How my hair made me reflect on my cultural and racial identity

Last Christmas, my mum’s friend did Didi Olowo on my hair. The neat plaits lay tight and flat on my head, not slightly raised the way normal cornrow braids would have been. When she was done, I rushed to my bathroom mirror and turned my head from side to side pleased with the way my hair looked. I felt like a Yoruba goddess. A vibe, I had said.

Nigerian Identity in America - Didi Olowo

Initially, I had asked her to do the hairstyle for me so that my wig would lay flat on my head, but the next day I ended up not wearing my wig to work. I rocked that Didi Olowo with large hoop earrings, an oversized denim shirt and my favorite pair of skinny jeans.

Didi Olowo, often referred to as “Didi” or “Didi Adimole”, is a hairstyle that originates from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. It is thought to make hair longer and fuller. Unlike weaving, Didi Olowo is neater and lasts longer too.

As a child, I hated Didi because I thought it was ugly. Weaving was better because all the girls in school did weaving. Weaving was not as tight, and it did not hurt as much.

I also did not care for Iya Tosin (Tosin’s mother), the local hairdresser who did Didi. With her plump figure and eyelash extensions that went on for days, she looked like the actresses I saw in Yoruba movies. But my animosity for Iya Tosin had nothing to do with her appearance. It was in the way that she did my hair. Iya Tosin would have me face her and place my head on her lap, and with all the care of a vacuum cleaner on a rug, she would pull my hair into tight, precise woven lines.

Unlike regular cornrows, Didi is woven in reverse, so the stylist weaves facing the customer, plaiting from the start of the hairline to the back of the head (as opposed to regular cornrows where the stylist stands at the back of the customer and weaves from the front of the hairline to the back of the head). Because of this, it was easier for Iya Tosin to have me sit down facing her and place my head on her lap so that she could see the back of my head as she did my hair. She would say “Gbori duro” (keep your head still) whenever I shifted restlessly. I did not like to put my head on her lap (and if you’ve ever had your hair done in this manner you would know why). I remember the sound of her chewing carelessly on her piece of gum, as I would brace myself as she dipped her hands into my hair.
There were not a lot of women who knew how to do Didi Olowo in the part of Lagos I lived in, so I put up with Iya Tosin because I wanted my hair to be long and full like my friend Awa who only ever did Didi on her hair.

As I grew older I did Didi less and less until eventually, it became to me a hairstyle that was reserved only for young children, local women, and the women in Yoruba epic films. But last Christmas I started to change my mind about Didi. When I had my mum’s friend do Didi Olowo  I ended up liking the way it looked so much that I did some research on Didi. I found out how beneficial it is as a protective hairstyle, how it lasts longer than normal weaving, and how because they are inverted braids they keep the ends of your hair securely tucked in helping to retain length and volume. But I never learned how to do Didi Olowo, because I thought Didi Olowo was ugly.

For much of my childhood the things that were indigenous to my culture I considered ugly, or unattractive or uninteresting. I have spent much of my life not knowing enough—not caring to know enough— about what it means to be Yoruba. Although I understand Yoruba, when I speak the language my intonations are laughable, and I cannot read or write Yoruba the way I can English. I know very little about our history, marriage practices, proverbs, literature, and art. These things did not matter to me before, but now I find this nagging feeling of lack within me as if I am missing out. I am also now living in a place where the cultural identity ascribed to me is foreign to me.

In America, where I live, I am black. I am not Nigerian, I am not Yoruba, I am black. That is my Nigerian identity in America. It does not matter that I am from Africa, or that I did not grow up in America. I am black. It is something that is ascribed to me whether I want it to or not. Because in America race is not about where you are from on a map, it is about how you look. So my Nigerian identity in America, is rendered invalid. One look at the kink of my hair—black; the darkness of my skin—black. I do not mean to say that I am not black, because I am, what I mean to say is that the identity of blackness in America is foreign to me. Before I came to this country, I did not know what it was like to be the other group. I did not know what it was like to be hated, to be discriminated and disenfranchised because of the color of my skin. Being Black American has a history and a culture that I do not necessarily identify with because race is not embedded into the fabric of my history as a Nigerian the way it is embedded into an African American’s history. Their stories and experiences are not mine to tell. I am not always offended by what offends them. Sometimes, I do not know how to feel what they feel. I do not know how to be offended when someone touches my hair, I might think them rude, but I will not be offended. I do not know how to be offended when someone asks if my hair is real. Of course, there is no reason why I can’t be both Yoruba and Black in America, but my point is that a Nigerian Yoruba identity is very different from an African American identity, thus the dilemma of my Nigerian identity in America. Historically, Nigeria has not suffered from racism the way America has. In Nigeria, we don’t have race or racism, but we do have ethnicity, gender, and class. (I mean we do have the effects of colonialism and eurocentrism but that’s a different post for a different day).

Because of this identity difference, the conflict that exists between my Nigerian identity in America and the African American experience, last fall I took an African American history course because I wanted to educate myself. If I am to be Black, then I ought to know what the history of Black people in America is. What I found was a history of oppression and exclusion. But in the earlier sections of my textbook were also stories of ancestral Africa and its great empires and rulers. Somehow it was important to the authors to include a pre-slavery history. Typically, when I think of Black history, I think of slavery, but Black history goes beyond slavery and freedom fighters, and I do not say this to diminish the work of those who have fought for the liberty of Black people. I am saying that Blackness holds this meaning of struggle, or resilience, as more optimistic people may put it because of the history of slavery. But there was a time where dark people did not have to struggle against racism. This is the Black history I also want to know about. This Black history is the history of the great Mansa Musa of the Mali empire. This Black history is the history of Askia Muhammad and the kingdom of Songhay in West Central Africa. This Black history is the history of the legendary Queen Amina of Zaria, the enduring Mossi states, I could go on and on.

I understand that we celebrate Black history month to celebrate the resilience of black people, but I am saying that Black history should also be remembered for what it was before slavery.

After reflecting on this, I think my sudden interest in my cultural heritage is my desire to assert that my blackness is not all about struggle. I am privileged to know where I come from; to have a sense of identity independent from slavery, and oppression and racial politics. So, I hold on to my Nigerian Yoruba heritage. It may take some time for me to integrate being a black person in America into my identity because I am still processing, and there is much I have to learn about both identities, but there is still time. This post is more a self-reflection than anything else, but I hope you find something here for you too. Happy Black History Month.




Ikeoluwa Onasanya.

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