During Black History Month, Voices not only wants to celebrate the historical events and landmarks of society-at-large, but also wants to celebrate present-day black culture and the lived experiences of Swarthmore’s very own black community. We want to celebrate history in-the-making. In this Culture series, we bring to light the experiences that black Swatties have had with their hair, the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and triumphs, and the nuances and complexities around their identities.

In conjunction with events throughout history, black hair has had a turbulent relationship with black and non-Black communities alike. The roots of black hair can be traced throughout early African civilizations, where tribes such as the Wolof in now Senegal and Gambia would braid and do their hair in certain styles depending on war, death, and other events. According to scholarly research, elaborate headdresses and hairstyles could indicate status, tribe, and familial background. Some African religions considered their hair, closest to the sky, a way to communicate spiritually to gods. African customs such as specially-designed combs for their often-fragile hair would travel across the African Diaspora during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Black hair would vary in the ways in which it was presented, but occurrences such as the Tignon Laws passed in 1786 Louisiana would forbid women of African descent to wear their hair without a tignon (headcovering) to, in the opinion of then Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró, prevent them from “distracting white men” and to maintain a lowly position in colonial society. These women fought back by wearing brightly and elaborately designed tignons to continue to express themselves freely, showing a common factor in the African Diaspora of hair as a form of creativity and resistance. Black hair would also prove as a symbol of invention, entrepreneurship, and independence.

Lyda Newman patented her synthetic hairbrush in 1898. In 1905, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist Madam C. J. Walker created her line of hair products, making her the first woman in American history to become a self-made millionaire. In the 1930s, Rastafari theology would develop in Jamaica and the prevalence of dreadlocks would increase into the 1970s worldwide. In the1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, the afro came into the spotlight as a revolutionary statement of resistance and empowerment. Black hair styles continue to adapt and change in society, often with cultural implications. Today, blacks continue to face discrimination around having textured hair. Members of the black community often still feel pressured to wear their hair straightened or chemically relaxed in the workplace, and school handbooks are often discriminatory towards black hair as “unkempt” and force black students not to wear braids or natural styles. Furthermore, language around black hair often places it in categories of “good” or “bad” depending on how kinky or coily the hair is. Many in the black community, however, are pushing back against this notion of assimilation and embracing their hair and the autonomy they have over it. Whether be it through wearing their hair naturally or otherwise, they are embracing their own personal experiences with their hair. From hair barrettes to church hats, adornments and accessories of black hair also often point to cultural significance within the community. Though the styles and circumstances have changed, black hair has always been and continues to be a form of expression and heritage.

In our publication’s dedication to lifting up the stories in our society that often remain untold, this Friday, several black Swatties team together to offer their personal experiences with their hair and to spark a dialogue around Curl Definition on campus.



Photocredit: Min Cheng '18