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Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America

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Two world wars, the Civil Rights movement, and a Jheri curl later, Blacks in America continue to have a complex and convoluted relationship with their hair. From the antebellum practice of shaving the head in an attempt to pass as a "free" person to the 1998 uproar over a White third-grade teacher's reading of the book Nappy Hair, the issues surrounding African American hair continue to linger as we enter the twenty-first century.

Hair Story is a historical and anecdotal exploration of Black Americans' tangled hair roots. A chronological look at the culture and politics behind the ever-changing state of Black hair from fifteenth-century Africa to the present-day United States, it ties the personal to the political and the popular.

Read about:

* Why Black American slaves used items like axle grease and eel skin to straighten their hair.
* How a Mexican chemist straightened Black hair using his formula for turning sheep's wool into a minklike fur.
* How the Afro evolved from militant style to mainstream fashion trend.
* What prompted the creation of the Jheri curl and the popular style's fall from grace.
* The story behind Bo Derek's controversial cornrows and the range of reactions they garnered.

Major figures in the history of Black hair are presented, from early hair-care entrepreneurs Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C. J. Walker to unintended hair heroes like Angela Davis and Bob Marley. Celebrities, stylists, and cultural critics weigh in on the burgeoning sociopolitical issues surrounding Black hair, from the historically loaded terms "good" and "bad" hair, to Black hair in the workplace, to mainstream society's misrepresentation and misunderstanding of kinky locks.

Hair Story is the book that Black Americans can use as a benchmark for tracing a unique aspect of their history, and it's a book that people of all races will celebrate as the reference guide for understanding Black hair.

ISBN-13: 9781250046574

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group

Publication Date: 01-28-2014

Pages: 272

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Ayana D. Byrd graduated from Barnard College and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, as well as magazines including Glamour, Essence and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Lori L. Tharps is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. A graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she is also the author of the memoir Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Read an Excerpt

Hair Story

Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America

By Ayana Byrd, Lori Tharps

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Ayana Byrd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-04657-4


