By Rashay Davis
Within the African American community, hair has always played a pivotal role in the lives of many. Africa American hair has been attacked, ridiculed, and annihilated. It has had to fight against not only opposition from white people who could not understand it or too ignorant to try, but also the many African Americans who curse the burden of the kinky tresses that lay upon their heads. African American hair has been renowned for its creativity and ability to create an industry all on its own. In a world that doesn’t place kinky hair on a high pedestal; African American hair has had to show the world the beauty that lies beyond the negative stigma that has plagued it for so long.
Madam C.J. Walker was one of the most influential pioneers to the African American hair movement.
“To be beautiful does not refer alone to the arrangement of the hair, the perfection of complexion or the beauty of the form…To be beautiful, one must combine these qualities with a beautiful mind and soul.”
In the book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of African American Hair, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps examine the trends, history, and social stigma born from African American hair.
After being forcibly ripped of their culture, Africans no longer had the means or time to focus on their hair. Many walked around with dry, unkempt, and matted hair because they lacked the tools, oils and herbs they had once used to take care of their hair. Their hair no longer added any confidence to their self-esteem by helping them to standout in a time where tribes such a Mandingo, Mende, Wolof or Ashanti didn’t exist, everyone was considered a slave.
Slavery destroyed the pride of African Americans had in their hair by categorizing African American hair into two sections, “good” hair or long curly hair, and “bad” hair or short kinky hair. These two categories were set up by the white slave owners to divide and conquer the slaves. Many of the “bad” haired slaves developed complexes about their hair which was usually short and dry suffering from baldness and infectious sores in the head from working in the hot sun all day. Many “bad” haired slaves envied the “good” haired slaves because of their work conditions, while the “good” haired slaves thought of themselves a little more highly, even though in the mind of a master, slaves were just livestock they owned. Livestock that they would describe a having hair like wool in ads that they would place when slaves in ran away which led even further into the dehumanizing idea that slaves weren’t human.
According to Joy Degruy Leary, “Before you can subjugate or oppress people you must relate them as subhuman.”
There was an abundance of Trans generational trauma done to African Americans due to slavery. The greatest of this trauma was apparent in the self-esteem and the ill feelings of African Americans about their hair post slavery. African Americans looked at their kinky hair as a burden that they needed to rid themselves of in order to fit into a society that they had been so long kept out of. They had been denied the right of caring for themselves and this included hair care. Many wanted to get a faraway from slavery as possible and that included the look of it. They wanted to attain a look that was acceptable in a society and that look they sought after mirrored the white masters and mistresses who had once owned them. In a way, African Americans wanted to gain a greater sense of self and humanity. This mission to meet the white America’s standard of beauty was passed on to future generations. They were taught that the kinkier the hair they had the less likely their hair was considered beautiful.
After slavery, the damage had been done to the extent where many African Americans hated their hair. This idea that the Euro-Centric feature of straight hair was better caused African Americans, especially women, to seek out a beauty that they felt they naturally did not have by way of chemical straighteners such as the relaxer. This gave African American women who did not have naturally straight hair a chance at attaining a standard of beauty that had been restricted to white people only before its creation. As time progressed and some women were tired of wearing a style that naturally was not their own so they began to experiment. By the 1970s, one of the most influential hairstyles in the African American hair movement would emerge, the Afro. The Afro was one of the first radical and natural hairstyles worn by African American women. It caused another divide amongst African American people. There were the group of African American people who thought that the Afros represented bad hygiene, while their relaxed hair made them look polished and put together ready for work in an American society. There were some African American people who believed their hair made the statement of African American pride and nonconformity and thought that the people who wore their hair were ashamed of their African American hair and sellouts to the African American race. Both had arguments for why they felt natural or relaxed styles were the right fit for them, some of these that are still argued today among the two groups.
African American hair is still a prevalent topic in today’s society, with documentaries such as Chris Rock’s 2009 “Good Hair” or talk shows such as The Tyra Show dedicating time to the issue; it doesn’t seem as if it will go away. In today’s society African American hair has taken on a more versatile appeal. The different textures of hair within the African American community have produced some of the most creative, trend-setting, and innovative hairstyles. Whether it is styles such as dreadlocks, afros, hair extensions, braids, curly, wavy or straight; African American hair is making a statement. It is no longer a statement of superiority or the pride of African American people, but one of individuality. African American people are embracing the fact that their hair is beautiful and can be styled in many ways. African American hair is creating new standards of beauty while moving away from the overemphasis of narrowly defining what it means to be African American and beautiful. African American hair is embracing diversity and stamping on the norms and standards of beauty presented in white America. People are starting to realize that hair is nothing more than an accessory and it has no indication of a person’s character even though some still judge others due to the hairstyle they choose to wear on their heads.
At Miami University, some African American women wear their hair as a symbol of pride and acceptance.
Miami freshman, Kiaya White, wears her hair natural.
“I wear my hair natural because this is how God created me, he gave me thick natural curls and I’m going to embrace it.”
Contrary to Kiaya, freshman Ashley Whitaker prefers to wear her hair relaxed in a stylish short Mohawk cut.
“I wear my hair relaxed because it makes my hair easier to manage.”
Then there is the new aspect of weave or hair extensions that some girls wear to add some creative style to their hair or to change their style to either short or long. Hair has lost a lot of the meaning it once had in the African American community because people are now wearing their hair just the way that makes them happy as a person.
“I believe a woman should be free to have creative license to wear her hair any way she pleases!” says Miami University’s professor, Dr. Tammi Brown.
The overall statement African American hair is beginning to advocate is self-love, no matter how that self is represented. With positive African American hair promotions such as Essence magazine’s My African American is Beautiful campaign, soulful songstress India Arie’ s “I am not my Hair”, and even Sesame Streets “I love my hair” advertising diversity when it comes to the standard of African American beauty.
With the many obstacles African American hair has met, it has yet to fail. It has grown out of the disparity and strife connected to its roots, while creating a sense of beauty that it can call its own. African American hair can no longer be reduced to such trivial adjectives as good or bad, relaxed or natural but the plethora of words that it would take to describe its beauty is unexplainable.