“The men noticed…the great rope of black hair swinging to [Janie’s] waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume…”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (2)
Hair is a critical component of culture in the African Diaspora. It was always more than a mass that grew on my head, but a symbol of community. Hair styling at home often required me to sit between my mother’s knees as she pulled a comb through my kinks; styling at the salon meant observing as my mother engaged in gossip with the other ladies, found out about the latest church event, and reunited with long lost cousins. The salon and the relationships forged in the process of hair styling are in their own rite vehicles of communication– displaying love and kinship– but the hair itself has always held meaning.
Ayana Bird and Lori Tharps said it best when they explained that hair, in Black Culture, is a vehicle of communication, “a carrier of messages.” Going back as far as the 1400s, Bird and Tharps explain that Black hair has always stored, displayed and disseminated information. Particular geometric patterns of cornrows on the head or other types of braids often indicated “marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank.” Braided styles, after completed, were not fleeting—they were often worn for days, even weeks afterwards. The ability to indicate, for example, marital status, could be observed on an individual woman for days at a time. Some patterns could even indicate which family a woman belonged to, which offers an instance of displaying familial pride with one’s hair. It would even be rumored that enslaved Afro-Columbians used certain patterns of braiding as maps to freedom.
More recently, Black hair became a political statement. William Van Deburg discusses the budding Black Power Movement in Day in Babylon, stating that “during the late sixties, white American youth used their hair to make a variety of political and philosophical statements. Young blacks were not excluded from this trend.” (198) In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, in his speeches, as he urged audiences toward Black Power, a concept which centered around self-determination for Black people, he would also contribute to the Black is Beautiful movement, stating that “a broad nose, a thick lip and nappy hair is us [Black people] and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.” (201) This plea for Black people to love themselves as they were would help popularize the Afro, as well as other natural hair styles. In the midst of Black Power, natural hair styles would symbolize a commitment to unapologetic Blackness and “a statement of self-love and personal significance.” (Van DeBurg, 201) It came to indicate a break with white hegemonic cultural norms and thus an embracement of Black culture.
In 2017, statements about one’s political life can also be displayed through one’s hair. For women, in particular, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a young Black woman who regularly relaxes her hair. It seems only fair to note that as Afros and natural hair increased in popularity during the Black Power Movement, natural hair today appears to be making a comeback parallel to the development of #BlackLivesMatter. The debates around today hair sound familiar: one side argues that to chemically straighten one’s hair communicates an accommodation of white supremacy, the other argues that natural hair is just a trend– an empty symbol with no meaning. While it is possible that this moment may very well be “trendy,” it is a trend that is rooted in a legacy of politicized Black hair. It is entirely possible that it is a fad, but there is something inexplicably liberating about cutting off your relaxed hair. Freeing my hair helped me communicate the pride I felt as a Black person—it was the most basic form of self-expression and self-love as my kinks communicated to the world that I had no desire to conform to white American standards of beauty.
It meant something in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael called for Black people to embrace their beauty. That same message of self-love by embracing their natural hair is still heard today—just turn to the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange, who both sung of the magic of Black hair on their 2016 albums while wearing natural hair styles themselves, or else featuring women with natural hair in their music videos. Solange’s song in particular, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” particularly resonated with Black women as they recognized that their hair was political, historical, and extraordinarily valuable because of all that it was—at the bare minimum an expression of self, an assertion of personhood, and a freedom to love of one’s own body.
“Don’t Touch My Hair” x Solange
Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
They say the vision I’ve found
Don’t touch what’s there
When it’s the feelings I wear
They don’t understand what it means to me
“Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles,” DeNeen Brown
Hair Story: Understanding the Roots of Black Hair in America, Ayana Bird &Lori Tharps
New Day in Babylon, William L. Van Deburg