Black Hair in Bondage: 1400–1899

The Story Starts in Africa
The story of Black people’s hair begins where everything began—in Africa. Not surprisingly, the birthplace of both astronomy and alchemy also gave rise to a people in perfect harmony with their environment. Indeed the dense, spiraling curls of African hair demonstrate evolutionary genius. Like natural air-conditioning, this frizzy, kinky hair insulates the head from the brutal intensity of the sun’s rays. Of course there is not one single type of African hair, just as there is not one single type of African. The variety of hair textures from western Africa alone ranges from the deep ebony, kinky curls of the Mandingos to the loosely curled, flowing locs of the Ashanti. The one constant Africans share when it comes to hair is the social and cultural significance intrinsic to each beautiful strand.
In the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. The citizens of these societies—including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba—were the people who filled the slave ships that sailed to the “New World.” Within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community. In some cultures a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle. The hairstyle also served as an indicator of a person’s geographic origins. The Kuramo people of Nigeria, for example, were recognized by their unique coiffure—a shaved head with a single tuft of hair left on top. In the Wolof culture of Senegal, young girls who were not of marrying age partially shaved their heads to emphasize their unavailability for courting. Likewise a recently widowed woman stopped attending to her hair for a specified mourning period because she was not meant to look beautiful to other men, and an unkempt coiffure in almost every West African culture was anathema to the opposite sex. Nigerian housewives living in a polygamous society created a hairstyle intended to taunt their husband’s other wives. The style was known as kohin-sorogun (“turn your back to the jealous rival wife”) and was meant to be seen from behind. In ancient times, if a Wolof man wore his hair in a particular braided hairdo it meant he was preparing to go to war and therefore prepared to die. Such a man would then tell his wife she should not comb her hair because in a matter of hours she could become a widow. Traditionally the leaders of a community—men and women—showcased the most ornate hairstyles, and only royalty or the equivalent would be expected to wear a hat or headpiece. “The common people go bareheaded,” wrote French anthropologist Marie Armand Pascal d’Avezac-Macaya when describing the Ijebu people living near the coast of Guinea. “As for the king, his headdress is raised up in the form of a tiara of great richness. It is made of coral beads mounted close together on a background of crimson leather; at the crest is a tuft or tassel of gold braid.”
While the social significance of the hair was weighty for African people, the aesthetic aspects were just as important. “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 raising bountiful farms and many healthy children,” wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone. According to Boone, “big hair, plenty of hair, much hair,” were the qualities every woman wanted. But there was more to being beautiful than simply having a lot of hair. It had to be clean, neat, and arranged in a specific style—usually a braided design—to conform to tradition. A particular style could be intended to attract someone of the opposite sex or signal a religious ritual. In Nigeria, if a woman left her hair undone, it was a signal that something was wrong. The woman was either bereaved, depressed, or “habitually dirty.” To the Mende, unkempt, “neglected,” or “messy” hair implied that a woman either had loose morals or was insane. Mohamed Mbodj, associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, says that Boone’s description of the Mende’s beauty ideal regarding hair also applied to the Senegalese: “[Wolof] women liked to have their hair shiny and long. And you didn’t cut it, you arranged it.” Mbodj also concurs that an unkempt or disheveled hairdo was often interpreted as a sign of dementia. Men, too, were always expected to keep their locs neat and tidy, whether they wore a short style or an elaborate creation.
The hair’s value and worth were heightened by its spiritual qualities. Both male and female devotees of certain Yoruba gods and goddesses were required to keep their hair braided in a specific style. “The hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine,” Mbodj explains as an indication of the power the hair holds. Because the hair is the closest thing to the heavens, communication from the gods and spirits was thought to pass through the hair to get to the soul. Mbodj also notes that spells could be cast or harm could be brought to another person by acquiring a single strand of their hair. Wolof tradition says that women had the power to make men crazy for them by calling on the power of the genies and spirits in the hair. The hair was thought to be so powerful that medicine men in Cameroon used human hair to adorn the vessels and containers in which they carried their healing potions as a means of protection and added potency.
