You don’t always think about Black History month in terms of the seperate aspects of our history. For example, you have the history of the culture as a whole; but you also have the history of parts of the culture that makes us [as a “people”] who we are: language, dance, music, dress, and, yes, even our hair.
Waaaay back when America was merely the wish of the great nation it is today, there were great nations and peoples who existed on other continents – Africa being one of them; and Africans were many and scattered across the continent by tribes. These tribes had their own set of beliefs, practices, and way of life and survival.
This also went for hair. Things have not changed much by way of black hair and how we style and care for it. Today, some of us make an appointment at a salon to sit most of the day and leave with intricately braided, twisted, or pinned up styles that sometimes even require the work of two hairstylists. You can often tell a woman’s social standing in the community, profession, or personality by how she wears her hair. Things were not so different in Africa before slavery. Hairstyles had symbolic messages; a person’s tribe, economic status, faith, age, emotion, and well being was indicated by their hair style or the lack thereof. Just like many of today’s salons, hours and days were spent on the care and styling, where combs, beads, oils, and fabric were used to decorate and moisturize the hair. How long have you known your barber? Because children in Africa often inherited their hairdresser, who was a lifelong stylist. Walking around with your hair unkempt or unstyled did not happen – and these unique and intricate hairstyles amazed Europeans who came to trade goods in Africa.
But then the history and culture of black hair changed. And it has gone through many changes since those pre-Slavery days of the 1400’s. Many of us have ‘returned’ to our natural roots, for our roots stem from those intricately designed styles of subSaharan Africa. Yet nothing garners as much controversy as the phases in the history of black hair both within and outside the black community. We have evolved from pride to shame to impartiality back to shame and full circle to pride. Hair type has become a hot topic that still divides this community, and we have made this industry a billion dollar hair extravaganza. And still, we don’t agree to disagree when militant naturals in one corner insist that only the natural afro will prove you are proudly black, and mainstream naturals in another corner will sell straight tame natural hair as the key to finding better jobs and fitting into society.
Why is this such a big deal? I mean, women from all cultures and continents have changed their hair, and experimented with styles and hair fads. And this is not wrong. However, there is an uncomfortable and long-standing unspoken complex in the black community that goes deeper than the latest style craze. The idea that we are inferior because of the untamed and unruly state of our natural hair is deeper than skin deep, and it is the underlying reason we as a community have gone through so many changes with our natural hair. From the very beginning we could not be seen as socially acceptable unless we altered the look of our strands to resemble a more accepted and civilized culture. There are unconscious issues with our self-image, our self worth, and our self-identity – this has led to self-loathing and the rash of both chemical and non-chemical methods for keeping the nappy beast under control. We are just now climbing out of that deep seemingly bottomless hole and coming to terms with our beauty as a people and accepting ourselves for all of what makes us unique. But it is still a journey – one that involves changing the minds of many. So while upper-class European women created controversy within their circles by allowing ringlets of hair to fall where only updo had been an acceptable style of choice, African women were forced to shave their heads bald in order to be tamed and cleansed of their identity. The difference is, as Karsten Ivey stated in an article he wrote called Combing the history of black hair, “It’s about self-esteem, identity, politics, economics, history and race.”
So I have deemed this Black History Month the month to Love Our Natural Roots – and not the roots we comb and condition, but the roots that brought us to where we are today in the care and style of our [natural] hair.
For February, in honor of Black History month, we will look at some of the major events that have shaped and influenced black natural hair, as well as some of the controversies surrounding the history of black hair and the culture that surrounds it. This is not new information – I have been able to find a plethora of facts online and from books written on this topic. This is not to push an agenda or convince any one that one type of style is better than another. This is to inform and entertain. After all, it is good to know our history so we aren’t doomed to repeat it, right? And we should use the knowledge of the past to grow, not as a stalemate.
Let’s start with the Natural Hair Timeline.
I will identify some of the milestones that brought us full circle. Dates and events will be added daily, so check back often for new information.