By Rébecca Joachim
Many people do not understand the outrage about cultural appropriation when it comes to black hairstyle. ‘’It is just hair”. No, it is not. Stating that black women natural hair is “just hair” is clear ignorance on our hair history. To understand the natural hair movement, you have to understand its history. Here is a little background history on black women’s natural hair. In order to be able to analyze the perception of black women’s hair today, it is crucial to look at its perception in earlier days.
Social Status and Wealth
Let’s take a look at black hair before the worldwide colonization by white Europeans. In the early 15th century, black hair was used as a carrier of multiple messages in West Africa (Byrd, Tharps, 2). By looking at their hair alone, you could indicate a lot of things; A hairstyle could indicate such thing as a person’s age; marital status; religion; ethnic identity; wealth, social status and much more. You could even know someone surname by examining his or her hairstyle because each clan had its unique way to style its hair. For example, in the Wolof culture of Senegal, young girls who were not old enough to get married would have partly shaved heads to demonstrate that she could not be courted yet.
Black hair really had a heavy social significance in those days, but an aesthetic significance as well. West Africans admired women with long and thick hair. Long and thick hair would mean that a women is a life-force, and was good with agriculture and children. (Sylvia Adryn Boone anthropologist)
Therefore, it was important for women in West Africa to take great care of their hair. If a woman left her hair unkempt, it could mean she suffered from depression or just that she wasn’t able to take care of her hygiene.
Black hair had also big spiritual meanings in those times. Since hair is located at the highest point of the body, the closest to heaven, it was believed that communication with gods and spirits were made through hair and directed to the soul.
Black hair was at the centre of the West African's culture, and there was an high-valued perception of kinky hair before the time of colonization. So, how did colonization completely change this perspective?
Black hair during the slave trade
The first Europeans that arrived approximately around 1444, were highly impressed with black hair. They observed more than sixteen hairstyles indicating a combination of gender and social rank. Even though some Africans were sometimes not heavily clothed, they would always have intricate hairstyles. They were rarely seen with their hair undone. For West Africans at that time, hair was a great source of pride!
When the slave trade started in the 15th century, Africans were captured, were forced to slavery and had their hair shaved. Shaving African hair was seen as a way to humiliate them since they valued their hair tremendously. By shaving their head they were also deprived of their identity. Slaves owners would justify shaving their head for sanitary reasons but it had a deeper meaning; it was the first step taken by European to erase slaves’ culture and identity.
Upon slaves’ arrival to the New World, they were not only separated from their family and community, but they also stripped from their hair, their identity. Shaving their hair furthered their alienation from everything that they have ever known.
Slaves and their hair
Given the inhumane condition in which the slaves had to live, they had no time or energy to take care of their hair as they used to back home. Plus, they did not have any of their African styling tools (such as combs) that they used to have back home; therefore slaves had nothing to style their hair with. Therefore, their hair became matted (Byrd, Tharps, 12). Since they did not know what to use to comb their hair, out of desperation, slave started to detangle their hair with sheep fleece carding tools. Unfortunately, the use of these tools resulted in bad scalp infection, hair breakage and loss of hair. As a result, women slave started to wrap their hair with pieces of fabric, which starting the history of headwraps in the African-American history. Headwraps were partly used to protect the hair but also worn out of shame because of from their depraved condition. (Byrd, Tharps, 12).
In the 1800s, a law in Louisiana banned women of color from wearing their hair in public; it was called the Tignon Law.
The hair of enslaved women working on the field and the hair of enslaved women working in the plantation’s house were treated differently. While slaves on the field were wrapping their hair to cover them, those working indoors and more closely to their masters, had to be neat and black hair was not considered as professional. Their hair was to resemble as much as possible to their master’s straight hair.
Black hair was dehumanized and seen as unattractive compared to straighter, Caucasian hair. Those comparisons made slaves feel inferior which contributed slave owners having bigger control over them. (Byrd, Tharps 13)
Straighter Hair a Symbol of Prosperity and Freedom
Having straight hair was not only a synonym of beauty but it was also a synonym of prosperity. Slaves of mixed race, who often had looser curls pattern and thinner features were often privileged. Having those features were associated with freedom because many mixed race slaves were free. Slaves attempted to achieve this look because hoping that it would convince their slave master that they deserve freedom (Byrd, Tharps 17).
Still to this day, having straight hair can be perceived as a sign of prosperity. As time has passed, the negative stigma surrounding black hair has lingered and many black women choose to straighten for professional encounters, such as job interviews.
Image when typing unprofessional hair on Google
The fact that a black woman chooses to straighten her hair does not mean that she hates herself or her hair, she might just feel like it and it is her choice. Either way, although more and more accepted, it is important to acknowledge that natural kinky hair still has a negative stigma and that as long as this negative stigma exists, it will never be just hair. It will always be bigger than that. Our natural hair does not define who we are, but like us, our hair is resilient.
Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin's, 2001. Print.