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Why Everyone Should Care About the History of Our Hair

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As the owner of a hair salon that caters to Black businesswomen, one of the most fraught decisions my clients face before public appearances, major corporate events, or the first day in a new role, is what to do with their hair. 

They don’t take these resolutions lightly. And although legislation against hair discrimination continues to gain traction, they are well aware of the nuanced penalties and scrutiny that still exist for “wrong hair choices” in the workplace. 

Our chats become full-blown deliberations, more complex than the usual prep-at-bedtime rituals or tips on how to preserve their hair while at the gym. For them, choosing hairstyles that look and feel great, but can also fend off dehumanizing remarks from colleagues, remains a weighty task. 

My clients know their hair gets a lot of attention; it always has and it always will. And while they understand the influence of its natural beauty, they also recognize how others might see it as a constant source of threat, pain and fear.

The story of our hair starts with a marvelously civilized-turned-savage history.

In ancient African societies (as far back as the 15th century), Black hair was an important symbol of identity. In the book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, authors Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps explain how it was a strong indicator of tradition and pride. Africans used it to communicate significant attributes about themselves like tribal affiliation, social status, leadership roles and language.  There was never a time when one’s hair was not done. In fact, someone would be considered ill if their hair wasn’t specifically styled.

However, during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this rich heritage, along with its proud, visual aspects was erased…and new symbolism was imposed onto Black hair, specifically by white slave owners.

Upon their capture and prior to boarding slave ships, the heads of enslaved Africans were shaved by slave owners, a deliberate act to strip them of their respectability and place in society. The motivation and intent, to “break their spirits”, in order to control and render them inferior. The egregious, ongoing traumatic act (among many), is what started most of the negative stereotyping about how Black people present their hair…and why the generational damage and pain that encompasses it still exists for many of us today.

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The self-hatred surrounding hair existed in white communities first.

In The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism (a study written by Audrey Elisa Kerr, a professor of English Literature at Southern Connecticut State University, published by the Journal of American Folklore), during slavery, social and political hierarchies were evident among slave owners. Those with greater wealth sought to purchase slaves with more European-like features and hair because they prioritized white women with fair skin and straight hair over the whites who didn’t possess the same distinctions.  

This was a defining moment in Black hair history because the perspective was an extension of the colorism and texturism that already existed among whites themselves. 

Straighter hair textures were an indicator of status among whites long before becoming a mark of prestige in Black communities. And according to a study by the Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, these narrowly defined standards of beauty and prominence continue in white spaces today.

Our hair is never “just hair”. 

Whether it was used as a tool for survival (slaves cornrowed maps of escape routes to freedom into their hair when writing and drawing was risky), empowerment (launching a legacy of Black commerce and economic independence, owing to hair care titans like Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker), or resistance (worn as a symbol of activism and individualism by way of the Civil Rights and “Black is Beautiful” Movements of the 1960s), Black hair has a prolific and deep history of celebration and freedom.

At the same time, it is burdened with centuries-old, historically racist injustices; many of which are at the hands of those who didn’t always look like us, but personally suffered from the very prejudices they projected onto us.

So, when my clients express concern about the prospects of having their hair touched without consent or someone maligning its texture, it underscores the importance of why Black hair is all of society’s lessons to learn—not just ours.

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