By Megan Kirk
Solange Knowles said it best — don’t touch my hair. In the African-American community, hair is hailed as a sacred crown. Able to defy gravity, Black hair is a way of expressing oneself, which dates back to ancestral times. Steadily evolving, African Americans have continuously re-created and reimagined hairstyles while still maintaining legacy. Not just exclusive to women, but Black men have also stood firm using their hair as a means of stature, pride and history.
Braids, Afros, puffs and twists are all iconic in Black culture. Each shining in their own era, Black hair has been a source of not only personal, but spiritual power. Early in Black ancestry, hair was used to signify stance, rank and wealth. Cornrows, Bantu knots and locs can be traced back to early centuries when Black kings and queens ruled. Used as a way of identification, certain hairstyles would denote different tribes across Africa. Now, Black communities are continuing the rich tradition of hair passed down through generations.
“How I perceive Black hair [is] it’s magical! I’ve been doing hair for almost 15 years, and just watching how hair has evolved working our culture over the years is always so amazing to witness. Over time, I have noticed there is more of a push when it comes to expressing ourselves through our hair,” said Julisa Anderson, a certified cosmetologist. “Hair has always been sacred to us, and I think more people are becoming more aware of it.”
Throughout slavery, Black hair would undergo several transitions as their culture and identities were stripped away in the Americas. Upon arrival, men and women, including children, would have their heads shaved essentially erasing the divine attachment Africans had to their hair. As slavery progressed, texturism would emerge. This gave birth to one of the earliest forms of separatism among Black people.
“Part of that detached them from their spirituality. Their hair was cut to break them down. I know for sure the Yoruba tribe, before the slaves were brought to America and other places, they did their hair to pray to their gods. It was more than just a nice hairstyle; it was something spiritual that connected them to a higher power,” said Anderson.
In the 1900s, Madame CJ Walker created an empire by manufacturing hair products geared towards African Americans. Credited as the first Black female millionaire, Walker introduced pressing columns to the masses. This led to a new era of hair care for African Americans. In conjunction with hair products and the straightening comb, Black hair took on a new identity. Although African Americans had become adjusted to European standards of beauty, Madam CJ Walker paved the way for entrepreneurship in the Black community.
“She [set] goals. If I could say one word, goals. She really created an avenue for Black women. I guess you could say Black entrepreneurs in general just to find your way through your passion and really hone in on it,” said Anderson.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the return of gravity-defying hair with the introduction of Afros. Shown as a sign of activism, Black hair was seen as militant and proud. Now, the natural hair movement has been reborn with more and more Black men and women embracing their natural kinks, coils and curls.
“Once we have reached freedom and people started advocating more and more for equality, Black people started to wear Afros as a sign of resistance. That was the first moment where we could show our hair however we wanted to. Even in its natural state,” said Anderson.
Imitated, but never duplicated, Black hair has been emulated by many different races. As trendsetters, African Americans have been subjected to European standards of beauty. Now, tables have turned as an increasing number of non-Blacks have begun to wear styles ingrained in African tradition.
“Black hair is the most popular and I think that other cultures try to make it seem like Black hair isn’t as popular, but all these other cultures copy off of us because we are the trendsetters,” said Anderson. “A lot of times our stuff doesn’t get noticed until a white person wears it.”
Despite growing acceptance, Black hair is still faced with discrimination. The Crown Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” introduced in 2019 was instituted to ensure protection while combating discrimination against ethnic hair in corporate America. The emergence of such shows Black hair has a way to go in the fight for justice.
“I want people to love on their crowns more. It’s called a crown for a reason so love on it, take care of it. Hair is an investment,” said Anderson.