The history of Black hair

Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film “Classified X” was an eye opener to most who viewed it, but for me I was merely reliving experiences I had been living with my entire life. Van Peebles describes the shame he felt after leaving his neighborhood theater on Chicago’s South Side. Melvin’s movie house was the NRA, called “The National Rat Alley” by locals.

I felt the identical way when my friends and I left our neighborhood theaters. We were ashamed of the people on screen that looked like us. We laughed but felt ashamed. I did not know why until years later.

Reviewing Classified X for The Sundance Film Festival, Laurence Kardish said, “With one startling film, Melvin Van Peebles, writer, director, producer, and musician, forever changed the face of American film. Movie images sustain racism. Over and over again, Hollywood made blacks the objects of derision or fear: African-Americans were illiterate primitives, rustic fools, fumbling servants, or simply outside society. Young blacks began to surrender to these self-images, while whites accepted them comfortably. Using images from classic American films as chilling reference, Van Peebles explains with wit and anger why popular culture is still a matter of black and white.”

That was written forty years ago, and after nearly a half century very little has changed.

One of the most disappointing films I have seen in recent years is the Chris Rock so-called documentary Good Hair. I am astonished at the amount of money African-American women spend on their hair. I should not be, but I am. The film features some black women who make low wages often spending thousands of dollars on weaves and other methods to emulate and imitate European-looking hair. It leads me to ask: is black hair bad hair? Should we be ashamed of the hair we were born with?

A few years ago, I wrote, “Some African-Americans even now refer to certain textures of black hair as ‘good hair’ or ‘bad hair,’ and I become somewhat frustrated. Some of us still hold on to negative attitudes about our hair. Some believe that straight hair is naturally better than kinky, curly or wavy hair. In other words, straight hair is ‘good’ and other textures are ‘bad.’ If you believe this, you do not know the history of black hair.”

“When the Europeans slave traders snatched our people from the west coast of Africa, they saw people wearing elaborate hairstyles including locks, plaits and twists, not knowing each style was a symbol, trait or quality of the persons they were capturing. Hairstyles have always played an important part in African artistic expression. In the early 15th century, hair served as a carrier of messages in most West African societies.”

I noted over 3,000 ethnic groups, cultures, and languages emanate from Africa. Due to the many tribal customs, African hairstyles were many and varied and usually signified status. Masai warriors tied the front hair into sections of tiny braids, similar to the styles worn by African-American men and women today. The back hair was allowed to grow to waist length. Non-warriors and women, however, shaved their heads.

In the Mende, Wolof, Yoruba and Mandingo tribes, hair often conveyed 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. The Karamo people of Nigeria were recognized for a shaved head with a single tuft of hair left on top, much like the Mohican Indians and Mister T.

According to Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist who specializes in the Mende culture of Sierra 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.”

In Egypt, noblemen and women clipped their hair close to the head. Zulu hairstyles frequently declare their owner’s age, gender and status, and are often embellished by accoutrements of a magico-religious nature, therefore their hairstyles needed protecting.

Many Africans believed hair is a way to communicate with the Divine Being. Mohamed Mbodj, an associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, said, “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.

African-American scholar and activist Molefi Asante wrote, “We know little about our own classical heritage and nothing about our contributions to world knowledge. To say that we are decentered means essentially that we have lost our own cultural footing and become other than our cultural and political origins, dislocated and disoriented.” He noted, “As a pan-African idea, Afrocentricity becomes the key to the proper education of children and the essence of an African cultural revival and, indeed, survival.”

(Please listen the Bernie Hayes radio program Monday-Friday at 7 a.m. on WGNU-920 AM, and watch the Bernie Hayes TV program Saturday night at 10 p.m. and Friday Morning at 9 a.m. on KNLC-TV Ch. 24. Hayes can be reached by e-mail at:

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