Black hair is Black identity.
It shows a Black person’s journey, their ancestry, their edge and style. The ability to variate styles is unmatched. It's personal, and looks and feels completely different from person to person. It connects us, but don't you dare try to touch it. Melanin may fade in a generation, but those kinks and curls are about to come through loud and clear, as beautiful as ever. Hair is not just hair, especially pertaining to Black folks. I mean, your crown chakra literally radiates from this “crown” of hair, and the power and agency hair has is something that's existed for centuries, and it's important for us to not forget the past as we look to the future.
Looking at the Past
Anthropologists have found braids and intricate hair extensions on the mummies of ancient Egyptians, and have also found that hair was significant in determining social class and power. In West Africa, hair could be used as a symbol of fertility, where having thick, long and neat hair being a symbol that a woman could bear healthy children. The Himba tribe of Northwestern Namibia used hair to represent the stage of one’s life, age and marital status. Hair was believed to help with divine connection, and the styling was only trusted with close relatives because they believed that if hair happened to fall in the wrong hands, the owner of the hair could be subject to harm. It’s incredible that the maintenance and careful selection of who does your hair and what styles are done are practices that have existed for generations. It’s our history.
The wig of Hontempetand mummy of Queen Ahmose-Nofretari
Colonialists, of course, went out of their way to remove the power of hair, and force Black people to lose their ties to their rich identity. Hair of slaves were shaved as punishment, and also a means to remove the ability for slaves to recognize each other’s tribes from their hairstyles. 18th century Tignon laws in New Orleans forced Black women to wear headscarves at all times to distinguish them as lesser than white counterparts, and also ensure they would not get attention from male counterparts.
We give an awful lot of credit to Madame CJ Walker--the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire--for her hair products, but she really caused a shift in the idea of what
Black hair was expected to look like by creating a “manageable” way to make Black hair appeal to Eurocentric beauty standards. Increasing our ability to get jobs outside sharecropping meant losing who we were, limiting how we viewed our own hair and power, which inherently allowed White America to limit what was deemed appropriate and professional. In fact, some states still have not signed the CROWN Act, which prevents the discrimination of natural hairstyles in the workplace.
"Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.” --Marcus Garvey
There is no surprise that alongside the Civil Rights movement, wearing natural hairstyles were viewed as a form of Black pride, Black identity and political activism. Black people were demanding recognition, and what better way to show that than to walk around with a black fist pick in ya fro? Iconic.
In my opinion our Black Hairstory is much deeper than decade-to-decades of trends. Rather I see it as a journey exploring the possibilities of variation of our appearance and our expression of self-identity. Through all the perms, S-curls, and heat, we somehow came back to our roots--our natural hair, because we have found power and connectivity with each other.
My Connection to Hair
The natural hair “revolution”, or the switch to "going natural" is expanding quicker than ever before and this time it's in the most public of spheres. My natural hair journey started my freshman year of high school when I had to take swimming in gym. Before then, I had never worn or really even seen my natural hair. I grew up with my mom and sister doing my hair until I got to junior high, when I discovered bangs and the flat iron. (I don’t think my hair will ever recover from those bangs I used to straighten every day.) It was difficult learning to love my natural hair and work to heal it from its damaged state. Youtube was my teacher, and through that I began to fall in love with all that I could do. To love your hair, is to really love yourself.
In college, I expanded the love I found for my hair in doing others' hair, giving many of my friends the opportunity to try new styles they wouldn't have done at home because of socio-cultural norms. Many of my Black male friends began growing their hair out, whether the reasoning was rebellion or lack of knowing a barber in LA, and I've found that there is a need to also educate Black men about the power and flexibility of their hair in order to allow them to reclaim Black hair and identity too, despite the limits of gender. Why is it that we do not embrace Black men and their hair journey in the same way we embrace Black women? Even with the thousands of natural hair gurus on Youtube and Instagram, so few of them are Black men. We must encourage and create a space for Black men to receive the same level of flexibility and adventure of exploring their hair as a piece of their identity as well.
A look inside my dorm room/apartment "shop"
Looking to the Future
We as a community must redefine what is deemed “clean” and “presentable”, WE are professional--ya feel me? Hair typing based on a simple numeric system does not encompass the entity of Black hair, so rather than use it hierarchically, we should use it to learn about how to best keep our hair healthy. Let’s respect the choice for locs, for undefined fros, and braids. And dedicate our energy to protecting our history and present identity from the attack of cultural appropriators. *cough* Kardashians *cough * But to further combat arguments that suggest that Black people are trying to appeal to European beauty standards by dying their hair blonde or straightening it, I suggest watching this TED talk on hair psychology. Psychologist, Johanna Lukate argues that Black people in the European context, specifically in Germany, will dye their hair not to appeal to white standards, but to assert themselves in their German identity.
It wouldn’t be right if I also did not add the fact that sometimes our hair choices are just that, and we aren’t trying to necessarily make a political statement just because our hair is natural. So we cannot allow first impression psychology to play a role in prejudging what a person believes solely by how their hair looks on a given day. In this case it really is just hair.
Louis Thompson photography
For my Ladies...
My hope in the future is that we as a community continue to embrace the complexities that come with having Black hair. I am an avid supporter of weaves, wigs, throwing a scarf on--because in my opinion, nobody does it better! On a serious note, we as Black women suffer enough from the judgement and lack of respect we receive in this world. Let's allow our curls, kinks, and coils to unify us. I’m guilty of thinking “what’s wrong with her head?” but I'm always unlearning toxic behaviors. Something that I’ve learned is that not everyone has the same understanding or connection with their crowns (hair), so who am I to judge when I have knowledge to share. It's my obligation to my community to respect and nurture the crowns of my brothers and sisters. That’s why every time I’m in Michigan visiting my biracial baby cousins, I bring my hair kit and get them excited to get their hair done by Cousin Courtney. It’s about more than just looking done up, but it’s about making sure they feel nothing but pride confident and beautiful in embracing their identity
Our ancestors connected hair with divinity, they shared the lessons and styles they learned with the next generations and nurtured their understanding and acceptance of self. We can still do that. As we reflect on the end of Black History Month and look towards Women's History Month, I encourage you to connect with your hair in whatever way that looks like, because it means so much more than a snapshot of how you’re feeling-- it’s who you are.
Like, drop a comment, and let me know about your personal hair journey. <3
Peace and blessings,