“A black woman's hair is her crown and glory. The vast array of styles we apply are a deep expression of black identity. The complexities underlying the coils on our head invite us to connect with our heritage in a special way.”
A black woman's hair is her crown and glory. The vast array of styles we apply are a deep expression of black identity. The complexities underlying the coils on our head invite us to connect with our heritage in a special way.
When I think of haircare rituals transcending generations, I am reminded of my maternal grandmother who passed in 2011. Grandma did not have many material possessions during her life, yet she always presented herself with hair styled and hands manicured. Even when battling mild dementia, her rituals of curling her hair everyday never stopped. Grandma would use a hot iron comb to straighten her wispy hair - this comb was also used on my mother and aunt when they were young girls. The hot comb press made its way down to me and my two older sisters. I remember trying to sit very still when my mom would use the hot comb to straighten the kinky hairs around my ear . . . one sudden move from me and my ear could be singed!
My mother was a champion of our haircare growing up. Each of us had very different hair textures, yet she mastered different treatments for us all. Our hair grew like weeds during that time and she did her best to teach us her methods. One of the greatest challenges with African-American hair is mitigating dryness. Because of the tight coils, the natural oils produced from our scalp don't always make it to the ends of the hair strand. Add on external elements and friction with fabrics extracting moisture . . . our tender proteins eventually would face breakage.
The traditional way to protect our hair from breakage was to "grease" our scalps and seal moisture into the shaft. This method extends beyond our family, reaching as far back as slavery. Black hair care tradition in America during slavery had to evolve because they were without the herbal treatments from the Motherland. They had to protect from fleas and unknown parasites. This method consisted of applying anything from baking grease to petroleum jelly on their scalps. Commercial products developed from this methodology, and the tradition continued. I grew up sitting on the floor with mom parting my hair in thin layers and taking fingertips full of grease to line my scalp. Once the scalp was oiled, each night we would wrap our hair in satin each night. Deep moisturizing treatments and lotion-based hydrators were also key elements of our haircare tradition.
Braiding, trimming, weaving, setting, washing, twisting - these activities are frequently delegated to others in our community. The black styling salon is a deeply cultural and communal place. To have your hair styled in a salon as a young black girl was a rite of passage of sorts. I'll never forget when my mother took me to the salon for my inaugural style. It was a culturally proud moment. The salon serves as a staple icon of the black community - the space creates a celebration of our culture and a place one can enter to be celebrated unconditionally. Situated in a retail strip or within our own home, the black salon is a gathering place where powerful conversations about life, love, spirituality and the beauty and challenges of being black in America emerges.
I started exploring the natural curl pattern of my hair when I graduated from high school. While all of the hot comb presses and treatments to straighten my hair I grew up with were 'standard', curiosity was inviting me to let my hair reset to find its most natural state. When I shifted my hair treatments to more natural products and styles, it was not initially accepted by my family. They needed time to come around and embrace my natural curls and the ways I styled them. Over time, they came around to redefine black hair beauty to be inclusive of wild and care-free coils. This inclusivity led some of them to also explore their own natural textures. I am thankful for what the women in my life passed on to me, and the freedom they’ve given me to explore other possibilities within the tradition of caring for our crown and glory.