Our Hair Journey
In recent times, the transition to wearing your hair naturally, or from wearing one natural style to the next, is called “a hair journey.”
When I saw my friend Sheila the other day, I noticed that she was on another hair journey. She had taken out her braids. Sheila wore braids for the two years or so that I’ve known her. She usually had additional hair braided into her own natural 4B hair. This created a great shoulder length style which she sometimes wore in an untwist. Getting your hair braided can take several hours in the shop.
“I always wanted the girls to wear their hair as natural as possible,” Sheila’s mom, Evelyn said.
Evelyn is in her 60’s and has been wearing her natural hair for many years. She has worn her current style, a short gray afro, for at least eight years.
“I never cared what any one thought. I didn’t care about having long hair. I did what I wanted to do,” Evelyn said.
“You sound like you’ve been pretty independent around your hair,” I said.
“I was always independent,” Evelyn replied.
“Where did you grow up?” I asked.
“I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My grand-father bought a ranch in the 1940’s,” she said.
“What type of ranch was it? Horses? Cattle?” I asked.
“We grew cotton,” she replied.
Cotton, I thought. Black people growing cotton? That peeked my interest, another interview, another day.
“I had tried lots of natural styles. I would go into braids, afros, you know,” she said.
“What type of braids? Did you have hair braided in or did you do cornrows?” I asked.
“I did both. I would have a lady come to the house and do mine and my girls’ hair,” she said.
I remember watching a KQED special on African tribal life. There were scenes of women sitting together cornrowing their hair. This was a time for women to commune together, not unlike the quilting circles in the American south. My mother used to cornrow my hair to prepare for the warm sultry summers in Louisiana. We could go swimming in cornrows and not have to get our hair pressed. I remember these relaxing times. We sat on the ground drinking lemonade and slept on pallets in front of the fan. Cornrows brought back fond memories of my childhood.
Cornrows or braids are an ancient traditional African hair style. The hair is braided very close to the scalp, using an underhanded, upward motion to produce a continuous, raised row. Cornrows are often formed in simple, straight lines, but can be formed in complicated geometric or curvilinear designs as well. Cornrows are worn by men and women and are sometimes adorned with beads or cowry shells. Depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings dating back as far back as 3000 B.C. There are depictions of the cornrow hairstyle in Native American paintings, from as far back as a thousand years ago. Cornrows are favored for their easy maintenance. Rows can be left in for weeks at a time if maintained through careful washing of the hair and regular oiling of the scalp. In Africa social terrain: religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity, and other attributes of identity can all be expressed according to the cornrow hairstyle. The act of braiding was important to some cultures because it was believed that it transmitted cultural values between generations and expressed bonds between friends.
Cornrows made a comeback in the 1960s and ’70s, and again during the ’90s, when NBA basketball player Allen Iverson started wearing them. So how did we go from women braiding hair for cultural values to burning and pulling out our hair?
Evidently, African American women have been on these hair journeys for a long time and African American hair has always been big business. Let’s go on a little historical hair journey, shall we?