GOING BACK TO THE ROOTS OF BLACK HAIR
There is a huge need and demand to understand black hair. The struggle to understand this hair type goes deep into history. History has personally taught me how to appreciate and embrace my Afro hair type, how to work with it and also how to be proud of it.
Going back to the roots takes us into the history surrounding how black hair was treated prior to a change in our historical understanding. Back in the African civilization – where the Afro hair type originates from, hairstyles were used to indicate various things – age, ethnic identity, wealth, rank in the community, marital status, religion, birth of a new baby, coming of age, death etc. The afro hair was groomed by women who cared and understood how the African woman’s beauty should be. The social significance of hair was massive as also was the aesthetics of the hair. A lot of hair was a quality every woman loved and wanted. The significance for Africans was to have not just a lot of hair but clean, neat and specifically designed in plaits or braids to conform to culture. Leaving hair undone was generally not tolerated otherwise you are seen as dirty, insane, or bereaved. Historically, every region of Africa had different ways of styling the Afro hair. Generally, a mother took care of a daughter’s hair while passing on the skill of grooming, understanding tools, products accessories etc to the child. Occasionally, the grandma initiated the passing on of this knowledge and this perpetuated in the family. In the society, styling and taking care of each other’s hair was a social treat where the mums and friends spent valuable time to share confidences and laughter in each other’s company grooming each other’s hair. Money did not exchange hands as each woman took turn to style each other’s hair. Your hair stylist was usually someone very trustworthy as there were personal connotations attached to someone you allowed to touch your hair. The task of grooming the hair included shampooing, oiling, combing, braiding, twisting adding decorations if required etc and the process usually takes a long time lasting several hours and sometimes lasting days depending on how complicated the style may be. The tools were generally a hand-carved comb with long tooth with the task of untangling the curled knots without causing pain. Products used were basic oils like the palm oil or palm kennel oil. There was a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being involved within the process of grooming that accounted for a complete approach to a woman’s beauty. Black people in Africa had pride and loved their beauty. They had no problem appreciating their natural beauty.
Then time changed. Slave trade came into the African society around the 16thcentury. New territories had been discovered in North America, South America and the Caribbean and the Europeans needed an imported labour force. It was at this stage that the African slave trade began.
In a period of nearly 400 years and with an estimated 20million people forcibly removed from their home land and dragged in chains to the slave markets – slave trade changed the Black person’s mentality about themselves. Most of the slaves were between the ages of 10 and 24 and the majority hailed from Western and West Central Africa. The captives were sold to European and Arabian slave masters.
When the black woman got to America, the issue of how to care for her hair and what style is acceptable became a problem. This is because the slave masters wanted maximum output from each slave, often choosing to work them to death in a matter of years rather than show them compassion. Slaves were expected to work in the fields under a gruelling sun for 12 to 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Giving these gruelling inhumane circumstances, the Africans had neither the time nor the inclinations to care about their appearance including their hair. Personal care, grooming and well-being had been put aside. The black woman had to struggle for survival in America and was forced to put pain and suffering over her beauty regimes. Treasured African combs were nowhere to be found as they had been forcefully taken away and had no time to be organised for life in a strange land. This led the once long, thick and healthy black hair of both women and men to become tangled and matted. Out of desperation for tools, the slaves started using Sheep Fleece carding tool to untangle their hair. Scalp diseases became prevalent such as head lice infestation etc took over. Slavery had stripped black people of their identity, pride, values and culture. This caused frustration and hardships which led the black woman in America to feel inferior and learned to hate themselves, their beauty and their hair. Black people were not born feeling inferior but the cruel circumstance that slavery offered forced them to feel this way in a European dominated world as an example here confirms – in the mid 1800s the black woman’s hair was virtually outlawed in New Orleans when they were forced to cover their hair with a scarf while in public. Underneath the scarf was neglected hair with limited grooming options which caused serious hair and scalp problems. The black woman started to struggle with her image – good hair-bad hair, light skin-dark skin, anti-African-pro European. They started to seek solutions to change their physical appearance in order to please their slave masters – these were images opposite to their natural hair including pride in skin colour and all distinctive African physical attributes.
“We had been completely brainwashed and we didn’t even know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty and at times, we accepted the white man’s view of ourselves” Assata Shakur – former Black Panther – in her autobiography.
Then Madam Walker came to the rescue of women with a range of cosmetics for black hair needs encouraging them to take back pride in themselves. She encouraged straighteners to enable hair to become easy to comb. She considered her hot combing more natural as this was a temporary method which allowed hair to “go back” with water.
There was now a huge demand for this hair style as it posed a solution to the problem the women were dealing with. This huge demand then gave birth to a more permanent solution to the problem which now became the chemical relaxers – a very lucrative hair industry black women deal with today.
Black women still want to know when beauty touches them. Is this in the eyes of the beholder, should we let someone else tell us when we are beautiful or should we remember that the natural gifts we have from nature is ours to embrace and work with rather than damage and work against.
These are some of the examples of well loved celebrities who have learnt to love their natural locks.
Please check them out – Jill Scot, Corinne Bailey Rae, Erykah Badu, Teeyana Taylor, Shingai Shoniwa, Solange etc
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