The Historical Significance of Hair in Latin America

By Ashley Brown

Like galaxies, Black hair grows in a spiral pattern,

Like trees, Black hair grows toward the sun,

Black hair reminds us that all is one.

Jeremie Nicholas

Today’s media is tainted by appropriation. Many non-Black stars, such as the Kardashians, flaunt cornrows and hijack Bantu knots, a centuries-old hairstyle originating in southern Africa, dubbing them “space buns.” Braids, cornrows, and other protective styles are more than a “trend,” as they have deep cultural and historical significance to Black communities. Black hair is often seen as “difficult” or used in contrast to what is considered “good hair.” One woman, Regina, of Dominican and Puerto Rican origin, discusses how her hair was managed in her family: “My hair was unlike most people, including family. When my mother did my hair, it was ALWAYS in one big braid or two braids. She didn’t know any other hairstyle that could tame my hair” (Hordge-Freeman, 2015, p. 152). This not an uncommon experience; many individuals of African origin in the Americas feel burdened by their textured hair. With this in mind, it is important that we recognize the significance of braids and hair styling for Black people, especially historically. Understanding the ingrained prejudice surrounding Black hair should be more widely recognized as “what is probably a harmless fascination with black hair by non-black people has deeply historical racist undertones” (Brown, 2011).

Attempts to “subdue” curly and coiled hair are embedded in the childhood memories of most Black children. “When my grandmother did my hair (or basically anyone from my dad’s side) it was ALWAYS straightened, or relaxed. I felt like an outsider within my social groups and my family” (Hordge-Freeman, 2019, p. 152). Much of our perception of ourselves is influenced by family and society. Eurocentric societal standards seep their way into expectations and desires regarding physical appearance. “Even as mothers are central to socialization practices, they may also police Blackness ambivalently in response to social pressures rather than as a reflection of their internalization of phenotypic hierarchies” (Hordge-Freeman, 2019 p.125). Burdened by the expectations of society or ignorance of family members are forces that have carried on the tradition of persecution.

Hair played a major role for enslaved peoples during the seventeenth century. Enslaved Africans were stripped of their identity and culture. Their heads were shaved or braided tightly for “sanitary reasons”. Black hair transcended theses constraints, however. They [enslaved Africans] also used cornrows to transfer and create maps to leave plantations and the home of their captors. This act of using hair as a tool for resistance is said to have been evident across South America (Boakye, 2018). In the article, “Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles” it is stated: “In the time of slavery in Colombia, hair braiding was used to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes.” (Brown, 2011). “It had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top. And another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape.” (Brown, 2011).

Not only did these hairstyles serve as maps for guidance, but women also used their hair to hide items that would aid them after they broke free. In the braids, they kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped (Boakye, 2018). Generations of violence has been no match for Black revolt. African hair is, and always has been, of great importance and we should respect it as such.

Black hair symbolizes strength, rebellion, beauty, social status, wealth, proximity to spiritual beliefs and empowerment. It is always important to practice mindfulness. Respecting cultural practices, refraining from non-consensual touching of hair, enlightening oneself are some of the bare minimum practices that non-Black people should undertake. Years of attempted erasure has failed and will continue to be condemned through activism, education, and acceptance.

 

Ashley Brown (they/them) is a senior double majoring in English Writing, minoring in Africana Studies, and pursuing certificates in both Latin American Studies. As an Afro-Honduran, their background influences much of their writing as they centralize their work around the African diaspora within the Americas and the disparities faced by marginalized populations. They use their position to educate the members of the organization, celebrate diversity both inside and outside of the university, and foster conversations that are vital to the growth and unity of the community. They will continue to use their platforms for advocacy and to shine a light on many of the systematic and societal obstacles faced by BIPOC. They are grateful and excited to be working with everyone in CLAS as an intern!

 

 


References
 
Boakye, B. (2018, September 15). How cornrows were used as an escape map from slavery across South America. Retrieved December 20, 2020, from https://face2faceafrica.com/article/how-cornrows-were-used-as-an-escape-... slavery-across-south-america

Brown, DeNeen. “Afro-Colombian Women Braid Messages of Freedom in Hairstyles.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 July 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/afro-colombian-women-braid-messag... freedom-in-hairstyles/2011/07/08/gIQA6X9W4H_story.html?utm_term=.8310cc1133e0.

Hordge-Freeman, V. (2019). Out of the Shadows, into the Dark: Ethnoracial Dissonance and Identity Formation among Afro-Latinxs. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), 6(2), 233264921982978–160. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649219829784

Mukando, Tariro. “What It Really Means When You Ask, ‘Can I Touch Your Hair?".” Fashion Journal, 10 Feb. 2020, fashionjournal.com.au/beauty/what-it-really-means-when-you- ask-can-i-touch-your-hair/.

 

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