Hair Care Lessons from Yesteryear

What’s old is most definitely new again. Cornrows, twists, braids – all are styles that black women have worn since before first stepping foot in the United States as slaves and concubine. While intricate cornrows, twists, and updos are rarely seen in history books, simple French braids, plaits, and buns were often worn by slave women. Others retained their knowledge of the more intricate hair styles they wore in their homeland and interpreted and wore them in the new world they were so savagely brought into.

When first brought to America, African-American women and men had to quickly find a way to make do without the combs and other hair care tools they may had crafted and used in Africa. Instead, because of differing environments and unsanitary conditions they were prone to lice and dandruff. To combat this they eventually began using items such as kerosene, corn meal, and lard to help sanitize hair (kill and keep critters out) and maintain hair styles that would last while working in fields and houses alike.

Long hair worn loose was frowned upon, as it was seen as prideful – something no slave woman should be, and many of their white mistresses were threatened by it and made slaves cut hair shorter. Also in full effect was the covering of hair completely with a scarf.

Now we take pride in “protective styles,” such as braids, plaits and twists. I found this great article with a ton of photos of women from all over Africa wearing traditional hair styles and women in America as well. Notice anything familiar? You will see that everything from cornrows to extensions and weave have a place in our history.

As I’ve written before, as a kid I never wore cornrows or twists, just plaits. However, as I’ve grown up I do appreciate the regal feeling I get from wearing cornrows and flat twists, as well as box braids and Goddess braids.

Here is a picture of my great-grandmother in her younger hair  wearing her hair half up and half down. By the time I came along, she was of course older and usually wore her hair in two plaits, usually pinned up and together.

My maternal great grandmother. Eula Lee Toliver Giles.
My maternal great-grandmother. Eula Lee Toliver Giles.

My mom wears her hair short now, but back in the day she wore plaits like every other black girl you’ve ever met.

My mom as a kid rocking those plaits.
My mom as a kid rocking those plaits.

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