In the Judeo-Christian story of Samson and Delilah, Samson is a mighty judge and Nazirite, whose supernatural strength lies in his locks. When he reveals the secret of his might to Delilah, she cuts his hair, and he loses his strength. “But his hair, though cut off, began to grow again” (Judges 16:22); and when this happens, Samson regains his power. In his final act, he collapses a temple on top of himself and 3000 Philistines, by pushing down its pillars with his bare hand.
Over the ages, through characters like Samson, Medusa, and Rapunzel, hair has served as a symbol of strength, power, and beauty in myths, legends and literature. Nowadays, we’d like to think of hair as being “just hair”, but these types of narratives, coupled with cultural practices, have given us certain notions about our tresses.
For us to really understand what all the fuss is about Black hair, I think we need to look first at some of the underlying beliefs that we, as humans, have had about hair:
Hair is mystical.
Our hair is a part of us- it grows out of our bodies and also carries our genetic material. Although we have hair pretty much all over our bodies, the hair that grows out of our head is particularly special. Not only does this hair serve as a main identifier of its host, but it has also come to personify one’s mind, thoughts, and headspace. Just think about some of our sayings:
“I just needed to get it out of my hair!”
“You made me want to pull my hair out!”
“I feel like letting my hair down!”
As such, hair has become associated with our moods, emotions, and our very being—like an extension of the soul. In some cultures, this association goes even further than that: hair actually has a spiritual significance. For example, followers of Rastafari and Sikhism believe that hair itself is holy, so they allow their hair to grow and never cut it. Also, in many cultures, the styling or cutting of hair plays a role in ceremonial rituals and rites of passage.
Hair is magical.
Since hair has been thought to be connected to a person’s being/soul/spirit, throughout history, various cultures have developed specific beliefs and superstitions about hair.
For instance, in West African and Caribbean societies, there’s a belief that pieces of your hair could be used to hex you, so people try to make sure that their hair doesn’t get into the hands of the wrong person! In my family, although we’re not superstitious, we too have internalized the practice of carefully throwing away any hair that’s been left on the floor or stuck in our combs and brushes (it’s so funny how your culture affects your behaviour!) This idea of your hair embodying your being is also part of the reason why putting your hands in a Black person’s hair—without invitation—is a BIG no-no (more on that in future posts).
Aside from beliefs and superstitions, I would also say that hair itself is kind of magical: it’s dead, yet it’s also alive at the same time. When you cut it, it grows right back. And it can also be changed and rearranged, and return to its original state, which allows you to change it again and again.
Hair is magnificent.
When my sister and I were younger, our Mom would always say, “your hair is your glory”. Back then, I didn’t realize that what she was making a biblical reference; but in any case, like many other things, she was right: society ties hair to beauty.
A full, thick head of long sleek straight hair, preferably blond, and no-greys, is the (unsaid?) prototype for the modern woman. Such hair is thought to represent youth, vigor, health, propriety, and sexiness. Furthermore, “beautiful” hair must also be “done”: it must be combed, brushed, trimmed, shiny, and neatly arranged.
Curly and frizzy hair, by nature, then, often gives the appearance of not being “done”, based on the straight-haired ideal. And if your hair isn’t “done”, people tend to assume that you’re a mess—either you’re lazy, you’re going through something, you’re sick or unstable, or you just lack good hygiene. This begs the question, “if your hair can never be ‘done’, how can you ever be ‘beautiful’?”
This is the beginning of a much larger discussion, as these are just some of the underlying notions that influence how we, as humans, view and understand hair.
For further information on the significance of hair, see The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History by Victoria Sherrow, Greenwood Press, 2006.
What are some of the beliefs that your culture has taught you about hair?