A Beautiful Hair Affair – there’s more to Hair
– by Natasha Patterson.
Ask almost any black woman and she will probably tell you that her relationship with her hair is similar to a love affair. Whether it’s the long hours spent waiting at the hair salon, the pain endured from unknowingly buying fake hair and haircare products, pressing or braiding, or the amount of money spent— hair is truly an obsession. While I realize other cultures also value hair, for Black culture, hair is extremely significant and often synonymous with identity. Many individuals, such as Don King, Bob Marley, and Angela Davis, Ara, Derele, have used their hair to make a statement.
As a member of the Black culture, I admit we often take the significance and maintenance of hair to another level. But this is not of our own will. In fact, the importance of hair in the Black community can be traced back to our African ancestors.
The origin of this love affair can be traced back to Africa. It seems only natural that the “affair” would begin here, since most blacks were transported from the west coast of Africa. Although the textures of their hair varied greatly, the Africans expressed similar views on the cultural and social significance of their hair.
“In the early fifteenth century, hair served as a carrier of messages in most West African societies” (Tharps and Byrd 2001) These Africans–citizens from the Mende, Wolof, Yoruba, and Mandingo—were all transported to the “New World” on slave ships. Within these communities, hair often communicated age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, and rank in the community. Hairstyles could also be used to identify a geographic region. For example, in the Wolof culture of Senegal, young girls partially shaved their hair as an outward symbol that they were not courting (1). “And the Karamo people of Nigeria, for example, were recognized for their unique coiffure—a shaved head with a single tuft of hair left on top.” (1) Likewise, widowed women would stop attending to their hair during their period of mourning so they wouldn’t look attractive to other men. And as far as community leaders were concerned, they donned elaborate hairstyles. And the royalty would often wear a hat or headpiece, as a symbol of their stature.
Just as the social significance of hair was important, so was its aesthetic appeal. According to Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist who specializes in the Mende culture of Sierre Leone, “West African communities admire a fine head of long, thick hair on a woman. A woman with long thick hair demonstrates the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a ‘green thumb’ for bountiful farms and many healthy children” (Tharps and Byrd 2001) However, there was more to being beautiful than having long tresses. One’s hair also had to be neat, clean, and arranged in a certain style. These styles included, but were not limited to, cornrows, and other braided styles. They also adorned the hair with ornaments such as beads and cowrie shells.
Just as hair was elevated for social and aesthetic reasons, its spiritual connection also served to heighten its significance. Many Africans believed the hair a way to communicate with the Divine Being. According to Mohamed Mbodj, an associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, “the hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine.” Consequently, many thought communication passed through the hair. Many believed a single strand of hair could be used to cast spells or inflict harm. This explains why hairdressers held and still hold prominent positions in the community. For those who do not know, styling and grooming black hair is often complicated and time consuming. This time spent at the hairdresser often results in close bonds between the stylist and the client. It is important to note that “unstyled and unkempt hair was largely unseen, as were scarves and headwraps.” Therefore, one can conclude that the hair was not meant to be covered.
As the study of American history has revealed, the slave trade not only inflicted physical damage, but it also left emotional and psychological scars. The most devastating scar, that is still reflected today, is that done to the slave’s self-image. This is especially true as it relates to hair and skin color. As they both became the framework for determining race.
Slave owners often described the Africans’ hair as being “woolly”, thus likening them to animals. These and other terms would later be used to justify the inhumane treatment of the slaves. After years of repression and constantly seeing those with “straight hair” and “light skin” afforded better opportunities, the slaves began to internalize these words. Ultimately, self-hatred began. In an effort to educate others about black hair and to celebrate its diversity, I wrote this piece. While this is not a complete history of black hair, it should provide some basic knowledge. – by Natasha Patterson. Copyright 2002