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