Black Women Over Hair!

by Wendy Spence-Christie

A woman braids the hair of a young woman in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. San Basilio de Palenque, a town located 31 miles from Cartagena, is considered the first community to officially free enslaved people in the Americas. Photo by Richard Cross © CSUN Tom & Ethel Bradley Center

The black hair has historically been a catalyst for freedom and self-expression. Black hairstyles represent now antiquated navigation systems that once served as roadmaps to freedom for enslaved people. Coded pathways were disguised and intricately woven between strands of braided hair that also served as a source for food on escape routes. As we observe March as Women’s History Month, it is inevitable that we highlight the role of the crown atop a black woman’s head.

Ironically, the black hair is rooted in liberation, yet somehow, it has become a modern-day source of oppression — especially for the black woman (on whom we shall focus this article). Whilst exotic Bantu knots, colorful cornrows, and braided hair have become decorated forms of expression in pop culture, black women in workplaces are being penalized for the same. They are subjected to discriminatory actions as the professionalism of black hair is being constantly challenged.

The strength of the black woman’s hair is symbolic — the tightly curled coils hold the same resilience as its people. It has a unique ability to bounce back — even after immense heat and pressure are applied. Black women refer to their hair as a crown and in its most natural and untamed state, the black hair represents power.

The state of California enacted the CROWN Act (SB 188) in July 2019 to prohibit hair discrimination. The CROWN (Creating Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) was introduced by California senator, Holly J. Mitchell and supported by several political and civic leaders. Perhaps it is incomprehensible, but noteworthy that in this decade, the black woman must seek this level of protection and permission to exist in her natural state. How did we get to this crossroad, where cultural representation and legal battles intersect?

Ancient Egyptian artifacts show black hair-braiding in early civilizations. In early African traditions, hair-styles were used as status symbols. The lengthy process of hair-braiding (as it still is today) was a bonding experience between black women.

In the 15th century, enslaved Africans were ripped from their homelands and thrust into the trans-Atlantic slavery enterprise. Along with the removal of culture and traditions, the hair of the enslaved Africans was also among the identities lost.

As enslaved Africans plotted escape routes in various geographic regions, braided patterns were used as coded directions. According to researchers, food items hidden in hairstyles also served as critical energy sources for those on journeys in pursuit of freedom.

The black woman’s hair is as diverse as the shades of her black skin and its versatility is unmatched. On her head, she wears a crown adorned with jewels of Bantu knots and braids, corn-rows, and dreadlocks.

Timeline of The Black Hair Journey

1444 — Human trading on the west coast of Africa resulted in Africans being traded to Europeans. It is reported that the Europeans were fascinated by the intricacies and elaborate designs of the black hair. However, in a quest to control the Africans, they cut their hair and rid them of their identities.

1619 — The Transatlantic slave trade brought the first set of enslaved people to Jamestown, Virginia. It is believed that due to the confinements on the ships and the lack of grooming, the hair of the enslaved Africans also became matted.

Enslaved Africans were robbed of their identities and forced to conform to a European standard of beauty — fair skin and straight hair. The enslaved people who acquired those features became valuable and were auctioned off at higher prices during trading.

1700s — The beautiful elaborate hairstyles on black women looked regal and began to appear as a threat to the status quo — particularly in Louisiana. In 1778, Tignon laws were established and required black women to cover their hair in public. Black women then began to use fabrics to create sophisticated wraps and styled them as elegant head coverings.

1800s — Enslaved Africans were by now indoctrinated into believing that the black hair was unattractive. Additionally, a lack of access to traditional herbal hair care techniques caused black women to start using products such as bacon grease, butter, kerosene, and sheep brushes for hair care.
In the mid-1800s, the hot combs were invented and began gaining attention among black women. The hot combs were used to straighten the black hair. It was also during this period that Madam C. J. Walker invented products that were used along with the pressing comb to enhance the beauty of the black hair.

1865 — Slavery is abolished but the post-traumatic experiences lingered. Black women continued to embrace straight hair and the press and curl as a form of beauty.

1920s — Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist from Jamaica, promotes black empowerment and embracing natural black aesthetics. In a famous quote, Garvey said, “ Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.”

1930s — Rastafarian hair (dreadlocks) — Haile Selassie becomes emperor of Ethiopia. Political unrest leads the Emperor into exile. In response, his followers made a vow not to cut their hair until Selassie was freed. Researchers claim that the matted hair now referred to as dreadlocks were birthed from the movement.

1954 — George E. Johnson, Sr., a black chemist, and entrepreneur, introduces the permanent hair straightener. The hair straightening products first targeted African American men, then, soon after a female-inspired line of hair care products was launched.

1960s — Actress Cicely Tyson wears corn rows on a television series. This represented one of the first public displays of a traditional black hairstyle in mainstream media. Civil rights icon, Angela Davis, also wears her Afro — a public symbol of empowerment for the black woman.

1970s — Jamaican Reggae music icon, Bob Marley, is credited for making dreadlocked hair universally accepted in the mainstream and as a part of pop culture.

1971 — Black American journalist, Melba Tolliver is fired from a major television network affiliate for wearing an Afro while covering the wedding of Tricia Nixon, the daughter of President Richard Nixon.

1980s — 1990’s — The jheri curl and weaves/hair extensions become popular enhancements to the black women’s hair.

2000s — Black women are rediscovering the beauty of their natural hair. There is an upward trend towards black women wearing their natural hair — from bald to braids and kinky to curly, this decade is marked by a movement to reclaim the crown.

Timeline source: The History of Black Hair (Documentary)

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We collect, preserve, and disseminate the visual history of our region—Southern California—with an emphasis on ethnic communities.

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