Because a person’s spirit supposedly nestled in the hair, the hairdresser always held a special place in community life. The hairdresser was often considered the most trustworthy individual in society. The complicated and time-consuming task of hair grooming included washing, combing, oiling, braiding, twisting, and/or decorating the hair with any number of adornments including cloth, beads, and shells. The process could last several hours, sometimes several days. Often the only tools the hairdresser used were a hand-carved wooden comb (specifically designed with long teeth and rounded tips to remove tangles and knots without causing excessive pain), palm oil, and years of creative know-how. In some cultures the hair was groomed by a family member because only a relative could be trusted with such an important task. In the Yoruba tradition, all women were taught how to braid, but any young girl who showed talent in the art of hairdressing was encouraged to become a “master,” assuming responsibility for the entire community’s coiffures. Before a “master” died, she would pass on her box of hairdressing tools to a successor within the family during a sacred ceremony. For the Mende, offering to braid someone else’s hair was a way of asking them to be your friend. Boone writes, “Hair-braiding sessions are a time of shared confidences and laughter; the circle of women who do each other’s hair are friends bound together in a fellowship.” In communities in both Ghana and Senegal, women were not allowed to groom men’s hair and vice versa because of the social taboo that restricted interactions between the sexes. In addition, the only people allowed to work on hair, Mbodj says, were the griots and the ironworkers. “Anybody who is working at creating life with dead material, like melting iron and making it into something new,” Mbodj explains, “those are the people who have the exclusive right to work on people’s hair.” When Wolof children were born they would inherit a hairdresser, based on familial relationships, who would remain in their service for life.
* * *
Clearly hair has never been a purely cosmetic attribute for the West African people. Its social, aesthetic, and spiritual significance has been intrinsic to their sense of self for thousands of years. It is a testament to the strength of these African cultures that the same rituals and beliefs regarding the hair remain in traditional societies today. Although Africans were neither the first nor the only people who elevated the significance of hair in their cultural milieu, when Europeans first came in contact with the African natives in the fifteenth century they were astounded by the complexity of style, texture, and adornment of Black hair.
The Slave Trade
When the first Europeans began exploring the western coast of Africa around 1444, they were chasing fantasies of unclaimed riches. Instead of finding virgin territory flush with golden treasure, however, the European travelers discovered thriving African nations and new trading partners. For almost a hundred years thereafter, the Europeans enjoyed a cordial trading relationship with the Africans, exchanging weapons, textiles, liquor, and shiny baubles for gold, ivory, and sometimes even a small number of human slaves, who would be taken to the European continent and sold. This was a productive time for European exploration of the West African coast, and many men wrote about the majestic Africans they met along the way. Not only were these White men dazzled by the fantastic agricultural products the Africans were growing, such as corn, peanuts, and tobacco, and the vibrant indigo dyes used to color clothing and materials, they were also duly impressed by the extraordinary African hairstyles. “The Senegal blacks [have] their hair either curled or long and lank, and piled up on their head in the shape of a pointed hat,” wrote French explorer Jean Barbot. The Qua-qua, on the other hand, “wear long locs of hair, plaited and twisted, which they daub with palm oil and red earth. This hair is the hair of their wives, which they cut off and tie it this way, end to end, and fix it on their heads; some let it hang down, others turn it up!” Even though some of the Africans with whom the Europeans came in contact wore very little in the way of clothing—sometimes only a well-placed loincloth—the hairstyles were often elaborate works of art, showcasing braids, plaits, patterns shaved into the scalp, and any combination of shells, flowers, beads, or strips of material woven into the hair. “The king in Sierra Lionna [sic],” recalled Barbot, had “on his head a sort of cap made of straw in the shape of a mitre, decorated with goats [sic] horns, small porcupine tails and other trifles … his hair was tied up one on each side in such a way that from a distance the points could have been taken for the horns of some animal.” One Dutch explorer, while in the country of Benin, noted sixteen different hairstyles, each one indicating a combination of gender and status within the community. Unstyled and unkempt hair was largely unseen, as were scarves or headwraps. Clearly nothing was meant to cover the African people’s crowning glory.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, British, and French had begun conquering new territories in North America, South America, and the islands of the Caribbean. These enthusiastic conquistadors found themselves in the unprofitable position of occupying entire islands and countries, unable to work the verdant lands to capacity. Realizing the need for an imported labor force, the Europeans reassessed their West African trading partners. Since the Africans themselves were willing to trade in human cargo, the Europeans sought to exploit the situation. It was at this point that the African slave trade began in earnest. No longer content to take a few slaves back to Europe for a meager profit, the newly dubbed slave traders made several voyages a year to the area they baptized the Slave Coast (formerly known as the Gold Coast). There they acquired anywhere from one hundred to three hundred bodies at a time, which were then sold for a handsome profit to eager colonists in their new homelands. To keep up with the demand and to take advantage of the Europeans’ seemingly inexhaustible wealth, the stronger West African city-states increased their raids on the smaller inland nations seeking slaves to sell. Family members began to sell their own relatives, and debtors, social outcasts, and prisoners of war became unfortunate pawns in the slave trade.
