Photography by Margo Moritz

Let us start by stating the obvious, the natural hair texture of the descendants of sub-Saharan African people is unique. Unlike the hair of other ethnic groups of the world, African hair is curled to the point that each follicle spirals around itself in separate little ringlets. This gives it a denser texture, makes it appear to not grow very long, and requires a different method of grooming than that used for straight hair.

Traditionally, natural hair was styled in ways that defined identity and status, and beautifully groomed hair was an important part of daily life. A hairstyle could define whether or not one was warrior or elder, eligible or married. Grooming hair was a form of bonding within families and communities. The washing, oiling, twisting and ornamenting of locks was a special skill possessed by the female head of a household and was passed down to her daughters.

The 400 years of trans-Atlantic trading of enslaved peoples changed all of that. Most of the people forcibly removed were young people who not only lacked the skills and tools needed to properly care for their hair, but had no time left to concern themselves with their physical appearance.  The hair became just a big tangled nuisance to be shaved off or covered in scarves. Eventually, enslaved people began to use butter, axle grease and other household lubricants to groom their hair. Newly emancipated people experimented with bleaches, lye and hot combs to try to “tame” the mass. Ironically, these treatments over time often resulted in damaged scalps and hair loss.

By the time I was a little girl it was common for black women to have their hair either chemically straightened or for them to wear a wig. I underwent the hot comb before I started school and started wearing weaves and wigs by the time I was seven years old. By the time I was a young woman I had no idea of how to take care of my own hair. Forcing it to be something that it is not was expensive, inconvenient, frustrating and physically damaging. I hated doing it, but I hated my African hair even more. There was nothing in the culture at that time validating anything beautiful about uniquely African features.

We have become so adept at altering our natural hair that people often assume that to wear our hair in its natural state is a political statement. Even as recently as 2007, a representative of Vogue Magazine contended that natural hairstyles in the workplace were “shocking” and “inappropriate”. I am often asked what I have to do to “get my hair to be like that”!

It’s kind of amusing to see so many non-Africans now going to the salon to get their hair chemically altered to try to look like my locks. I don’t know how long that fashion will last in the popular culture, but I will say that my locks are not a fashion statement. I am not trying to be “hip”, “alternative” or “out there”. I am just being myself.

The shift for me started when I realized that I could not truly see the beauty in other people unless I could see it in myself, and know that it is true. How can we be a real and equal part of the human family if we continue to be ashamed of features that make us uniquely African? How can we consider ourselves to be truly at home if we are constantly trying to “correct” and mask what the Creator intended for us to have?

Twenty years ago, I removed the long extensions of Indian hair and allowed my own hair to be free. I stopped spending money I could barely afford to part with so that I could make my appearance more “acceptable”. I stopped telling myself that I had “bad hair” that had to be fixed. I began to see the beauty I was born with all along.

Secure in this knowledge, I celebrate all the diversity of the Creation. We are all beautiful in our unique ways. May we give thanks and praise for each other in all our variety and splendor.

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