Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Tangled Roots: Decoding the history of Black Hair

From pre-colonial Africa till now, Black hair has shifted in its meaning and become highly politicized, particularly in Western society. And today, Black women's hair continues to have an enormous bearing on how they are able to move through the world. We're taking a look back at the story of Black hair, and what it tells us about the Black female experience throughout history.

'The emulation of European styles was to push back against the idea that we were inferior,' says author

American activist and thinker Angela Davis's afro hairstyle was a political statement — defying Eurocentric beauty standards. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*Originally published on January 28, 2021.

Over the last few centuries, the meanings and social roles of Black hair have shifted.

But even so, attitudes towards Black hair today are often rife met with negative stereotypes; a holdover from the slavery-era idea that Black people — along with their physical attributes — were inferior. 

But a closer look at the story of Black hair itself reveals a lot about Black communities throughout history.

Black hair as identity 

In pre-colonial African societies, Black hair was seen as a symbol of a person's identity. 

And during that time, there was a hairstyle for everyone and every occasion: whether you were royalty, a soldier going off to war, or a mother about to give birth. There was even a hairstyle for women waiting for their men to come back from war. 

"A person could tell who they were talking to simply by looking at the hairstyles," says Lori Tharps, a professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.

In her book Hair Story, Lori Tharps chronicles the culture and politics behind the ever-changing state of Black hair from fifteenth-century Africa to the present-day U.S. (St. Martin's Publishing/John Barone)

Her book traces the journey of Black hair all the way back to 15th-century west Africa. 

"Your family, your tribe all had their own specific hairstyle. In addition, your hairstyle would be more elaborate if you held a higher place in society."

According to Tharps' research, there was never a time that a person didn't have their hair done in some kind of style, whether they were male or female. In fact, hair was so important that if a person didn't style their hair in a specific way, it was assumed that person was mentally ill.  

But when the transatlantic slave trade began, these traditions were erased, and a new set of meanings were imposed onto Black people's hair, particularly by white slave owners.

"The hair was one of these physical attributes that was very easy to point to and say, 'Look at their hair. It's more like an animal than it is like our hair. That's what makes them inferior,'" says Tharps.

American businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker, circa 1914. (Wikipedia)
Madam C.J. Walker — born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 — was a Black businesswoman who after battling her own struggles with hair loss, built an empire selling hair care products made for Black women. Through her hugely successful business model, she also provided career opportunities and financial independence for thousands of African American women who would have otherwise had to work as maids, cooks, and farmhands. She's widely credited as being the first female self-made millionaire in U.S. history. 

The slavery era and the decades following it set the stage for much of the negative stereotyping around how Black people presented themselves — that still persists today. 

"Black women's beauty was depicted as a negative, and we can see that from the time of enslavement in North America forward," said Tracy Owens Patton, a professor of Communication and African-American Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming, who has spent time tracing how Eurocentric beauty standards have shaped the psychology of Black women today. 

"If you think about Sara Baartman, for example, also commonly known as the Hottentot Venus, her Rubenesque body style was made fun of through the white Western eye. Black women were [simply] told that they weren't beautiful."

These Eurocentric beauty standards have consistently cast Black people as deviant or abnormal because they didn't fit into the narrowly-defined parameters of how white people saw beauty. 

"And so we went from loving our hair and carefully caring for our hair, to covering up our hair and trying to emulate European styles [but] not because we thought they were pretty. There was none of that," said Tharps. 

"The emulation of European styles was to push back against the idea that we were inferior or that we were animalistic. If the white slave owners were going to tell us our hair is what makes us inferior, then we're going to say, 'Well, if I can make my hair look like yours, then I'm not inferior. I'm just like you.'''

Hair as resistance 

By the 50s and 60s, Black hair styles became an intrinsic part of major Black liberation movements.

African Americans had grown frustrated with both the racism they were facing in society, and the futility of their own efforts to try and "fit in" just to survive.

"Eventually, enough Black people said this isn't working; it doesn't matter what we do, we're still killed, disrespected and not allowed to move forward," said Tharps.

And during this time, the afro arose as one of the major symbols of Black agitation in America.

"It wasn't about a style, it was a form of protest to say, I am not going to straighten my hair anymore," according to Tharps. "So the Black afros that we associate with people like Angela Davis or the Black Panthers of the civil rights movement really became a symbol of resistance."

And Black hair was also part of a new culture that was springing up here in Canada. Back in the early 1940s, Viola Desmond, a Canadian civil rights leader, started the first school of hairdressing of its kind in Nova Scotia after being rejected from all of the local beautician schools simply because she was Black.

Davis wanted to create a school that would cater to the beauty needs of Black Nova Scotian women, something that didn't exist at the time, and her beautician school was the first beauty college in Halifax to ever welcome Black students. 

Viola Desmond in her salon in the North End of Halifax, circa 1938. (Wanda Robson Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University/Bank of Canada)

Black hair today

The conversation around Black hair has now become politicised, as societal standards of what constitutes "normal" hairstyles continue to exclude Black people.

This means that Black women and children in particular, are being increasingly policed and punished for their hairstyles, whether through school regulations, office dress codes, or even rulebooks for competitive sports. 

And the styles in question run the gamut from braids, to dreadlocks and even a basic afro./

But in the U.S., the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) will potentially prohibit racial discrimination on the basis of a person's hair.

And for the first time in American legal history, states are being forced to recognize that the kind of hair-based discrimination that Black people have been subjected to for years is, in effect, a form racial discrimination.

"Courts have only recognized race really, really narrowly," said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean at Boston University's School of Law.

"They think of race as being defined only by skin colour, and haven't thought about all the various ways in which race has been defined physically as well as performance wise. [This law] makes it quite clear that those things are race discrimination."

So far only seven U.S. states have passed the CROWN Act, and Onwuachi-Willig is one of several lawyers, state legislators and activists who are fighting to get this law passed in their own home states. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom (centre) signs a bill tabled by L.A. Sen. Holly Mitchell (third from left) on July 3, 2019, that bans workplace and school discrimination against Black people for wearing natural hairstyles, including locks and braids. (Kathleen Ronayne/AP)

And as a Black woman herself, she knows all too well the real life effects of having to constantly worry about your hair, and how it's being perceived in society.

"It's making you a little bit less competitive, potentially, than your peers because you have less time to focus on your work than they do," she said. "It also takes you out of yourself. You're not able to be your own natural self and wear your hair in its natural state."

It's an undue burden that many Black women and children continue to carry, but with greater awareness around this issue, and new laws like the CROWN Act, more and more Black people are being empowered to show up to work and school as their most authentic selves. 
 

Guests in this episode:

Lori Tharps is a professor at Temple University, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig is a professor and dean of Boston University school of Law.

Tracey Owens Patton is a professor of communication and African-American diaspora studies at the University of Wyoming.


*This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.
 

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