For nearly four hundred years, an estimated twenty million men, women, and children were forcibly removed from their homes and dragged in chains to the slave markets on that infamous coast that stretched for three thousand miles from Senegal to Angola. The captives were then sold to European and Arabian slave traders. Most of the slaves were between the ages of ten and twenty-four, and the majority of them hailed from Western and West Central Africa. The citizens of countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria were highly sought after because of their specialized skills in agriculture, pottery, jewelry making, cotton weaving, and woodworking. One of the first things the slave traders did to their new cargo was shave their heads if they had not already been shorn by their captors. The “highest indignity,” wrote Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a member of a prominent West African family who was kidnapped and forced into slavery, was when his Mandingo assailants shaved his head and beard to make him appear as if he were a prisoner taken in war.
Given the importance of the hair to an African, having the head shaved was an unspeakable crime. Indeed, offers Frank Herreman, director of exhibitions at New York’s Museum for African Art and specialist in African hairstyles, “a shaved head can be interpreted as taking away someone’s identity.” Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons, but the effect was much more insidious. The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slave’s culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair. Separating individuals from family and community on the slave ships during the middle passage furthered their alienation from everything they had ever known. Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.
The first African slaves, a group of only twenty, were brought to British North America in 1619 (long after the first slaves arrived in the Caribbean). They arrived in Jamestown at the same time the first White women set foot in the new colony. As the British had neither social nor political experience in dealing with slaves, the first African captives were contracted to work under the same terms as the White indentured servants arriving mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland. After working a specified number of years, the Africans were allowed to buy their freedom and become contributing members of society. In addition, owing to the scant number of White females, some European men sought Native American and Black women for companionship and eventually had children with them. “These laboring [European] people themselves had been aliens at home, they were aliens in America and they were not so steeped in the color code,” historian Joel Williamson wrote about cross-cultural coupling in the early days of the British colonies. Because English law at the time declared that children inherited the status of their fathers, any mixed child with a European father was considered free at birth. Most mixed-race individuals, asserts Williamson, were the offspring of White “servants” and Black people. The result was an early North America infused with a medley of skin colors, hair textures, and interracial identities.
As the years passed, however, indentured servitude for Blacks evolved into a race-based institution called slavery. One by one, laws were put into effect that systematically took away the rights of Black people, as the British embraced the economic advantage of slavery. In 1641 Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery. In 1662 Virginia courts reversed the status-of-the-father clause so that children inherited the status of their mother. Now children born to slaves were also condemned to slavery. And finally in 1670 Virginia declared that baptism did not alter a person’s condition as regards to the state of bondage or freedom. In other words, even Africans who converted to Christianity were not saved from the chains of eternal servitude. The tide had turned and the deck was stacked against Black people, but still Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans continued to procreate (often by force) and populate the land with mixed-race individuals who often fell between the lines of the law. There were a few mulattoes during this ambiguous colonial period, in fact, who were able to prosper and even owned slaves themselves. By the early 1700s, however, any person with proven African ancestry—even a single relative from one hundred years back—was considered Black and therefore eligible to be enslaved. The thirty or so years when Black Africans had been realistically able to work for freedom quickly faded from memory, and Black people arriving on the shores of a hostile land faced a life without hope for a future.
Black Hair in Bondage
