Letters & Opinion

Why Black Hair Matters to People of African Descent!

Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

On Thursday, August 31, the world will observe International Day for People of African Descent (IDPAD) and this weekend Saint Lucia will host a Black Hair Matters (BHM) event to highlight issues affecting Black hairstyles in Saint Lucia and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member-states, where students have, of late, been refused entry to school with ‘dreadlocks’.

A recent Texas Tribune article, headlined ‘Texas House passes CROWN Act’, highlighted a new law banning discrimination based on certain hairstyles — like braids, dreadlocks and twists — in schools, workplaces and housing.

The article, by Alejandro Serrano and dated April 13, 2023, reported that the Texas legislature had overwhelmingly passed the bill (by 143-5).

The vote was inspired by the experiences of two black high-schoolers near Houston who were threatened with discipline in the 2019-20 school year if they didn’t cut their locks.

The bill was filed by state Rep. Rhetta Bowers (D-Garland), who said after its passage: “I believe how the hair naturally grows out of our heads should have nothing to do with what is inside… and the time is now for Texas to take up this civil rights legislation and protect the people from racial discrimination.”

The CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act has been adopted throughout the USA since 2019, when school administrators ordered two young men in Mont Belvieu, about 30 miles east of Houston, to cut their hair.

Dakari Davis, a Black police officer who testified in support of the bill, said people shouldn’t be reprimanded for sporting styles that are natural for their hair or specific to certain cultures.

Davis, who has cornrows, said he was suspended from duty and prevented from engaging with the community he protected for almost a year before being cleared of violating department policy with his hair.

According to the Tribune article, “Anecdotal accounts of discrimination like Davis’ have emerged sporadically since the incident in Mont Belvieu drew international attention to the issue.”

In another case, it reported, “Administrators at Barbers Hill Independent School District told De’Andre Arnold and his cousin to cut their locks or be disciplined. Both refused and sued the school district over its dress code policy in a matter that is not yet resolved.”

The article continued: “A federal judge in 2020, once Arnold had graduated, found the policy discriminatory and stopped the school district from enforcing it.”

The students’ experience inspired laws that have since been adopted in 20 American states.

The Tribune article shows how relatively easy it can be to get change when lawmakers sit on their hands while the poor citizens suffer from application of ridiculous rules – like depriving students of education because of how they wear their hair.

In Saint Lucia’s case, that same hair matter was positively dealt with some 40+ years ago, when then Education Minister Louis George upstaged principals (who refused to accept students wearing dreadlocks) by instructing that they be accepted at all schools island-wide – bar none – once their hair was covered.

As things would turn out, however, this might very well be yet another case of ministerial or gubernatorial ‘guidelines’ not being made into ‘regulations’, as the minister has died and no one seems to remember his edict, which was loudly and publicly welcomed and praised in the local press, by the then-emerging local Rastafarian community.

One can only wonder whether it ever occurred to any of the parents of Caribbean student victims of hairstyle discrimination to even think of considering suing the principals and schools involved, public or private.

TV and online advertisements (in other parts of our world) feature legal firms inviting viewers to ‘Call Toll-Free’ with any case of discrimination they feel they have enough evidence to win.

This ‘pro bono’ approach (lawyers taking cases and getting paid only if they win) has worked well for most victims of killings of the many African Americans (like George Floyd) and People of African Descent in America (like Saint Lucia’s Botham Jean) that led to the launch of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020.

But not so in the English-speaking Caribbean, apparently, where so many still suffer so-much, just because they cannot afford the costs of pursuing their rights in court.

Legal aid? Pro Bono? Those too are in very short supply across and around the OECS and CARICOM region.

So, will the Texas ruling and the fact that this Black Hair matter has been settled in over 20 U.S. states encourage Caribbean victims and lawyers to change their stances and improve chances of representation and justice for human right victims who, in such cases, cannot afford the cost of taking schools to court for hair discrimination?

These issues will be addressed later this week when the Saint Lucia National Reparations Committee (NRC) and the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) jointly sponsor another regional panel discussion.

The ‘conversation’ will be on Thursday, August 31, on the National Television Network (NTN) from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., to commemorate the International Day for People of African Descent (IDPAD) and address the return of the hair issue to Saint Lucia, through the theme ‘Black Hair Matters’.

The panelists will speak about CARICOM’s support for a call by members of the UN’s Permanent Forum for a Second International Decade for People of African Descent, as well as why Black Hair Matters sufficiently for violations to be seen and treated as human rights issues.

And all that will precede a weekend Black Hair Matters engagement at the Corinth Estate Museum and Health Retreat (now renamed BelleVi Dou), with its sugar mill remnants and other historical and illustrated artefacts.

The free event – from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. – will include a Black Hair fashion show and exhibition of African wear and local hair and beauty products, as well as related cultural performances and it will also be live-streamed, as with all other events on the 2023 National Emancipation Month calendar.

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