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A fascinating history of black hair

Shirley Hawkins | 6/25/2008, 5 p.m.

Black hair always held great social, aesthetic and mystical powers in the motherland. Five hundred years ago, Senegalese women routinely visited each other, styled their hair and gossiped with other women. According to custom, the women would commune with grandmothers, and young women with little children would talk and laugh while they styled each other's hair.
Hair grooming was such an important part of village life that the African people gave hair a social significance that could be both influencial as well as beautiful.
Hair would be washed, combed with a wooden pick and then decorated with symbolic designs. Then it would be braided with mud or animal fat and dyed with red earth.
On a special day, like a wedding, the bride would be meticulously groomed by her fellow tribeswomen, who would then decorate her hair with beads, shells, leaves and ceremonial shaved patterns.
Ceremonial art objects made for (and from) hair were an integral part of the family and the spiritual life in thriving villages.
As early as 1444, Europeans who traveled to the west coast of Africa to barter and trade returned to Europe and reported seeing Africans wearing elaborate hairstyles including locks, plaits and twists.
"In the early fifteenth century, hair served as a carrier of messages in most West African societies," stated authors Lori L. Tharps and and Ayana Byrd in their book, "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America." "These African citizens from the Mende, Wolof, Yoruba, and Mandingo-were all transported to the 'New World' on slave ships. Within these communities, hair often communicated age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, and rank in the community. Hairstyles could also be used to identify a geographic region."
For most Africans, there was a spiritual connection where many Africans believed the hair was a way to communicate with the Divine Being.
According to Mohamed Mbodj, an associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, "the hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine." Consequently, many Africans thought communication passed through the hair. Many believed a single strand of hair could be used to cast spells or inflict harm.
This may explain why even today, hairdressers held and still hold prominent positions in the black community. The many hours required to wash, style and groom black hair fosters an intimacy and often results in close bonds between the stylist and the client.
But with the coming of the slave trade and slave traders centuries ago, hair care rituals, along with other acquired customs, were lost.
Africans who were kidnapped and brought to a strange new land had to leave behind everything that was precious to them, including the highly-revered hair care tools.
White Americans, unaccustomed to seeing black hair in its natural state, called black hair "wool" as a way to dehumanize the slaves. For the next 400 years, Africans, later African Americans, struggled with their hair, deprived of their traditions, their tools and their dignity.
Despite the determination of slave owners to discourage the practice of African traditions, (a slave found with an African pic comb could be severely punished), some of the slaves held onto their tools and rituals that managed to survive.
In 1865 with the ending of slavery, whites looked upon black women who styled their hair like white women as being well adjusted. "Good" hair becomes a prerequisite for entering certain schools, churches, social groups and business networks.
With the creation of metal hot combs, invented in 1845 by the French, black women popularized the comb, which is heated and used to press and temporarily straighten kinky hair.
Many a black woman can recall harrowing tales of fidgeting in a chair in a hot kitchen or beauty salon and fearfully waiting to hear the sizzle of their hair being "fried" by the almighty hot comb. "The whole process of getting my hair straightened was very traumatic," said Faustina Beard, 37, a law firm secretary. "Sometimes the hairdresser would accidentally burn me on the ear or on the nape of my neck. But somehow I always forgot about the pain when she handed me the mirror and I saw how pretty I looked in my shiny new curls."
It was not until the 1900s that an enterprising African American woman by the name of Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, developed a range of hair care products for black hair.
Thought to be America's first black female millionaire, this daughter of ex-slaves was orphaned at age 7, working at 10, married at 14, and became a widow with an infant daughter at 20. Breedlove worked as a domestic and laundress and later sold hair-care products. In her scant spare time she experimented and developed an ointment and system to stop hair loss in African American women and create smooth, shiny coiffures. In 1906 she moved to Denver, married newspaperman Charles J. Walker, and adopted Madam C. J. Walker as her business name. She expanded her product line, notably with a "pressing comb," and she and her husband began selling her wares door-to-door. They proved so successful that Walker was able to hire saleswomen and to open stores and a beauty college. She moved her factory to Indianapolis in 1910. Three years later, she moved to Harlem and within a few years she had created a cosmetics empire and earned a fortune. She popularized the press and curl style which is still much in demand today. Despite the success of her hair care products, some criticized Walker because they believed she encouraged black women to look white.
As an antithesis to the popularity of straightening the hair with the wildly popular hot comb, Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey urged his followers in the 1920s to embrace their natural hair and reclaim an African aesthetic, and many of his supporters followed suit.
In 1963, the first black woman to wear her hair natural--in private and on television--was actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson created a sensation by proudly flaunting braids and a natural hairstyle on the national television show, "East Side, West Side."