Why do so many black women straighten and relax their hair into submission? Why has there been an emergence of ancestral knowledge on how to care for black hair. Many simply view this movement as a return to their origins or what Foucault calls an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” (70). This shift in discourse of black hair has implication for the power, social, economic nexus.
Foucault explains subjugated knowledge as:
1) Blocs of historical knowledges that has been buried and become discourse
2) There are knowledges which he termed “naïve knowledges” that have been “disqualified”. The reemergence of the subjugated (popular) knowledge.
The discourse surrounding black hair in the US grew from the struggle to fit into a white society and a stripping of the black identity. Slavery in this case represents what Foucault calls a historical knowledge of struggles where black women and men struggled to fit this unattainable European standard of beauty. During slavery, the black hair practices were not used as much as they were in Africa. Most slaves did not have access to combs or oil for their hair. Enslaved black people were often overworked and they did not have much time to tend to their hair so they simply put their hair under a scarf. Foucault expressed that these indigenous knowledges have been relegated to the peripheries of knowledge. For Foucault, genealogies emerge as a political and intellectual project to retrieve and restore the history and conflicts/struggles. According to Foucault, the purpose of the natural hair movement genealogies is to counter the dominant discourse and the central power that links the institutions and its functions. (71)
This brings us to sovereign and disciplinary power and how it relates to black hair. Sovereign power in an is an attempt to democratize the source of power. It is a repressive power that is usually associated with rights and law. The method of sovereign power is prohibition and subtraction. Official institutions are the agents of prohibition and subtraction. This in relation to natural hair is about how institutions make policies about what is considered professional in the workplace. This has implications on how black men and women view their hair and its place in society; that their hair is ugly and should be hidden at all times especially when they are in public.
Disciplinary power operates through surveillance. Foucault credits the Bourgeois with utilizing this power especially in the industrial capitalism that arose in the 17th and 18th century. In this case, black women and men view their hair as ugly and unprofessional because it has been normalized. This power is coded in unofficial law and is enforced through social micromanagement i.e. positive and negative reinforcements from peers, family, media, etc. It then becomes unnecessary for institutions to micromanage these black men and women with natural hair because their friends and families and themselves do the surveillance.
As Foucault expressed power is capillary and as time goes on, it becomes hard to recognize because of its internalization and normalization. But this repressive power creates a resistance and in the case of natural hair movement, people began to realize that these insidious norms and returning to their origins by excavating these subjugated knowledges is a form of resistance.
Foucault is a great theorist to use for this case study but he like many theorists has some limitations. This particular theory explores the time but not really the space. But since everyday life is political he is still an important theorist to consider for my case study.
Like we talked about in class, I want to look into post-colonial theorists that are not really considered a part of the cultural studies canon.
The next posts will employ Stuart Hall’s theory on encoding and decoding and I will look at the representation of black hair in popular culture.