Black Hair, Black Voice

“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.

Angela Davis sporting a Black Power afro

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.

Beyonce and her ‘Formation’ backup dancers, sporting afros

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

 

 

Works Cited

“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

 

5 thoughts on “Black Hair, Black Voice

  1. In response to Liz, I absolutely agree with you that Hurston uses Janie’s hair as an object of the gaze– her hair, her skin, her entire body are pleasurable for the men to look upon– however, I’ve also always read that line as indicative of Janie’s liberation. Hurston notes that Janie’s hair “unravels in the wind like a plume,” a phrase which always struck me as a perfect description of the beauty of imperfection, a beauty which is commanded and moved by nature, that is also light and beautiful as a feather. I think this is also Hurston’s way of exposing the self-liberation of women while remaining within in the gaze, but also in spite of the gaze. The gaze is a great way to think about Black hair moving forward though.

    (Also, I can fix my citations, sorry about that. I normally use MLA or Chicago.)

  2. In response to asrichardson, I absolutely think exploring how Black hairstyles are commodified for non-Black people. Months later, I’m still troubled by all the people who thought Kim Kardashian’s “boxer braids” were a new and inventive thing on her part. (https://www.teenvogue.com/story/boxer-braids-hairstyle-history) I’m currently foraying into Black Feminist thought so perhaps in reading those scholars, I’ll find a way to think through the commodification of Black beauty, despite the obvious and simultaneous condemnation of it.

  3. Great analysis of where Black hair currently stands in American popular culture. You write that some critics see natural hair as just another trend that carries little meaning. Arguably, ignoring the meaning of natural hair is to divorce Black culture from the hair altogether. Another avenue for future research could be an investigation into how Black hairstyles are appropriated and commodified for non-Black consumers. Shea Moisture, a company that creates haircare products for natural hair, did an advertisement earlier in 2017 featuring white women who claimed that they experienced “hair hate” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/shea-moisture-ad-falls-flat-after-backlash-n750421). While the performers you mention in your writing make the connection between Black femininity and natural hair explicit, this is still lost on non-Black people who attempt to copy Black hairstyles.

  4. The organization of your piece served your discussion well. The section detailing the intra-community discourse over the subject was enlightening and could serve as a basis for future research. I would be interested in reading your argument and seeing how you would map out comparable and contrasting arguments. I particularly enjoyed your use of a playlist: it demonstrated the intersections of the media you chose to write about, Black hair, and another media, popular music, in a compelling way that could also serve as the grounds for future work.

  5. This analysis of black hair as media object of study provides a good overview of its potential political, social, and cultural significance as a signifier of resistance to white normativity. I liked how you structured your essay by opening with the Zora Neale Hurston quotation (signifying a Harlem Renaissance and New Deal context) and closing with the Solange quotation that brings us up to the present. Obviously, as you indicated, there is a growing scholarly literature about the beauty parlor and barber shop as Black social spaces, but I appreciated your media studies focus on how hair functions as a medium of display for the African diaspora, whether it be braided or in the form of the Afro. I was particularly interested in thinking through how Hurston presents it as an erotic object for the male gaze (a topic we will come back to when we get to the unit on visual culture), while Solange states that her hair is a visual medium for her own affective uses not a tactile one that invites interactivity from the spectator. Let me know what citation format you plan to use in the course, and I am happy to show you some of the bibliographic tools that make composing works cited lists (and keeping track of sources) easier.

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