Analyzing the Roots of Black Hair Politics

Ramapo’s observance of African Ancestry Month came to a close last week after a month full of events dedicated to the celebration and recognition of black identities were held. During the month, the Black Student Union, Ebony Women for Social Change and the Organization of Latino Unity held events like the “What is Bad Hair” discussion that was dedicated to educating the public about black hair politics.

In light of the insensitive black hair comment made by Giuliana Rancic on the Feb. 23 E! Television series “Fashion Police,” I feel an obligation to use this moment in time not as a moment to judge or shame someone based on what he or she may know or may not know about the history of black hair, but as a moment to teach.

It is not anyone’s fault that the cultural practices of blacks was and still is historically overlooked in textbooks and teachings, so it comes as no surprise that the mane that many black women cling to as a source of identity is often misunderstood.

With the many different cultural hairstyles and accessories in existence, saying “it is just hair” cannot be true.

Historically, hair has been a very controversial topic within and outside the black community and the heritage of many black people is held within their hair.

The phenomenon of hair being more than just a braid of dead cells began in Africa, where it represented the many different facets of life such as religion and marital status, and could identify the cultural group one belonged to. Hair could also determine one's social status and tell whether someone was a community leader or not.

Long hair was once commonly associated with fertility. Hair was also equated to power and all things divine. There was so much culture and wisdom intertwined in the hair of Africa — it was a way to read one another or as a means of communicating important information.

However, throughout the 14th and 18th centuries, that crucial fragment of African culture was lost when 12.5 million Africans were forced out of their homes. They were beaten, dragged, chained and abducted from the west coast of Africa.

Countries from Senegal to Angola were stripped of their natives and most of the Africans that were abducted were between the ages of 10 and 25. The theory was to get them at a young age to ensure strength and obedience, so they could have optimum results once they were put to work in the fields.

What the Europeans also managed to do was abduct the Africans at such an impressionable age in terms of self-discovery. Once the Africans were captured, one of the first things that were done to them was shaving their heads. The important and symbolic legacy that made the African people who they were was cut off as a means to deprogram them, because to Europeans it was “just hair.”

The same way Africans used their hair as a declaration of integrity is still prevalent in the black culture today. A culture that was once disgraced into straightening their hair in order to assimilate with Western standards of beauty is breaking the mold.

Although many black women still do prefer a straight mane, protective styles such as braids, twists and bantu knots are being worn freely.

Natural hair is also appearing in mainstream media, which is revolutionary for black identity since natural hair is almost exclusively known as inferior to straight hair. For centuries, straight hair has been equated to professional and beautiful, but those assumptions are being redefined every day.

Black hair is a crown, a rite of passage, a testimony and an ode to African ancestors. For some, unruly tendrils are an inconvenience, a hazard and annoyance, but in a culture where having a choice of hairstyle is seen as a privilege, not an obligation, that is not the case. Hair represents choices and freedom, therefore, it is never just hair.