Originally posted on www.goldensoulsblog.com
(BMO is playing in the background)
There are times my thoughts lead me down a rabbit hole, and this writing is a result of one of those times. Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby floats in the background filling my room with soulful melodies. I’m lying on the bed trying to pull all the fairy knots I could find (4cs understand). Amid my attention darting back and forth, suddenly I’m really thinking about my hair. I get up and walk into the bathroom mirror, letting my curls spill out over my head. What makes black hair so unique? I pull my shrunken coil down to my eyes, thinking this act alone could produce some answers.
Besides the obvious, I know my hair okay. I know my curl pattern, my exact porosity level, and which oils sit or sink into my hair shaft. I know my hair has confidence, that it grows toward the sky and demands to be seen- I usually wear my natural hair in a high puff, and it’s pretty big. I know, firsthand, how humbling shrinkage is and how liberating big chops are. And I know the questions, “Can I touch your hair” or “Is this all your hair?” makes me feel like listening to Crime Mob. IYKYK.
The problem is, I honestly thought I would know more about my hair by now, and I don’t. I believed cutting my hair off and patiently waiting for my curls to grow back would reveal all the answers. But, with every chop, it’s like I had more questions than before. And this is the point in the rabbit hole where all those questions start to rapid-fire.
Why do you even care so much about your hair? Why are black hairstyles so majestic? Why do you love all things hair? Are you even a Shea Butter Baby forreal? The last question sticks, what does your hair mean to you?
Naturally, whenever I have questions I can’t seem to answer, I spend days sitting with it. Okay, sitting is an understatement, I obsess over it. How deep is our hair rooted in our culture? So, I ordered Hair Story: Untangling Roots of the black hair in America by Ayana Byrd & Lori Tharps off Amazon. I googled black articles when I had downtime and watched countless Youtube videos explaining black hair. In the middle of my research, I felt warm. All this new information was filling, like my favorite home-cooked meal. I was comforted and in awe with the richness of traditions, the excellence, and quite literally the roots black hair has.
“The hair is the most elevated point in your body, which means it is the closest to the divine.” (Byrd & Tharps)
Picture this, we’re in Africa during the early 15th century, and black hair is poppin. You can recognize certain tribes by their hair, and even if you can’t, the elaborate braid patterns help you out. Individual styles would let others know your age, what religion you practiced, your societal rank, and if you were married. Hair was taken seriously. And since hair played a key role, getting your hair done aided in forming a community — it built connection. But even more important than hair were the ones in charge of doing these styles — they were revered.
“Because a person’s spirit is (? Was this supposed to be included) supposedly nestled in the hair, the hairdresser always held a special place in community life. The hairdresser was often considered the most trustworthy individual in society.” (Byrd & Tharps)
At this point, I love when things come full circle. It explains how comfortable I feel at beauty shops and beauty supply stores. It explains why black men ride for their barbers, how open and free they fell in these shops, and how treasured the conversations are that take place inside these doors. It provides clarity to all the hours I spent in the beauty shop with my mom growing up and how much I learned so much by observing from my chair. I loved when certain women came in and started addressing the room like they’ve known us all our lives, and how we answered so openly. Hair is rooted in connection.
But if they knew so much about their hair — how come some don’t?
Well, like our race, are hair has been through it as well. When slavery started, their hair was shaved for sanitary reasons- which brought forth a period of lost identity. Their hair held the answers. But, what’s rooted is second nature. Braids made a comeback when they worked on plantations. After all, braids made the hair easier to manage during the laborious work. But no longer at home, they had to use whatever (butter, kerosene, oil, grease) to keep the hair manageable and conditioned. Not all was lost with celebrating black hair, though. On Sundays, they had the day off — they went to church, did hair, and relaxed. Sundays were treasured for this reason, sacred even. Black hair perseveres.
But, let’s zoom over to the fifties and sixties. Here, we have hair going through transitions — AKA being influenced by European Culture. Black women and men opted for straighter and shorter styles to appear less threatening and relatable, it was even the only way some could obtain jobs. It also started to become the symbol of black middle class or wealth. Straight hair was in. Then the sixties settled, and hair took another major shift. Now, the bigger the hair, the better. Afros were born in the heart of the Black is Beautiful movement. Black people were taking their identity back and encouraging others to as well. Nothing beats; however, Angela Davis walking into the courtroom to defend herself against the charges against her. Her afro proudly displayed along with her raised fist. A genuinely black and beautiful moment.
So, in all these transitions, where is black hair now? Well, still fighting against obstacles, of course. Now, it’s against policies in fine print that directly impact black hair. Clinton Stanley Jr. was a six-year-old excited for his first day of school. To his surprise, he was asked to leave. Why? Because his dreads didn’t fit into this school’s policy- which states, “All boys hair must be a tapered cut, off the collar and ears. There are to be no dreads, Mohawks, designs, unnatural color, or unnatural designs. No combs or net caps.” I wonder who these rules are actually directed towards. Yes, Black hair. I don’t have to go into detail to know there are more stories on record. A wrestler forced to cut his hair or forfeit a match, women told their hair is unprofessional, little girls getting sent home because their hair violates the rules in place. Sure, most institutions can’t explicitly prohibit or ban anyone based on their skin color. But subtle rules and constraints rooted in racial stereotypes have the exact power to do so. And if you think the rules in place don’t impact black people specifically, I dare you to type “little girl sent home because of hair” and look at the first articles that pop up.
Even researching these stories, I realized I experienced them too — so much so, I cried to my mom for the creamy crack. I couldn’t stand when white girls would run up and hit my puff like the winning answer of the show Family Feud. So, as I sat in the chair with the creamy white substance on my roots- I let it burn. I wanted my curls gone. I stared in the mirror as she swiveled my hair around and looked at my new look- the classic James brown bump. I felt beautiful. Now, years into being natural, I know this wasn’t true. Yes, I was beautiful, but I didn’t need straight hair to be beautiful. I could rock whatever. But back when I was in that salon chair, I didn’t realize I was joining other girls who felt the pressure to conform as well. It can feel like a rite of passage in America, and I really wish it didn’t.
Sigh. Black hair has been through so much. But I think my favorite part was taking the time to learn my hair and her story. Now, whenever I see non- black women getting praised for these styles, I get pissed but for other reasons. You’re playing games with the divine.
Here I leave you with a little word. No matter how hard you try to imitate the original, it’ll never be the same. A community that is built off shop conversations can’t be imitated. You could build twenty million shops, it’ll never duplicate walking into the beauty supply store- feeling the nostalgia, and the peace that comes with being surrounded by black women. No matter how hard you try to imitate the original, it will never be the same. The stories we have from parents doing our hair — you can’t fake that. The feeling of new protective styles, edge ups, re-twists, and protecting these very styles at night- you can’t accomplish. That. You can’t imitate dreads no matter how hard you try, and you could never identify certain products by smell. Please stop trying. And while we’re here, black hair is professional. Black hair is culture. Black hair is a community. And black hair is resilient.
Through it all, I feel closer to my hair- not to be dramatic but I feel peace. So here is to black hair, an ode to culture, curl patterns, and being black. And yes, often duplicated and imitated, but no other original, no other love than black hair.