The Evolution of Our Hair is An Evolution of Our History: Part II

The Evolution of Our Hair is An Evolution of Our History: Part II

The story of the UK black hair style evolution is not just a story about hair dressing but a story about the History of African and Caribbean peoples in the UK. How our styles changed over the years was influenced by changes in our circumstance.

I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar/workshop at the Fitzwilliam Musem in Cambridge. This was ‘Roots to Relaxers’, which was part of the African Comb project which will be exhibited in the museum in 2013. The first speaker Sandra Gittens author of ‘Afro Caribbean Hairdressing’ took us through the history of black hair in the UK starting with Cleopatra and her braids to Little Richards’ Elvis inspiring quiff, to the Windrush era through to Mel B’s wild fro in the 90s and the most modern incarnation of black hair Nikki Manaj and her specific type of individuality. The second speaker June gave a presentation on our modern hair styles(weaves, relaxers, canerows), their pros an cons and our need for choice. She later lead a brief discussion with a group of teenagers that she had brought with her about how they wear their hair now.

The second presentation by freelancer June Forbes, who has worked in the hairdressing industry for 25 years, was a wonderful segue way into  modern tale of how we wear our hair now as we need to manage these differing hair styles. I really found interesting listening to her experience in the hair industry over the years, the different styles she has worked with and how the introduction of home relaxer kits and home straightener has opened the door for great damage for our hair. She also mentioned that our hair changes texture after puberty so relaxing hair prior to puberty can be greatly damaging.
Towards the end of the presentation, she expressed her sadness at the cannibalisation of black owned hair companies. The money going into buying wigs and weaves is money is being taken away from research into good black hair products and as such lots of cheaper ingredients which are not good for our hair type are making it on to the market. This struck a cord with me, we are hurting ourselves and others by allowing others to take over what should be a black industry. We are the only ones who use black hair products. The hair that is brought from India and other countries isn't always taken in a ethical manner and that money is not ending up in the hand of the people who the hair belongs to or into the hands of the black community.

She later lead a brief discussion with a group of teenagers that she had brought with her about how they wear their hair now and it was incredible to hear their experiences of hair at school.
A young 25 year old told of how he was not allowed to wear his hair too low cut as it was seen as aggressive (Skin Heads) and other told how boys in some schools are  not allowed to wear cornrows.  How should a young man of colour wear his hair then? Of course as soon as this young man left school he felt this uncontrollable need to grow it out as long as possible and have fun with it. It was clear from the younger generation that the need to be be ale to chop and change their hair when they liked to show their individuality was very important to them.
Speaking with some of the other participants it was obvious that our experiences of hair over the decades and the choices we made about how we wore  our hair were so different to each others and  to those of young people today. 
My main hope for young people, as I have littles ones of my own, is that going into secondary school and the working world there is more understanding of our hair and that they are able to choose their own style rather than being forced into one.

The African Comb Project
Fitzwilliam Museum 
This project is multi-disciplinary and will combine new archaeological, anthropological and sociological research with community engagement. It will trace over 5000 years of history of the African comb from the Pre-dynastic period of Egypt to the Twentieth century in UK and US, and will include oral histories and personal testimonies that will document attitudes towards hair and grooming in the present day.

Please contact 01223 332904 or email

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