“The hair is the richest ornament of women.”
– Martin Luther
Hair also is controversial. And for African American women, it is a story unto itself about heritage, culture, slavery and place in American society.
Nancy Nelson, director of Africana education studies at Eastern Washington University, teaches a two-credit college course she developed, called “Culture Study: African American Women and Hair,” which is being offered Saturday and next Saturday on the EWU campus in Cheney.
If this year is anything like the previous several years, conversation will be, at the very least, animated.
“The first thing to know is that hair is very, very significant in African culture,” Nelson said. “In Africa, many believe that since our hair is closer to heaven than the rest of our bodies, spiritual messages come to the body through the hair, which must be clean and well-groomed.”
In the Wolof culture in Senegal, young girls’ heads are shaved to signify that they are not yet mature. When they come of age, only then do they grow their hair out, Nelson said.
When Africans were captured and enslaved, all heads were shaved, not for disease control, as was the official reason stated, Nelson said, but to mentally prepare them for slavery.
“It was to make everyone the same,” she said. “Royalty, warriors, married women and others all wore their hair differently, but with their heads shaved, that all disappeared.”
Other kinds of differentiation and symbols of acceptance came to the fore during slavery in America, Nelson continued. House slaves were given more time to work with their hair so they could be more “presentable” and imitate hairstyles of their slave owners. But field slaves had no time to devote to their hair nor did they have appropriate combs for it, so all they could do was wrap it in rags.
Many descendants of slavery were of mixed race, Nelson noted, and a South African-style social class system developed – white, colored/mulatto and black.
It was a delineation that African Americans bought into as well, Nelson said, and they even utilized the “comb test” themselves in which a fine-tooth comb had to be able to pass easily through people’s hair in order for them to be admitted to the “colored” church or social club.
Significant differences exist between African hair and Caucasian hair that many white Americans are not aware of, beyond the coarser texture and the nature of the curl.
First, because of racial mixing, not all African American hair is the same. “I don’t have traditional black hair myself,” Nelson said, who wears her hair fairly closely cropped.
Second, African American hair does not produce oil, which “is why we have to put oil on our hair,” Nelson said. “And that means we do not wash our hair every day. If I did that, my hair would break off.”
Third, African American hair requires a lot of attention to maintain properly and in good health.
Nelson said that when her hair was longer, she needed 90 minutes to take care of it before going out – including putting on oil, drying the hair, using a straightener and then curling it. If she didn’t do that, her hair would be excessively dry and kinky. Years ago when she wore an Afro style, she put it up in 19 braids at night, picked it out in the morning, steamed it in the shower, picked it out again and then shaped it.
“It was a lot of work,” she remembers.
Fourth, it is culturally important to African Americans that their hair be styled – whether in locks (dreadlocks), twists, weaves, braids (plaiting) or any other style.
“And not only does it need to be styled,” Nelson added, but “it also needs to be styled correctly. If we see a little girl whose hair is consistently not carefully attended to, we see it as a sign that something’s wrong at home.”
Nelson, who gives talks frequently to social workers, agencies and others in the community concerning a variety of African American cultural and social matters, recalled a recent issue at the Spokane Juvenile Detention Center in which a charge of preferential treatment of African American girls was made because they were allowed to put oil in their hair. Another case involved African American girls acting out in a group home because of the house rule under which all residents’ hair had to be washed daily.
“Many decisions are made based on viewing matters through the eyes of one culture, but we need to be inclusive and look at the needs of the population who we serve – including providing hair picks, not fine-tooth combs, for African American girls in group homes,” said Nelson, who serves on the Spokane Juvenile Detention Center’s Racial Disproportionality Board.
At EWU, Nelson has developed a resource guide to help African American students locate hair salons, hair-care products and other services in Cheney and Spokane that are geared to their specific needs.
In her upcoming class at EWU, Nelson will discuss the weaves, wigs and relaxers that media stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Halle Berry appear to use.
“That subject always brings out a lot of discussion, including whether these stars or any African American women in any kind of business setting would do as well if they wore their hair in more traditional or natural styles,” she said.
Hair is beautiful, but it’s not as simple as it looks, Nelson concludes, “neither in style nor in significance. For African Americans, it is a large part of our story, our heritage, our culture.”