The primary need for slaves in British North America was to work on the massive plantations in the mid-Atlantic and southern states. While some slaves were purchased by farmers and tradesmen living in the North, the vast majority of Black Africans arrived to find themselves sold to southern plantation owners trying their hand at growing cotton, tobacco, and/or rice. Slave owners were very interested in the Africans’ agricultural expertise, specifically at growing rice, but for the most part showed no inclination to respect the Africans’ humanity or culture. Slave owners wanted maximum output from each slave, often choosing to work them to death in a matter of years rather than show them a bit of compassion. The slaves were expected to work in the fields under a grueling sun for twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. The single meal of the day might consist of dry cornbread smeared with pork grease and some type of overcooked vegetable. Punishments for insolence, slowing down, or rebellion included whippings with a cat-o’-nine-tails, sadistic torture, and amputations of digits and limbs.
Given these inhumane and unhealthy conditions, the Africans had neither the time nor the inclination to care much about their appearance, including their hair. Moreover, treasured African combs were nowhere to be found in the New World, so the once long, thick, and healthy tresses of both women and men became tangled and matted. Out of desperation for a tool to replace the African combs, the slaves began using a sheep fleece carding tool to untangle their hair. Interestingly, there appears to be no record of slaves making new combs specifically designed for their kinky hair. “We carded our hair cuz we never had no combs, but the cards they worked better,” recalled former slave Jane Morgan in an interview with a government worker from the Work Projects Administration (WPA). “We used the cards to card wool with also, and we just wet our hair and then card it. The cards had wooden handles and strong steel wire teeth,” Morgan recalled. Scalp diseases like ringworm became pervasive among the slave population, as did lice infestations. When an outbreak of ringworm occurred, slaves commonly tied a rag around their heads to cover the unsightly scabs left by the affliction, and a worse infection would then ensue, creating a vicious cycle of hair problems, breakage, and patchy baldness. Whereas in Africa, women could spend hours a day grooming their hair and arranging it in traditional styles, on the plantations they used scarves or kerchiefs fashioned from coarse fabric scraps provided by stingy masters to keep their hair well hidden. Partly as protection from the scorching sun and hovering flies and partly out of shame for the now unsightly hair, the head rag became ubiquitous in slave culture.
A crucial determinant of how slaves wore their hair was their work assignment. For the slaves who toiled in the fields and lived in separate slave quarters, the women wore head rags and the men took to shaving their heads, wearing straw hats, or using animal shears to cut their hair short. On the other hand, the slaves who experienced a closer relationship with the White population—laundresses, barbers, cooks, nursemaids, housekeepers, chauffeurs, valets—often styled their hair in an imitation of their White owners. For example, in the eighteenth century it was fashionable for White men of the upper class to wear wigs. As a result, some Black slaves took to wearing wigs as well; others shaped and styled their own hair to look like a wig. The slaves who worked inside the plantation houses were required to present a neat and tidy appearance or risk the wrath of the master, so men and women often wore tight braids, plaits, and cornrows (made by sectioning the hair and braiding it flat to the scalp). The braid patterns were commonly based on African tradition and styles. Other styles Blacks wore proved to be an amalgam of traditional African styles, European trends, and even Native American practices. One runaway slave was described as having “the Top of his head Shaved, and he combs it back like a woman.” It was not uncommon to see Black men with long ponytails (called “queues”) and partially shaved heads and Black women with their hair parted down the middle and brushed into a version of a European style.
In this new land dominated by pale skin and straight hair, African hair was deemed wholly unattractive and inferior by the Europeans. Many White people went so far as to insist that Blacks did not have real hair, preferring to classify it in a derogatory manner as “wool.” Descriptions of Black hair in the early 1700s—in runaway slave advertisements, slave auction posters, and even the daily newspapers—use this classification, almost as if by likening the hair to an animal’s, Whites would be validated in their inhumane treatment of Blacks. “Before you can subjugate or oppress people you must relabel them as subhuman,” declares Joy DeGruy Leary, a mental health therapist and Ph.D. studying the transgenerational trauma African-Americans suffered because of slavery. Once the feminine beauty ideal was characterized as requiring “long straight hair, with fine features,” says DeGruy Leary, White slave owners sought to pathologize African features like dark skin and kinky hair to further demoralize the slaves, especially the women. Aided by the scientific community, which had officially relegated dark-skinned, “woolly”-haired people to the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, the slave owners’ brainwashing took root. “Black women began to perceive themselves as ugly and inferior,” DeGruy Leary says. “And if you believe you’re inferior, then you’re much easier to control.” On the part of the slave owners, she adds, this brainwashing was not accidental, but deliberate. When the slave women internalized the slave owner’s racist rhetoric, which was almost inevitable, it wasn’t long before they passed the pathology on to their sons, daughters, and future generations.
