"Hair Story" Provides History and Perspective to Why It's More Than *Just Hair* (Book Review)

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I've been planning this blog post for over a year and had a hard time talking about this book without including every conversation I've had with other Black women since 2015. At a later date, I do plan to dig deeper in hair politics and the social construct of Black hair. 

Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at Black people’s hair. It’s the perfect metaphor for the American experiment here: the toll of slavery and the costs of remaining. It’s all in the hair.
— Lisa Jones, Hair Story

I love hair

I love how it can be dressed up or dressed down for any occasion. Weddings, proms, birthdays, funerals; a hair transformation becomes the first step in stepping out as a new you. It becomes a silent way to express your attitude as you move through the world. And this may be biased, but I know I love Black hair the most. I love the intricate styles people create in cornrows (did you know they are called canerows in the Caribbean?) or the look of freshly tighten locs. I love pixie cuts and braids, afros and waves. I love the love we bestow on Black hair in all its creative forms.

Even with all that love, I felt this willingness to remain detached from my hair identity. Singer India Aria said it best with her song, "I Am Not My Hair". My hair wasn't going to define me. In reality, I can never get my hair to do those intricate styles and I held a lingering jealousy about not having good hair. I realized that part of my black identity was missing and it took me a long time to see my hair as anything more than a nuisance. The search to define my blackness now included finding my "crown."

Hair Story Brings About Context

Pictured are the authors. Byrd is on the right, Tharps on the left.

Pictured are the authors. Byrd is on the right, Tharps on the left.

The things we think of as unchanging are always the things that have the chance to change us the most. In my first year of Black books, I read a text that put every stand on my head in historical context. My love of the mundane prompted me to purchase and read Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps written in 2001. 

The two hair scholars decided to co-author a book once they discovered they have similar academic backgrounds. A chance meeting between a mutual employer led them to combine their solo projects on black hair, creating a historical timeline of hair fashions and fads. Beginning with slavery and going all the way to the early 2000s, their shared passion and love tells of how Black women interact with our hair based on the constraints of the world around us. In 2014, an updated and revised version was published to include the changing styles of the later 2000s, which is the version I read. 

The fun parts of this book are reading how each hair style morphed into the next one. The authors do a great job of filling each chapter with a nice balance of facts, quotes, and real life stories. I didn't know I needed to know the origins of the Jheri Curl or just how much money we are collectively spending to make our curls pop. They corrected some common misconceptions and praised the foremothers and fathers at each stage of hair history. They talked about how the language has changed over the years, and how things like weaves and braids have been brought out of the shadows of the black woman's arsenal. They included the rise of YouTube stars and continuously showed how black pride, not hate, was always the motivator of progress.

Hair Story Book Cover

Unfortunately, even with all the information out there, much of this book summarized how explaining hair rituals to a white audience can weigh heavily on black mental space. In the past, women have kept our hair process private, but the movie Good Hair exposed all of our tricks to anyone who was willing to pay the price of admission. Since hair expectations are still unequal to our white counterparts, this leaves little room for Blacks to complete our necessary routines and can leave women feeling ashamed or spiteful at the concept altogether. In my case, I had to relearn how to take care of my hair since years of perms did not prepare me for this "lifestyle". And Hair Story talks about numerous women going through that very same process.

Finally, Byrd and Tharps reminded us all of the ways in which our environment is very rarely ours to manipulate. The research says that history is sometimes ours to make (like Madam C.J. Walker), but mostly ours to endure. And more frustratingly, history is ours to repeat. Hair Story recounts the words of women who remember the feeling of hair curlers and pressing combs to their ears, the pain of tight braids on their scalps, and the less than gentle pulling of plastic through their coarse strands. Slave women forcibly shaved and scarves in place of intricate, African grooming rituals. More examples of women and men denied jobs based on hair bias and lack of knowledge from other races, which is still happening now. Tharps and Byrd seamlessly drew a line from the hair controversies of the past to the hair trials we're still having today. Regardless of how we choose to wear our hair, it has been politicized in ways that the hair others have not been. We are still unpacking hundreds of years of racism, so even if I can walk freely with natural hair, I am not completely free. If you have never stood in front of your bathroom mirror contemplating how to wear your hair in the most non-threatening way, you have not lived the politics of black hair. 

Context Invites Changes 

A new way of defining beauty may seem an unlikely tenet for a revolutionary movement. But for Blacks in America, a new way of looking at themselves was as revolutionary as most anything could be. They had been more than three hundred years in a land that had collectively stripped them of pride in their Blackness- including pride in the color of their skin and all distinctly African physical attributes.
— Ayana D. Bryd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story,

Every black woman has a hair story- even me. It's complication perfectly dates me and shows how my own hair decisions were both an act of rebellion and a misunderstanding of my roots. I read Hair Story in search of solidarity and wondered if history could give me insight into my own tresses. Knowing the history of something changes you and hair history changed me. 

I learned that I still use the language and attitudes of the oppressors. I still use whiteness as the model for hair. I would describe my hair as if there is something wrong with it. I would say that I couldn't wear it "out" or "down" like my straight haired counterparts can, as if those two modes have ever been a natural thing for my natural hair to do. I made the physical transformation in 2009 with a "big-chop", but it wasn't until reading this book that I made the mental transformation of understanding why my hair was important in the first place. 

I'm a lover of the mundane, but I got more than I bargained for with Hair Story. Yes, I recommend you read this wonderful book. You'll also begin to see the joy in your hair if you thought there was none. I keep my afro as an image of hair love and solidarity for my daughters, but I too needed an image of love. Ayana D. Bryd and Lori L. Tharps gave me that image and I am grateful for it. 

You can purchase Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps here on Amazon. 



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Antoinette Scully Headshot by Sara MacFarlane

About The Author

Black & Bookish is the brainchild of Antoinette Scully, educator and lover of all things bookish. She is on a quest to guide the authors of tomorrow into the bookstores of today. When she's not hanging out on line, she's living it up as the mother of two rambunctious girls and wife of a local filmmaker.