The power and politics of black hair

When Mariama Ross moved to Indiana in 1996, locals thought she was a revolutionary. Last summer, when she visited Ghana, locals there took her for a priestess. None of this had to do with her politics - they were looking at her hair.

"In Indiana, people would ask me how it was maintained, how I washed it, what it meant," says Ms. Ross, who wears shoulder-length dreadlocks. In Ghana, where hairstyles carry religious significance, people had trouble understanding the liberties she took with her hair.

"But to me," she says, "it was just another way of wearing my hair natural."

Ross is one of many African Americans who have chosen to "go natural." Along with Don King's electrified coiffure, Latrell Sprewell's zigzagging cornrows, and Toni Morrison's braided hairdo, natural Afrocentric hairstyles have come under the spotlight. Kinky, curly, or twisted, "nappy hair" has grabbed American blacks' attention.

"Up to 10 years ago, the word 'nappy' was an insult," says Pamela Ferrell, owner of Cornrows and Co., a salon in Washington, and author of four books on natural hair.

"Today ... there are slogans like 'I'm happy, I'm nappy,' that celebrate it.... We have embraced what was once used against us," she says.

The phenomenon goes beyond fashion. Universities and museums have jumped on the trend to explore and dissect it. Books are being written, articles published, exhibitions held, and classes taught on nappy hair. Even the Smithsonian Institution has studied the topic. Last October, its curators officially integrated the Afro hairstyle into the American cultural heritage.

Kenneth Jackson is a professor of history at Stanford University in California. In 1992 he was the first to teach a seminar, "Black Hair as Culture and History."

"Black hair has been making a tremendous comeback during this century," he says. "It reflects a new prominence and openness about black hair. The tabooed black hair is out, in full view."

Hairstyles reflect the history of American race relations. For a long time, the way blacks wore their hair reflected the dominant white culture. It had to be straightened, combed, or parted to mimic Western coiffures. Kinky texture was rejected.

It was not until the 1960s that wearing an Afro became a statement in support of black-power ideology.

The 1990s resurgence of natural hairstyles was part of a larger movement of blacks rediscovering their African roots. Most styles come from traditional African societies, but have lost their social function or religious meaning.

The Museum for African Art in New York has opened the first nationwide exhibition, "Hair in African Art and Culture." Roy Sieber, co-curator of the exhibit, explains how the emergence of nappy hair has become a way to celebrate one's Africanness.

In America, the natural-hair care industry has been growing steadily since the mid-1980s, and today generates an estimated revenue of $300 million a year, according to the American Hairbraiders and Natural Hair Care Association.

By becoming a large phenomenon, black hairstyles have tended to lose their identification with radical ideologies. Today, one can shift from Afro to dreadlocks without implying too much about one's politics.

"It is now more a fashion option as opposed to making a political statement," says Shannon Hayers, owner of Turning Heads, a salon in Harlem.

Lydia Ann Douglas, a film director who recently made a documentary called "Nappy," disagrees. "People who are deciding to go natural are being political," she says. "It may not be conscious, but when you go against the status quo of a racist culture, it's a political statement."

Some white employers have looked on African-American hairstyles as unsuitable in the workplace. State governments have even gone after hair braiders for operating their businesses without a cosmetology license (see sidebar, right).

Though no hard figures are available, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that about 10 hair-related discrimination complaints are filed each year.

Frances Ward, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina, is doing her thesis on censorship of ethnic hairstyles in Western culture. She says that nappy hairstyles are still seen in some environments, like the workplace or school, as an expression of gang or street culture. This misinterpretation leads, she says, to forms of censorship and racial tension.

"Censorship of natural hairstyles does exist," Ms. Ward says. "While America is currently experiencing a bonanza of hair freedom, some hairstyles - such as those worn by African Americans - are [causing] policies, bans, and lawsuits."

Political or not, black hairstyles have spilled over into the white community. More white teenagers are wearing dreadlocks or braids.

White hair is becoming "emancipated" as well, says Professor Jackson, and the barrier between hair types is fading. He calls this "hair morphism" and predicts it will increase in the near future.

"There is now a middle ground where white and black hair look similar," Jackson says. "It is a little bit of everything, and you are going to see more of that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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