Over the last 10 years, Janine Jellars has written extensively about the #NaturalHair movement in South Africa. Janine has a new book titled, The Big South African Hair Book– which has been described as a book of its special kind. In this Q&A, Janine reflects on writing the book, its importance to the natural hair movement, and whether wearing natural hair is a political act.
Question: Congratulations on your new book. How has the feedback been since it was released?
Thank you. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, I think people have felt a sense that a book of this kind was a long time coming.
Question: Janine, I want us to first talk about the title of the book, the Big South African Hair Book, why did you decided to go with this title?
I like a good play on words. In the title, the ‘big’ refers to the size of our hair, our afros, not the size of the book.
Question: Why was it so important for you to write this book?
We all have different contributions to make to the so-called ‘natural hair movement’. I don’t have the time or, frankly, talent to be a content creator or influencer, but I could use my skill to write this book. So, it’s my contribution and love letter to the natural hair movement in South Africa.
Question: What message(s) are you hoping to convey to all South African women with this book?
First and foremost, I wanted to showcase our stories, by us. Our experiences are valid and worthy of documentation. I want South African women to feel seen.
Question: Talk to us about the selection process of the people that you decided to interview in this book, why did you go for them?
I interviewed about 30 people and I definitely tapped into my networks and sought out people who I felt had great stories to tell, were knowledgeable within their fields and those who are passionate about healthy hair and self-expression.
Question: In the book you mention the importance of building a relationship and listening to one’s hair. Why do you think it is important for women, particularly Black and Coloured women, to have relationships with their natural hair?
Hair is so much more than just hair. It’s economics, politics, status symbol, everything in this country. I think if you are interested in going the natural hair route, hair health should be a key focus. I think people get impatient or want to have a ‘style’ focus when it comes to hair, but good haircare practices are the key to healthy hair.
Question: Women who embrace their own natural big afros are always compared with those who wear weaves. Do you think wearing a natural hair is a political statement for many naturalistas?
I think, whether we like it or not, how we are ‘seen’ and interpreted by other people isn’t always determined by us. I could think I’m just cute with my afro out, and someone else sees me and thinks I’m a Black Panther. So, even when we don’t intend to, we could be making what some see as political statements.
Question: We have previously seen how young Black, Indian, and Coloured girls who wear their natural hair are often treated in some private schools, for example, the Pretoria Girls school saga. How do we inculcate a culture where our children can feel free to rock their natural hair without being looked down or seen as being ‘untidy’?
Language is such an important part of this conversation. Even the word ‘tidy’ is so subjective. I think we have to be intentional about how we speak about and discuss natural hair, as well as challenge those subjective norms. ‘Tidy’, ‘professional’, ‘neat’ – these are all subjective terms and we have to interrogate what they mean for us as Africans and who gets to make the rules around them. As adults, these are the fights we should be having and we shouldn’t be leaving it to kids to have to fight. We should be uncompromising about our own self-definition as Africans in Africa.
Question: What is your advice to parents who wants to ensure that their children have a relationship with their natural hair at an early age?
I am not a parent, but I’ve interviewed parents for the book. One of the key things in the book was about positive role modelling. Making sure your kids have a positive view of their hair starts with how you treat your own hair and how you handle their hair.
Question: If you were to organize a seminar to talk about natural hair, who are the three people you would invite to be panellists on that discussion?
I’m spoilt for choice when I look at the people I’d interviewed for my book – there are so many great stories. But I’d probably choose Milisuthando Bongela, as she has incredible views on political expression; Joan Hillman is a community builder within the natural hair community; Kavuli Nyali is literally an OG of the natural hair community in South Africa.
Question: Finally, what is message to all the naturalistas who often struggling with keeping and maintaining their natural hair?
Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise! Patience is the best hair ingredient! And buy my book!