Gravity, defied: The Natural Resistance of Black Women, Black Hair and the Afro

Gravity, defied: The Natural Resistance of Black Women, Black Hair and the Afro

written by Moeima Makeba

Tightly coiled, wooly, rising high to the sky. The hair that grows from our heads is complex, layered and eclectic - much like women gifted with it.

A brief history...

A portrait of Juliette Noel in 1811

A portrait of Juliette Noel in 1811

1700 - 1900

In American history and still today - Black women’s hair has always such a fuss, to the degree that laws were created to cover their heads. Called the Tignon law, in 1786 Governor of Louisiana, Esteban Rodriguez Miro decreed that women of African descent should cover their hair and refrain from “excessive attention to dress”. The law was purposely put into place to keep Black women from being deemed attractive to the French and Spanish Creole men prevalent in the day and “maintain class distinctions”. (Translation: it was made law to specifically give white women a one-up on their ‘competition’, thus maintaining the ‘social order’ - little did they know the women would turn those tignons, or head wraps into another way to display their style. We can never be stopped.)

In the early 1900s Madame CJ Walker, came up with a system that moved away from the hot straightening combs and irons of the 1800s, to a product that could “relax” hair - that system was a means to integrate, to coax women’s hair follicles into ascertaining an appearance that was more white and therefore in the eyes of society, more right. For Black people this was the perspective - assimilate or die.

1950 - 1980

But living in bondage, is not our natural state of being. The ‘Negro problem' better known as the civil rights movement was increasingly a topic of discussion of the 1950s and 1960s, as nonviolent marches, sit ins increased, sprinkled with bursts of riots and other forms of protests.

Time marched on and the Afro truly bloomed as the 1970s took hold. People were ready to live free, embracing their Blackness than ever before. The Afro emerged as a powerful statement as emboldened as a fist held high.

Women like Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and Kathleen Cleaver embraced the look - a visual representation of their commitment to liberty of their Blackness. The Afro defied gravity, and while ‘Black is Beautiful’ was a war cry in the streets, in lieu of war paint, the Afro served as a message: I am Black and I am here.

For Black women, the versatility of our hair meant the versatility of ourselves. Appearing in a rainbow of shades and sizes - Black women and their approach to beauty was deeply personal.

Being Black and female can not and could not be divided. Being the reigning supreme trendsetters, it wasn't long before this trend infiltrated broad forms of culture, appearing on the Jackson 5 and on powerful characters like Shaft and Foxy Brown.

“The movement was about making a political statement and couched within that was the goal of recapturing Black power and recapturing the Black is beautiful message,” says Patrice Yursik of Afrobella to online women’s media channel, Bustle.

1990 - Present

Arguably the natural hair movement of present day started in the late 90s, and picked up traction in the early 2000s, this time less about The Movement and more about self-empowerment. Black women living freely is deemed a rarity and by dumping the harsh hair chemicals and moving away from the unilaterally accepted attainment of Whiteness - these actions were a means to getting back to our true selves.

Despite infiltrating the mainstream years ago, the Afro still holds the image of being militant. News stories of Black girls being ousted, criticized or profiled because of their hair, still arouse anger and are meant to impart shame to what is natural to us. Not a trend, but our natural state of being.

In 2014, Solange Knowles released images of her wedding, in which she sported her natural hair and comments flooded in with haters, appalled by her unapologetic Afro and joy.

While ridiculed or touted as unkempt, unprofessional, or messy - the Afro is still somehow something to be appropriated by the very same people that dismissed its unique beauty. One example of such is, Allure Magazine featuring a 2015 tutorial on achieving an Afro, using a White woman as a model. While our experience as Black women is often hidden, derailed, misinterpreted, belittled and challenged - it is equally admired, and actively inspires. Much like our bodies, our perspectives, and our style. Fear is a funny animal, a mouse casting shadows to make it seem as though it is a monster.

We remain the original trendsetters, the rule breakers. We remain the true purveyors of style, making something out of nothing - time and time again. Nothing is coincidental, our hair - a powerful shape shifting gift is our weapon and tool to unearth, joy, creativity, beauty and power is ours and no one else's... This shit is for us.

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