Culture

Politics of Hair

By Pinky Khoabane

Hair is more than just an issue of hair. It speaks to identity, culture, consciousness and speaks to the history of the broader dispossession and dehumanisation of black people. Hair is sacred, forms a very important part of who we are. It forms a very important part in the cultural expression of African people.Hair carries social and spiritual significance. And some hairstyles from pre-colonial times have been passed down the centuries and some have outlived the slave master’s devastating scar done to the slave’s self-image. This is especially true as it relates to hair and skin colour.

In early African civilisations, hairstyles could indicate a person’s family background, tribe and social status.

As early as the 15th century, Africans – male and female – have used artistically designed hairstyles as symbols to indicate their marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity or even social status in terms of wealth and influence. Moreover, the strict adherence to hair maintenance among African societies was not only an expression of natural beauty but also a supernatural means of communicating to gods and ancestors.

Cases of slave owners and colonial masters shaving the heads of Africans underscores the symbolic power of African hair: arguably, such acts were part of the process of erasing the slave or colonial’s subject’s culture and traditional beliefs, at least externally.

Hundreds of years on, these unique African hairstyles may have fallen out of popular fashion, but they continue to tell the uniqueness of being African.

HAIRSTYLES IN AFRICAN CULTURE

The evidence of Greek writer Lucian (ca. 120–190 AD), the satirist from Samosata in his writing introduces two Greeks, Lycinus and Timolaus, who start a conversation:

 Lycinus (describing a young Egyptian): “This boy is not merely black; he has thick lips and his legs are too thin . . . his hair worn in a plait behind shows that he is not a freeman.”
 
Timolaus: “But that is a sign of really distinguished birth in Egypt, Lycinus, All freeborn children plait their hair until they reach manhood. It is the exact opposite of the custom of our ancestors who thought it seemly for old men to secure their hair with a gold brooch to keep it in place.” (Lucian, Navigations, paras 2-3)
 
A recently discovered papyrus from Egypt informs us that Myron the Greek sculptor of the middle 5th century BC. made statues of the athlete Timanthes, victorious at Olympia in 456 BC, and of Lycinus, victorious in 448 and 444 BC.

Royal child with plait;New New Kingdom ancient Egypt (In Egypt, the Pharaoh’s children wore a distinctive plait on the right side of the head)

African civilization had a variety of different hairstyles. A lot of people still wear hairstyles inspired by ancient African hairstyles. They had symbolic hairstyles based on  tribal traditions.

Hairstyles in Africa and among African Americans are ever-changing, yet deeply rooted in a shared past.

 

Boy with plait (ozondato and ondengura neckband,Himba, Namibia, Africa
                        Photo dated: Anneliese Scherz, 1940’s

 

Serpa Pinto, Alexandre Alberto Da Rocha De, 1846-1900, artist
Source Title: History of Mankind, by Friedrich Ratzel,  translated from the second German edition by A. J. Butler, with an introduction by E. B. Tylor, Publisher: New York: Macmillan, 1896-1898.

 Social Significance Of Hair
“In the early fifteenth century, hair served as a carrier of messages in most West African societies” (Tharps and Byrd 2001) These Africans – 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 example, in the Wolof culture of Senegal, young girls partially shaved their hair as an outward symbol that they were not courting (1). “And the Karamo people of Nigeria, for example, were recognized for their unique coiffure—a shaved head with a single tuft of hair left on top.” (1) Likewise, widowed women would stop attending to their hair during their period of mourning so they wouldn’t look attractive to other men. And as far as community leaders were concerned, they donned elaborate hairstyles. And the royalty would often wear a hat or headpiece, as a symbol of their stature.

Natives of Ugogo, east central Africa
Gogo (African People)

Aesthetic significance

Just as the social significance of hair was important, so was its aesthetic appeal. According to Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist who specializes in the Mende culture of Sierre 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” (Tharps and Byrd 2001) However, there was more to being beautiful than having long tresses. One’s hair also had to be neat, clean, and arranged in a certain style. These styles included, but were not limited to, cornrows, and other braided styles. They also adorned the hair with ornaments such as beads and cowrie shells.

Natives of Ugogo, east central Africa Gogo (African People)

Spiritual Significance

Just as hair was elevated for social and aesthetic reasons, its spiritual connection also served to heighten its significance. Many Africans believed the hair 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 thought communication passed through the hair. Many believed a single strand of hair could be used to cast spells or inflict harm. This explains why hairdressers held and still hold prominent positions in the community. For those who do not know, styling and grooming black hair is often complicated and time consuming. This time spent at the hairdresser often results in close bonds between the stylist and the client. It is important to note that “unstyled” and unkempt hair was largely unseen, as were scarves and “headwraps.” Therefore, one can conclude that the hair was not meant to be covered.

Fante women of Elmina (Edina) in Gold coast (Ghana)with their hairstyle
in a wooden engraved drawing (1800-1895).

Damaging Effects of the Slave Trade

As the study of American history has revealed, the slave trade not only inflicted physical damage, but it also left emotional and psychological scars. The most devastating scar, that is still reflected today, is that done to the slave’s self-image. This is especially true as it relates to hair and skin colour. As they both became the framework for determining race.

Slave owners often described the Africans’ hair as being “woolly”, thus likening them to animals. These and other terms would later be used to justify the inhumane treatment of the slaves. After years of repression and constantly seeing those with “straight hair” and “light skin” afforded better opportunities, the slaves began to internalise these words. Ultimately, self-hatred began. In an effort to educate others about black hair and to celebrate its diversity.
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