I have yet to meet a black person – woman or man – who doesn’t have strong feelings about getting their hair done. If you mention a barber, you might see one of us shudder, or you might get a bright smile if you ask who did such and such’s braids. Hair is an event in my community, sacred for it’s ability to elevate or destroy, an elixir for the worst of downs and best of ups, while bringing strangers together for a few hours.
Personally, most of my favorite memories involve acting “grown” in the salon with my mother and the stylist, while Judge Judy or Oprah played in the background. Despite being knee high to a pig’s eye, I felt like an equal in those hours spent getting pulled, burned, and reshaped. I watched my mother become someone she didn’t get to be at work or at home, and got to exercise being someone I wasn’t comfortable expressing in my all-White-but-me classrooms. Sisterhood, I learned back then, was something to be fostered. Those bonds were a powerful weapon in the world.
I also learned a great deal about the power of appearances; a simple tweak of your locks could signal a slew of life changes. Hell, they could even lead to life changes if you looked good enough. Most importantly, I learned how to take care of myself in a way that is unique to my culture and rooted in history. To this day, my favorite way to show affection to others and myself is through hair.
The web of my life is punctuated by different hairstyles: an unfortunate jherri curl in elementary school, then braids that seemed to get shorter and more manicured as I navigated puberty, a relaxer when I was trying desperately to look like a grown up, then locs when I decided to be different in a way that was true to me. When I look at pictures, I can identify the period, the feeling, and the desires lurking below the surface by the way my hair was styled. It’s magic in a form the world can scarce reckon with.
Learning the history of Black hair is a great way to learn about ourselves, and for others to learn why we take it so seriously. For some it’s just hair, but for us it has meant rebellion, freedom, and home. Below are two of my favorite explorations of what Black hair means to us and why it seems to be the way we come together in pursuit of peace. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.