has always possessed a certain sort of magnetism that attracts (often unsolicited) pats and tugs, as well as inquiries about its properties and care. However, recently the hair of Black sistas has been drawing unusual attention, and not just on The View. Between Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair, Tyra Banks reveal of the hair that lies beneath her weaves, and general fascination with Michelle Obama’s fashion sense—hairdos included—Black women’s hair has become quite a “hot topic.”

To provide further insight into the phenomenon of “Black women’s hair”, sociologist and novelist Althea Prince presents readers with The Politics of Black Women’s Hair, a brief anthology that analyzes the complex relationship that women of African descent have with their tresses, through the use of the personal essay form, interviews, excerpts from the media, and observations.

Prince begins by tracing the subject back to the negative historical depictions of Black people, as seen in the late nineteenth-century Golliwog and Little Black Sambo storybooks, which caricatured stereotypical “Black” features, such as pitch-black skin, huge red lips, and woolly hair. She argues that the mainstream beauty ideal, reinforced by such imagery, was internalized by Black women and girls and has “dictated” their hairstyle choices ever since. Natural black hair has thus been equated with “political” hair. This notion, which is addressed throughout the book, is highlighted in a chapter dedicated to the significance of the “relaxed,” and therefore relaxing, nature of Michelle Obama’s hair.

Prince also features personal essays by Black mothers and daughters from Canada, the US, the UK, the Caribbean and South America, providing a glimpse into the Black female hair experience from a diasporic perspective. Their stories illustrate the psychological and sociological impact that attempting to measure-up to the “yardstick of mainstream beauty”, namely the European aesthetic, has had on Black women. The essayists speak about how their efforts to attain the beauty ideal (by straightening their hair with chemicals and hot combs), or their lack of desire to do so (by opting to go shaven or wearing it in its natural state), has affected both their personal and professional lives.

The Politics of Black Women’s Hair could have benefited from expanding its scope to include the perspectives of African women and Black men (whose perceived views are mentioned frequently in the text). Given the author's intention to write a "little book," Prince successfully outlines the complexities of a topic that can get rather hairy. The Politics of Black Women’s Hair achieves its purpose: to establish that Black hair is beautiful and assist Black girls and women with learning how to embrace that fact.

—Ndija Anderson

The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book
Gord Hill
Arsenal Pulp Press: Vancouver, 2010

Comics aren't always known for treating serious subjects, but Gord Hill's The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book adds a dose of reality to the genre.

Hill, of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, has taken the topics of dispossession, genocide, and the colonization of First Nations in the western hemisphere and, surprisingly, pulled off a rendering in comic book form. The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, presents in black-and-white panels the history of the overseas invasion by Europeans and the resistance of Indigenous peoples.

As a medium, comics have many attractions. They engage visually. They give information in bite-sized chunks—ideal for the modern reader's short attention span. They are fun.

Much of colonial history in the Americas has been sanitized—indeed, current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denies colonization ever occurred in Canada. Today, the European invasion of Indigenous territories is often depicted in popular culture as the settlement of an untamed wilderness, a terra nullius, not the homeland of sophisticated civilizations who often fiercely contested Europeans' claims to their lands.

Hill seeks to visually combat this narrative. “The story of our ancestors' resistance is minimized, or erased entirely," he writes in the preface. "This strategy has been used to impose capitalist ideology on people, to pacify them, and to portray their struggle as doomed to failure.”

Knowledge is key to fighting an oppressive system. “When we know and understand this history of oppression, we will be better able to fight the system it created,” he writes.

One way to counter the colonial depiction of history is to “always call things by their right name" as enjoined by Philip Deere, a Muskogee-Creek involved with the American Indian Movement. For instance, Hill places British Columbia within quotation marks, thereby questioning the legitimacy and morality of so-naming unceded First Nations territory. 500 Years of Resistance does this unevenly, though; Hill and Ward Churchill in his introduction use inaccurate designations for Indigenous peoples: “American Indian,” “Mohawk” instead of “Kanienkehaka,” “Huron” instead of “Wyandot.”

500 Years of Resistance roots invasion in the voyage of Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus, who encountered the Taino people in the Caribbean during his infamous 1492 voyage from Europe. It continues through to 1890—describing the Incan Mapuche, Pueblo, Pontiac, Seminole, Apache, Lakota, and Pacific Northwest Indigenous resistances to the colonists—and the fight to maintain their lifeways on their territories—at which point Hill signals the end of military Indigenous resistance. Millions of Original Peoples had been wiped out, many by warfare, but mostly by European-introduced diseases. The treaty process then picked up (a process noticeably absent from much of "BC"), and assimilation took over.

Hill tells of colonizers imposing slave labour, of barbarity, of disease epidemics, of greed for gold, of land theft and of the insinuation and imposition of the capitalist system during settling of the "New World." To maintain the dispossession of their land and resources, the invaders tried to assimilate the remaining Original Peoples into European ways of being through religious conversion, the Indian Residential School system, and the imposition of the capitalist economic system.

Despite diligent colonial efforts to break them away from their identities—so closely tied to their land—Indigenous peoples persist in struggles for self-determination. Hill captures this graphically—from war on the Pacific Northwest coast, to the '68 rebellion and Wounded Knee, Oka, Chiapas, Ts'peten, and Aazhoodena. 500 Years of Resistance is a well-drawn comic book that resurrects the history “erased, replaced by the occupying nation.”

—Kim Petersen

Kim Petersen is Original Peoples editor with The Dominion.

Ndija Anderson, a law student at McGill University, was a 2006-2007 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, which allowed her to travel to seven countries to research the practice and aesthetic of hair braiding and locking in various cultures.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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