Untangling History

When I first arrived at Bard, it was a time when I was struggling with my own self-perception of beauty, a lot of which, was entangled in my feelings towards my hair and what I thought was “required” of my upkeep to appeal beautiful to not only myself, but to the outside world (where the latter proved to have the most influence). These were the unspoken aspects that I maybe, at the time, didn’t consciously realize were intertwined with a few key driving factors: my upbringing as a child, the various beauty practices that I saw being carried out regularly in my household as well as in some of my family members’ households, the presence (and unfortunately sometimes absence) of African American women and their hairstyles of choice within media (T.V., radio, advertisements), the customary hairstyling “norms” practiced by the women who looked like me in my community, and the perceptions from which these hairstyling practices arose and were perpetuated. With that being said, although I had never had a perm (my mother never allowed it), which is historically one of the most utilized hairstyling practices of African American to any other practice by far, I still straightened my hair by heat on a daily basis (which is the second utilized haircare practice by AA women). This shows that although the method of beautification was different, the ideology of what I thought made my identity “satisfactory” was still the same: that I simply was not beautiful without my hair being bone-straight.

With my focus at Bard being in history, I thought it not only appropriate, but almost necessary for me, someone who was using college as an avenue through which to not only learn more about my field of study but to also learn more about myself, to try and trace the narrative of African American hair and how this seemingly unanimous idea that natural hair is inferior to other textures spread like wild fire. Through my research I found that prior to colonialism, Africans maintained a strong sense of pride in not only their hair, but what their hairstyles communicated to their community. Hairstyles during this time were often elaborate and were used to relay messages of marital status, tribal group, religious affiliation, and other cultural markers.

After the onset of colonialism and slavery, individuals of African descent were made to not only cover and destroy their hair but also then to disconnect from a significant part of their heritage. Over time, straight hair became not only what was considered aesthetically pleasing, but also became an unspoken requirement for employment, and thus survival, which was necessary for blacks after emancipation and the integration of blacks and whites in the workplace. This, along with other factors contributed to the way in which African Americans were made to perceive their hair, which consequently created an eventual dissonance between who we are naturally, which most people would consider to be our “identity”, and what others think our identity should be based on their standards and preconceived notions beauty should be expressed.

After months of doing research that showed just how badly blacks were made to feel about their hair and the toxic hairstyling practices that ensued thereafter, coupled with the fact that I had recently cut off all of my hair and went completely natural, I started to feel deep sadness, realizing that a lot of what I felt about myself was conditioning brought on by an implementation of a certain ideology of another culture…and I really resented that. But what I also learned was that through the African American hair culture, communities were established.

The hair salon (and barbershop) was often a place of refuge and a platform on which monumental messages like civil rights, healthcare, and the importance of voting and community activism, could spread throughout for the furtherance of a people. I can say that although blacks were forced to conform to Western societal standards of beauty, some of which proved to be very harmful to the mind and body, those practices created an environment where people could come together to teach, bond, and form relationships…in other words, to create a community.

With all of this being said, it is important to note that hair in general is a fluid part of everyone’s identity and plays a significant role of how you are perceived, and is a pretty important part or constant element in most people’s lives. However, through my research, I noticed that many African Americans share a different narrative and perception of their hair in juxtaposition to other cultures. My ending point is that mass perceptions has the ability to change, and with the natural hair movement in full swing, more women cross-culturally, are becoming feeling inspired to drop societal norms and step into who they feel they should naturally be.

I was granted a unique opportunity to form a community of my own at Bard, one that was reminiscent and thus reflective, of the communities formed by African American women from the onset of the black haircare industry onward. I was happily surrounded, and even more so impressed, by the women who looked like me who were also beginning to embrace their natural hair. This community became an immense comfort to me, seeing other women (and men) who were developing a sense of pride for an element of themselves that they had maybe once been conditioned or taught to cover, alter, or even loathe. Through this community emerged a communal identity that represented progression through self-acceptance, and it is something I will take with me for the rest of my life.


Bria Bacon


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