Is it really ‘just hair’? – The historical significance of black hair.

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Naptural85 before her hair grew to waist length.

Naptural85 before her hair grew to waist length.

I was watching one of my favorite vloggers showcase another tutorial, with her thick waist length hair. I scanned the comments, most of which were gushing about how beautiful her hair is, only to find one that had a lot of replies. One unsuspecting viewer made the mistake of asking if the vlogger, Naptural85 was mixed. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting it to become a heated discussion. Many commenters began to tell her off for implying that Naptural85 must be mixed with another race, in order to have long, luscious hair. Another began to educate her about this misconception and what someone is really saying when they ask this question. Then another inferred that ALL black people are mixed and this started a whole new debate. There were discussions about our ancestral links to other races, the intermixing that took place during slavery and so forth. Others gave examples of the diversity of Africa and how you would find tight kinky hair, to loose curly curls and even straight hair, within the vast continent. During such discussions someone always tries to be the voice of reason and say, it’s just hair people! Although it is true that this all started from a simple hair tutorial, here are some reasons many would consider this emotive topic to be about more than ‘just hair’.

natural-hair-headband

Hair has always been extremely significant in all African cultures. It has long been socially important because it communicated age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, geographic origin, and even one’s rank in the social hierarchy.  Royalty would wear hats or elaborate hairstyles to emphasize their status. Traditionally in West Africa, long thick hair was praised on women, as it symbolized the power of life, prosperity and the promise of many healthy children. Widowed women would not take care of their hair during their period of mourning, as not to attract other men. Wolof culture in Senegal shaved their hair to show that they were not courting. Cornrows and other braids are used for grooming African hair and may often be styled with beads or shells.  Although curly and kinky hair was gloried in West African societies, it became a symbol of inferiority once enslaved Africans reached American shores. “The pride and elegance that once symbolized curly/kinky hair, immediately became a badge of racial inferiority”, says author Ingrid Banks.

Hair use to mean the difference between freedom or enslavement

Straight hair has been pursued by black people ever since. Both women and men desired straight European hair because it was seen as the beauty ideal. Unfortunately this mindset still exists today within the black community. After centuries of slavery, straight hair provided economic opportunity and was a social advantage.  Hair was used to determine Negro status, even more than skin color.  After slavery, up to 80 percent of former slaves were mixed with European heritage due to interracial coupling between slave and master.  Many had skin as light as Caucasians. The general rule was that if the hair showed just a little bit of kinkiness, that person would be unable to pass as white. This would likely lead to them being recaptured and enslaved again. “Essentially the hair acted as the true test of blackness, which is why some male slaves opted to shave their heads to try to get rid of the genetic evidence of their ancestry when attempting to escape to freedom”; says authors Byrd and Tharps in their book; Hair Story: untangling the roots of black hair in America.

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Henry Bibb, a runaway slave who was being held in Louisville, Kentucky before escaping.

Perhaps even today many people of African descent, living in Western countries subconsciously associate straight hair with economic advantage and social acceptance. When I first went natural I was reluctant to wear my hair out at work, for fear of being ‘misunderstood’.  One of my friends felt she had to seek permission from her supervisor before she could display her natural hair.  Numerous cases have been reported of people being discriminated against because of their afro hair texture, and not only by white owned establishments.  The article Natural Hair in Nigeria, highlighted the negative attitudes that exist there towards natural hair; for example natural hair being referred to as ‘village hair’ or believing it would prevent a woman from finding a husband. There is still a fear that our hair will put us at a disadvantage in many walks of life.  These attitudes are especially likely to exist with people from older generations.

