DISSERTATION: Black Hair, Media & America: A twisted history.
“Don’t touch my hair!”
This strong sentiment has been widely-adopted as the fervent battle cry of the 21st-century Natural Hair Movement.
And it makes sense.
Because in actuality, "Don't touch my hair" has long been the heartfelt inner-feelings of the entire African-American community, men, women, and children since the days of early American enslavement.
Fact is, one of the first offenses against enslaved Africans was the forceful, unwanted cutting off of their hair.
The amazingly unique and diverse hair textures of African women and men varies from Eastern Africa all the way to Western Africa.
Some scientists have attributed the conditions of African geography to the type of hair texture a particular group of Africans may have.
The social significance of an African’s hairstyle speaks for itself.
You can tell much about an African man or woman by observing their hairstyle of choice.
African hairstyles have revealed a person’s marital status, birthplace, clan membership, age, occupation, and socioeconomic status.
An example is the Kuramo men of Nigeria, who could be spotted from afar by their partially shaved heads, with just one tuft of hair on top.
Among the Masai, warrior males are recognized by their long braids dyed with red clay, while the women and children traditionally keep their heads shaved.
The more elaborate hairstyles were worn by community leaders, and the ruler, who was the only one permitted to wear a headdress. Beautiful crowns were fashioned out of leather, gold, beads, and fancy braids.
Single young women may wear styles that show they are open to marriage, whereas married women’s hairstyles show that they are already taken.
Before marriage, Igbo girls in present-day Nigeria use clay, ground coal and palm oil to shape their hair into a horn-shape that bends toward their brows. While married women have plainer, covered styles, girls in Senegal wear braids and whimsical styles.
Photographer: Joey Rosado, Island Boi Photography
Model: Khoudia Diop, @melaniin.goddess
If a young woman of Senegal’s Wolof people was not of marrying age, she would have to shave her head a certain way, while men of this same group would braid their hair a particular way to show preparation for war and therefore the preparation for death.
In Kenya, young Turkana men spend hours getting their hair styled elaborately to show they had completed the initiation rites for adulthood.
In some ancient societies, African men wore their hair in a distinctive style when they were about to go to war.
This gave an unverbal signal to their families to prepare for a possible death.
[ Photo Credit @ www.afrographics.com ]
The discovery of ancient stone carvings and paintings depicting North African women and men with cornrow braids dating back thousands of years show the rich history between Africans and hair braiding..
In their earliest known forms on the African continent, braided styles had a duality of purpose:
Not only did they uphold societal customs, but they were also highly fashionable. “African women have a rich history in terms of the ways they adorn their hair,” says Zinga A. Fraser, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Brooklyn College.
[See NHP's list of Black-Owned Hair Product Businesses]
The dichotomy between tradition and artistry existed in perfect harmony until the start of the transatlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century.
The Himba woman pictured below is married as she is wearing ornaments on top of her braided hair. These ornaments, which young unmarried girls do not wear, identify her as being a wife.
Note also the ornaments and conch shell that hangs below her necklace, which is only worn by married women and is a seen as a symbol of fertility.
Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum, London, while the rest were purchased by other European museums.
Today, a large number are held by the British Museum.
Other notable collections are in Germany and the USA.
The impact of slavery on African's can not be overstated.
In addition to the physical and psychological trauma it caused, a huge part of the very essence of these enslaved human being was erased.
During the 1400s and 1500s, before European slave ships arrived in Africa, the hairstyle was very important to black women. Many would spend hours, or even days, on their hair, using special combs and oils to form locks, plaits, and twists.
[The adornment of both the head and hair was an essential part of the dress, especially in West Africa, where most blacks in America have their origins.
It was the year 1444 that the first documented slave trade happened.
Europeans began kidnapping Africans and trading them on the west coast of Africa.
The slaves wore their elaborate hairstyles to Europe. At first look, Westerners admired the hairstyles, but they soon began to shave the enslaved human beings against their will.
Even before captured Africans boarded the slave ships, the slave traffickers shaved the heads of the people in a brutal attempt to strip them of their humanity and culture.
They sought to take away the women’s lifeline to their homeland.
This was considered an unspeakable crime to many tribes. And...
Soon African hairstyles would disappear as the brutally enslaved human beings became more hopelessly lost, both physically and psychologically, under a system of unified oppression.
[ See article about kinky curly hair oils and hair health ]
In the 1800s, ships stopped bringing slaves to the U.S., in turn, the market value of slaves increased.
With this being the case.
Enslaved men, women and children were no longer forced to slave on Sundays, since literally working slaves to death at a whim(or for fun) would now start to cost more money than U.S. enslavers would have liked to pay.
This solely fiscally-motivated reprieve gave enslaved African women and girls one day of the week to have a few hours of "peace", and feel somewhat pretty again.
Enslavers would often twist the Bible's true message into something sinister and self-serving on Sundays and force their enslaved human men, women and children to attend church in order to indoctrinate a twisted message that the Bible doesn't really teach and has been maligned over ever since.
During the week, enlaved African women and girls would continue to cover their heads with a wrap but would remove it on Sunday for church.
However, they still weren't afforded the freedom or needed supplies to again display their beloved African hairstyles.
The fact that the combs they had previously used, and African hair products like palm oil was not available in America, they instead had to wash and condition their hair using butter, kerosene and bacon grease and brushed it with the carding combs used for the sheep. ( See our DIY natural hair products HERE )
During the insufferable years leading up to the abolition of slavery, many Black women wanted to straighten their hair, as straight hair had come to be considered, among some, as "good hair" because of the influence by the dominant society.
At no fault to whom the dominant society named "mulattoes", these mixed-raced humans were put in a precarious situation by a systematically oppressive society.
African women would often use dangerous chemicals, such as lye mixed with potato. The notion of “good hair” was further cemented because of house slaves or free Blacks, who often were born with straighter or straight hair because they were at least partially white.
However, the very limited sense of freedom these people enjoyed was not often due to their straight hair texture but rather due to the help they received from their white relatives.
This "Black Hair, Media & America" film and documentary gallery is dedicated to shining a light on the cause and effects of bias against Africans, as well as their hair and beauty in the United States of America.
This systematic and constant oppression against enslaved Africans and their descendants has left a deep, painful and long-lasting bruise on the very psyche of the subjects of said oppression.
What They Won't Tell You About Your Natural Hair
Part 1 & part 2
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Johnson, T. (2014) Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair https://file.scirp.org/pdf/JSS_2014010814473478.pdf
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Wise, L., Palmer, J., Reich, D., Cozier, Y. and Rosenberg, L. (2012) Hair relaxer use and risk of uterine leiomyomata in African-American women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 175, 432-440. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwr3514C Trichology Growth Services, LLC., was formed to serve an underserved community with unique, innovative, and science-backed natural hair growth solutions that work in the real world.