You can’t run your fingers through kinky black hair. The often-romanticized act of delicately tousling your loved one’s hair never applied to my world. Natural black hair is defiant, pushing against your fingertips and getting caught in the finer details of your skin. Its density is akin to the ocean, you never know how deep it is until you try to explore it. Beneath the surface you can feel the undulate strands: they naturally clump together like seaweed, bending and waving under your fingertips. If one were to explore kinky black hair with their hands, they would soon find that they need a completely different approach than the one that is expected.
I was sitting in class on a hot Brazilian morning. My Portuguese was rudimentary, but I had been keeping up with today’s lesson – the African influence on Brazilian culture, as taught by a resident anthropologist. I had grown to adore this class, looking forward to hearing Brazilian Portuguese in such a special context from lessons in samba to cooking classes in moqueca de peixe. My teacher often called me nêga, a word for black girl, but not in an American way, an honest way. I am a black girl, and when my teacher noted me as minha nêga he was making a point to call me his girl, his student, who just happened to be black.
As our professor gave us the finer historical reasons for the Africanisms we saw every day while studying in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, he made a note to focus on language. As the lecture went on, my mind went back to the moments I started listening to Brazilian music and learning the lyrics, only to be confounded with words like moleque and obá. I was enraptured. “African languages,” our professor continued, “live on in words of song, dance, love and,” he stepped towards me with an open hand and touched my hair, fingertips on my scalp, squeezing gently. “cafunê,” he said.
Cafune, he explained, is a Brazilian Portuguese word referring to the act of lovingly touching a loved one’s hair. The origins are disputed, with some historians believing it derives from the Yoruba language of Nigeria, and others noting the outsized influence of the languages of Angola, in particular Kimbundu, on Brazilian Portuguese. Despite the disputed nature of cafune, the original definition remains the same. Many historians cite the origin of the word being how native Africans understood the preening behaviors of animals being reflected in how humans interacted with each other. From birds to monkeys to humans, everybody enjoys a good grooming.
But why? In that moment when my professor touched my hair, there was a flash of confusion, anger, and then a pause. It was.. pleasant. The politics of black hair in the United States are fraught with complexity. Too often is naturally kinky black hair treated with disdain, confusion, patronization, or exotification. Our hair is inappropriate, unprofessional, distracting, strange, dreadful, and at times above all, ugly, bad. When hands reach for my hair I instinctively freeze up, my body flush with heat, my breathing stops. In that moment there is a choice, every time, to say something or to let it happen. In both choices there is a certain degree of stress.
The decision to place a hand in someone’s hair should not be taken lightly. It should be done with good intentions, love, and above all, respect. The word cafune is used in conjunction with the verb fazer, to do or to make. Fazer cafune then becomes something that you do, much like other phrases in Portuguese, such as fazer carinho, to cuddle. But sometimes these things are done without a thought.
While relaxing with a man that I adore, he relaxed and leaned into me. I don’t know why I did it, but instinctively I placed my hand on his hair, and started to massage. The texture of his hair under my fingertips was extremely satisfying. His kinks would bounce back against the pressure of my hand. I felt his head get heavier, him leaning into the palm of my hand. After moments of silence, we both sighed.