London-based hair and beauty journalist Sue Omar is hell-bent on celebrating the black woman's crowning glory: her hair.
She is exploring the mystique of Afro hair in a special six-part series for Stylist.co.uk, with her second edition unraveling the culture behind African hair braiding that weaves together a community and transcends generations.
Caring for my Afro hair was a Sunday night routine that I shared with my mother and two sisters up until our teenage years. Once our uniforms had been ironed, my mother would take on the tiresome task of washing, nurturing and beautifully braiding our tresses, in preparation for the school week ahead.
My sisters and I would often argue over braiding styles, because we each wanted to rock the best braids on the block or, in this case, playground. With a wide-tooth comb in hand and an array of Afro hair products within reach, my mother would sit us each down, one by one, on a plump pillow that rested on the ground in between her thighs to get braided up.
I grew to believe Black Hair has power, genius and magic in it, defying gravity and limitation. I mean, look at how marvellous it is: Black Hair grows up and out.
- Michaela Angela Davis, Writer
In a recent conversation with award-winning Afro hair stylist, Charlotte Mensah, I discovered that this ritual wasn’t unique to the women in my family. In fact, braiding, twisting and plaiting Afro hair echoes a nostalgic childhood story that resonates with many black women.
“It’s deeper than hair for us, it’s a culture that we share,” Charlotte explained. “At the age of one you probably sat down with your mother to let her groom your hair, braid it, and add oils to it. It’s almost like, as an Afro hair stylist, you can identify with the person that’s in your chair because you’ve been through that yourself before you became a hairdresser, so you share the same journey.”
If we take a look back at where the art of African hair braiding all began, we’d be weighing up a hefty history that carries over 3,000 years worth of culture, tracing as far back as 3500 B.C.
In Ancient Egypt, braids signified status and wealth as they were practiced on wigs created for royalty. In other African cultures, braids served as a form of identification, as different tribes would adorn their crowns with unique braiding styles to represent their country of origin.
The act of braiding hair would also create a social solace for many African communities, where women would gather around and share stories as they took it in turns to get their tresses twisted with the utmost precision and attention to detail. Fast forward hundreds of years, and this sense of community and culture still prevails in Afro hair salons across the world.
If you log into Instagram and search for #braids, you will find they’re having somewhat of a fashion moment. So, what has caused this change to happen? Has time really adjusted how Afro hairstyles are looked upon?
Arguably, when celebrities with highly influential followings such as Kim Kardashian-West endorse anything, it’s inevitably going to become the hot new thing. Think Regina George from Mean Girls nonchalantly flinging on a vest with cut-outs on the chest and making it look cool: that’s exactly what it becomes.
When Kardashian-West showcased her newfound love for cornrow-style braids via selfies on Instagram, all of a sudden they were cool. But when she rebranded a hairstyle known by African communities as ‘cornrows’ for centuries as her own ‘signature boxer braids’, it’s no wonder it cooked up a cyber frenzy.
Whether it’s fair or not to accuse Kim K for cultural appropriation is a debate for another day. But what is one to do when the largest digital database in the world generates images that present Afro hairstyles as unprofessional for the work place? Cue humble 23-year-old Botswanian, Bonnie Kamona, versus American multinational technology company, Google.
It’s no surprise that Kamona’s search results, tweeted just over a month ago, went viral on the social network with over 13,000 retweets. Just by looking at the image results on the left in comparison to the right, several assumptions can be made about the perception of Afro hair.
According to the instant image results on Google, ‘unprofessional hairstyles for work’ referred to coiled and kinky hair with an Afro texture. When you think about hairstyles that are inappropriate for the workplace, you would think that that this would refer to unkempt hair that hasn’t been groomed, but based on the images generated by the search engine, it can be interpreted that the natural state of Afro hair is deemed unprofessional.
And things got more shocking for the Botswanian student when she caught a glimpse of what showed up as ‘professional hairstyles for work’: all of the images featured white women, with fair, silky-soft, European textured hair. Mind-blowing, to say the least.
We have to celebrate people’s natural hair. Obviously if it’s too long and it’s in the way, then fine, but we can't change the texture. It’s outrageous.
- Jennie Roberts, Celebrity Session Stylist
Wanting to get my head around the fact that this kind of prejudice exists in the digital realm in 2016 or, for that matter, the real world, I hunted down Bonnie Kamona to get some answers on her Google-search experience.
Here’s what she had to say:
“I firmly believe the uproar is indicative of the awakening many of us have experienced with regards to racial prejudice and discrimination. I am no techie, nor do I claim to fully understand how it all works but I am aware that the Google search results are affected by algorithms, SEOs, forums and articles that the images are linked to. I do also believe in an era where technology is advancing at the rate that it is – search engines should develop ways to combat findings that would incite racial bias.
I have personally felt discriminated against because of my Afro hair and have had to braid or cover it up in order to look ‘presentable’ for interviews and meetings which I think is ridiculous to say the least. It is a pity that black women are finally celebrating their kinks and curls personally, yet still have to tone them down professionally. Surely, society should do better.”
For black women, braids have been our pride and joy for thousands of years. Our kinks, curls and coils perform magic when they are tightly twisted for both protection and practicality. The hours we invest in grooming our Afro hair proves that no matter what the circumstances, we will always look good, whether that be for a night out on the town or a corporate meeting. As Afro hair braiding styles and patterns become more beautiful and intricate by the day, it’s no wonder that the whole world wants to jump on the braid bandwagon. I guess it really is #AllAboutAfro.