Even though slave masters did their best to break the spirit of the Black people, the hair refused to relinquish its unique character, and some slaves consciously chose not to hide it. Runaway slave notices posted in the 1700s, for example, make mention of flamboyant hairstyles that belie any sense of shame or inferiority. The following hair descriptions of runaways were used in an East Coast newspaper at the time: “strong bearded and hair longer than Negroes commonly have,” “a very good head of hair,” “a short chubby fellow with extraordinary bushy hair,” “A Negro man his hair on the top with a tupee foretop,” “his hair is cut short on his crown but curls around his neck,” “his hair grows down his forehead and is bare on the temple.” Meanwhile a female runaway, Kate, from South Carolina, had “bushy hair, which she is apt to keep uncombed.” Even though unkempt hair went against the African aesthetic, some historians suggest that such unconventional styles were a way for Black people to assert their individuality and humanity in the repressive slave culture. “Hair that was worn long and bushy,” argue Shane and Graham White, authors of Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, “emphasized and even flaunted its distinctive texture [and] may have been an affirmation of difference and even of defiance, an attempt to revalorize a biological characteristic that White racism had sought to devalue.” With a steady stream of Africans entering the slave population, the meaning and significance of traditional hairstyles was not easily forgotten. It has even been suggested that in the first century of North American slavery, some of the more unique styles worn by men, like the combination ponytail and shaved head hairdos, were used in place of ritual scarification or for rite-of-passage ceremonies. White and White suggest that “the elaborate and distinctive styling of male hair may well have served as a form of substitute bodily decoration that still marked these young men off but seemed rather more attuned to their new circumstances as American slaves.”
By the time the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in North America in 1808, a distinct Black American culture had developed. As described by authors Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith in Africans in America, “This new culture became an intriguing mixture of African traditions and those developed in the Americas as a means for survival. Blacks from different parts of Africa combined their beliefs, their music, and their languages while borrowing from the European culture to create a commonality.” Though slaves could still be bought and sold, they were no longer being imported from Africa. With this peculiar institution of domestic slavery firmly entrenched in American society, a plantation owner was often judged not just by the quantity of his slaves but the quality as well. Sickly and unsightly slaves were both a bad reflection on the slave owner and a difficult commodity to sell. So while life did not suddenly become pleasant and amicable for the slaves, they were allocated some time for personal grooming. It was around this time that many slave owners began to allow their slaves to “rest” on Sundays in order to attend church and observe the Sabbath.
Because this was the only day when there was time to devote to oneself, Sundays became the designated day for doing hair. “The only time the slaves had to comb their hair was on Sunday,” former slave James Williams told a WPA interviewer. “They would comb and roll each other’s hair and the men cut each other’s hair. That all the time they got.” Another former slave, Charlie Hudson, had similar memories. “Sundays the old folks stayed home and looked one another’s heads over for nits and lice. Then, the womans wrapped each other’s hair so it would stay fixed till the next Sunday.” In Natchez, Mississippi, a White New England traveler described the following Sunday morning church preparations in the slave quarters. “In every cabin the men are shaving and dressing—the women, arrayed in their gay muslins, are arranging their frizzy hair, in which they take no little pride.” All week the hair might be hidden under a scarf, but for church on Sundays the hair would be combed out and styled. “In them days all the darky wommens wore they hair in string ’cept when they tended church or a wedding,” recalled former slave Gus Fester. Amos Lincoln added, “All week they wear they hair all roll with cotton that they unfold off the cotton ball. Sunday come they comb out they hair fine. They want it nice and natural curly.” Besides serving as the spiritual renewal for the week, church also became the place for the slaves to exchange hair remedies and secrets.
After two centuries in bondage, a unique homegrown system of Black hair care had developed. Over the years, the goal of grooming the hair had morphed from the elaborate and symbolic designs of Africa into an imitation of White styles adapted to Black kinks and curls. Both women and men were interested in straightening their hair because straight European hair was held up as the beauty ideal. There existed neither a public nor a private forum where Black hair was celebrated in America. And without the influx of Africans to the slave population, it was difficult