There are many distinctive black hairstyles today: styles such as braids, afros, and bantu knots are just some of the most common.
In African American culture, there has always been a certain emphasis on the importance of hair, especially when to comes to black women. These women are known for investing copious amounts of time and money into their hair, the same was for traditional African tribes.
“Just about everything about a person’s identity could be learned by looking at the hair,” says journalist Lori Tharps, who co-wrote the book Hair Story.
African tribes would use hairstyles as a form of communication. Hairstyles could exemplify age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, family background, tribe, and social rank. For example, in the Wolof tribe (in modern Senegal and The Gambia), young women would shave a portion of their hair to tell the bachelors that they were single and available. When men from the Wolof tribe went to war, they wore a braided style. Women in mourning would adopt a subdued style, considered unattractive to men.
Just as hairstyles in societal ranks, the aesthetic of hair was also important. According to Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone, “West African communities admire a fine head of long, thick hair on a woman. A woman with long thick hair demonstrates the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a ‘green thumb’ for bountiful farms and many healthy children”.
However, there was more to being beautiful than having long tresses, hair also had to be neat, clean, and arranged in a certain style. Some tribes adorned the hair with ornaments such as beads and cowrie shells. These elaborate styles shed a likeness of modern African American culture today with protective styles like braids, twist, fro-hawks, and early forms of bantu knots.
Hair was also thought to have a spiritual significance. Many Africans believed it was a way to communicate with the Divine Being. This could shed light on African American hair culture, and important aspects of black identity.
During the institution of slavery, slave masters described slaves’ hair texture as “woolly” and other descriptors that likened them to animals. Throughout centuries black people have been regularly dehumanized because of their hair texture. Much of this dehumanization was internalized, after seeing that those with “straight hair” were afforded better opportunities.
Thus begun the act of both African American women and men straightening their hair, by either chemical processes or heat. Many African Americans still straighten their hair today, some do it out of efficiency or other personal reasons. Many African Americans have also decided to go “natural,” which has recently been popularized. Either way, natural or straightened, black hair has a long and lustrous history, a history that showcases why hair in the first place is such a large part of African American culture.