 Hair texture hierarchy

There is also a clear division within the black community, when it comes to hair and skin tone. The debate about the hair typing system and perceived hierarchy is still evident. The very suggestion that someone with long, defined hair must be mixed, implies that only mixed people have nice hair.  Of course such divisions have existed since slavery and have not been eradicated in the minds of many black people today.  We’ve all been taught that the slaves with straighter hair worked inside the plantation houses, avoiding backbreaking labor.  The house slaves had access to clothes, better food, education and, the promise of freedom some day.  During this era a skin-shade, hair texture hierarchy developed within the slave community, hence the emergence of good vs. bad hair.  Good hair was thought of as long, kink-free, no frizz or tight curls.  The straighter the hair, the better.  Bad hair was African hair in its purest form.  Orlando Patterson (1982); In Slavery and Social Death: A comparative study; argues that hair, not skin color, became a more potent mark, that symbolized servitude during slavery in North America and the Caribbean. “Hair type rapidly became the real badge of slavery”. Today it’s our minds that may still be enslaved by these principles and not just in America.  There has been much debate over whether the natural hair community has adopted a hair texture hierarchy, with type 3 hair (loose/defined curls) being preferred to  type 4 hair  (kinky/tightly coiled).

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Leyla of Fusion of Cultures who is Ghanaian

Despite being free, this mentality continued in the minds of black people and still exists today.  The spread of European colonialism has also had an effect.  The pursuit of European style weaves and wigs and relaxers is evident of that.  In an attempt to educate people, some of us explain our thoughts on this subject passionately. When someone tries to dismiss those attempts with the phrase, “it’s just hair people!” it can be quite frustrating.  Should we be fixated on hair? No, but certain mindsets should be challenged in order to prevent them from being passed on to the next generation.  These attitudes exist after 400 years, simply because they have been passed on from mother to daughter, grandparent to grandchild, father to son etc. Conforming to European standards of beauty did not lead to acceptance after slavery.  Black people with straighter hair who emulated fashions and hairstyles of whites were ridiculed and satirized in the press, in theaters and on the streets.

“Be yourself because an original is worth more than a copy” ~ unknown

Degrading African features

Wunmi of womaninthejungle.com is Nigerian

Wunmi of womaninthejungle.com

During slavery the idea was pushed that darker-skinned black people with thicker hair were less attractive, less intelligent and worth less than their lighter-skinned brothers and sisters. This was simply to divide, and sadly some division still exists to this day. Some people are still of the mindset  that African hair in its purest form is ugly. And a black woman with nice hair has it, despite being fully black, or a person is beautiful despite being dark-skinned.  Whatever a person’s skin tone or hair texture, we should see their beauty, inside and out. It’s natural to have preferences but prejudice is a different thing entirely.  Perhaps we should stop asking people with two black parents if they are mixed, simply because their hair is long or defined.  Most people, knowingly or unknowingly (whatever their race) have links to other races or nationalities.

So no, it is not ‘just hair’, our hair is linked to our African identity. Our hair has emotive links to a history of oppression. Our hair is also linked to freedom of expression and African pride.  Try to understand where a person is coming from and what they are trying to teach and correct, before dismissing the discussion. For you, it may be just hair, but for many it goes beyond that. Thankfully the ignorance surrounding natural hair is being addressed and many of us are learning to embrace it, however, some still have a long way to go.

 

Do you think it is just hair? Share your thoughts below.

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4 responses »

  1. Yes! I agree, it’s so important to educate ourselves and our children. There is a wealth of history highlighted in the book. Thanks for commenting :-).

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  2. Absolutely wonderful post. I am currently reading Hair Story: untangling the roots of black hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps. This book is not just a hair book it is a history book that leads to other great and fascinating books of our heritage. I encourage those who think it’s just hair to read this book and teach the younger generation before they become more lost by conforming to mainstream. So no it’s not just hair it’s history that has not been taught, tossed aside and forgotten.

    LuvBlack

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  3. Thanks for the feedback, it is much appreciated! Yes I hope in time these negative attitudes will change, as they still exist to an extent. With more of us embracing our natural beauty and challenging these stereotypes, we are on the right track :-).

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  4. Great post! Of course it is more than just hair! You laid out the history behind why that is beautifully in this post. The stereotypes, ignorance, and internalized displeasure with black hair is quite prevalent. Good vs. Bad hair exists under a new catch phrase Type 3 vs. Type 4, or even amongst Type 4s. A lot of people are embracing their hair, but you still have a fair amount who think “it just hair,” or that wish for a looser texture (aka ‘less African/black’). As more and more women go natural and embrace their natural textures, hopefully the negative opinions will fade into oblivion.

    Nature’s Pulchritude

    Like

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