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History of black hairstyles illustrated for Black History Month

Students were able to attend a conversation that educated on hair in the African-American community — its development — as part of a series of several events honoring Black History Month. Taking place on Feb. 13, the event’ speaker, Baruch College’s Associate Director of Health and Wellness Joy Allison, took students through the history of black hair and the social and political connection certain styles had.

Students learned about iconic black hairstyles, beginning in the 1400s, the symbolic meaning behind black hair and how technology and politics influenced hairstyles. A major theme of the conversation was the way in which hair could denote status in society.

Even as early as 1440, the way an individual’s hair was styled meant much more than just an aesthetic, instead conveying messages on levels of education, marital status or even mental health. The way a woman styled her hair could illustrate whether she was single or romantically attached. This trend continued across the Atlantic Ocean during the time of slavery, when slaves were forced to wear their hair to denote their work role on a plantation.

Hair was symbolic; a common belief was that hair correlated with the spirit and was tied to a person’s aura. People would not allow others with bad energy to touch their hair, out of fear that the person’s negativity would penetrate through the hair and into their bodies. The people who styled and groomed an individual’s hair were people very special to them, and often, they were lifelong companions. This is something that was prevalent throughout the centuries in all communities, and it is something that prevailed into our modern society. Due to the stress of spirituality and meaning behind hair, the act of shaving one’s head or having a head shaved symbolized erasing a person’s identity. A slave’s inability to choose hairstyles was extremely degrading and considered the highest indignity.

Moving into the 1900s, there was a conflict between embracing natural hair and modifying hair to suit a different style. Economically, there was a huge boom in sales because of the trend of styling, smoothing and straightening black hair, with products like chemical treatments and hot combs standing at the forefront. Some members of the black community found it to be an erasure of black history.

Meanwhile, businesswomen like Annie Malone or Madam C.J. Walker became wealthy by selling black hair care products. This allowed a resurgence of black identity in hair, and the creation of the most iconic hairstyles of the century, such as the afro, perm or Jheri curls.

Other events yet to take place in Baruch’s celebration of Black History Month include: “It’s Not All in My Head: Why Mental Health Matters” on Feb. 22 from 12:40 p.m. to 2:40 p.m., a discussion with Baruch alumni and others on what it means to be black in the United States in 2018, on Feb. 22 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and a discussion on whether Greek philosopher Socrates was black on March 1 from 12:40 p.m. to 2:20 p.m.

February 23, 2018

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Courtney Gervais


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