Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Every American has something to learn from “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” which spans from the elaborate hairstyles of the 15th century Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba to the fades, weaves, locs and twist-outs of today. And the lesson is that the hair we grow and the styles we wear it in say something significant about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we hope to go.

Its studied exploration of prickly hair politics is astute and revelatory, delivering deep insight to novices and enthusiasts alike. Even as a longtime student of black history and culture, I found new detail and understanding on each page.

My personal takeaway was that rather than judging others’ choices in hair styles—natural or not—we need to bring a spirit of openness and inquiry to the looks instead. That is, we need to earn our opinions on hair in the same way that we should earn our opinions on politics or religion, through careful study, contemplation and more than a little compassion.

The Politics of Appearance

While many realize that when it comes to black hair, there is much, much more historical and cultural significance than meets the eye. It takes a deep study like this one, however, to reveal just how much more there is.

“Hair Story” meticulously details a centuries-long assault on black hair. It begins by offering a moving account of what exactly was lost when slaveholders shaved off the elaborate hairstyles of their captives. Signifiers of age, religion, marital status, ethnic identity, wealth and rank fell to the ground.  Distinctive humanity was shorn into anonymous chattel.

The book presents a vexing picture of what happened when the evolutionary genius of dense, tightly coiled hair (perfect for insulating heads from intense sun) was taken out of context in the New World. In the skin-shade, hair-texture hierarchy of interracial antebellum America, straight hair often afforded substantial economic and social advantage. Less backbreaking work on plantations and in some cases an “opportunity” to pass for white altogether could be won if hair passed muster.

In such a divided and dysfunctional world, the obsessive pursuit of unnaturally straight hair among black people became, well, natural, the authors explain. Inventive enslaved people turned cornmeal and kerosene into shampoo, and bacon grease and butter into conditioner. Butter knives became crude curling irons and grown men slicked axle grease made for wagon wheels onto their heads as dual hair dye and straightener. Lye and potatoes, a mix potent enough to burn the skin off a person’s head, became a hair straightener of choice.

Years later the echoes of these black hair-taming offensives reverberate in contemporary press-and-curls, Jheri curls, relaxers and weaves, the authors reveal.

Avoiding the Hair Police Trap

Importantly, Byrd and Tharps explore these issues of hair, identity and social acceptability without plotting styles along a facile continuum, from supposedly self-hate-inspired relaxers to empowered naturals. In today’s black hair free-for-all—where a black first lady’s bangs and a black gold-medal gymnast’s ponytail edges send the media atwitter—things are much too complicated and contested for that.

The authors are especially adept at walking the fine line between critique and condemnation. I was shocked to discover through their account the extent to which hair styles are still thought to both signify and confer economic and social status. They smartly observe a host of contradictions and fissures within the black community that merit discussion, but they contextualize them fairly, prompting reflection versus mere reaction.

They also infuse historical voices and searing details into their narrative that keep it lively and personal. I won’t soon forget their description of a fine-toothed comb dangling outside a church to signal that only those with hair silky enough to pass through it were welcome to worship. I shivered as I read about hair product companies named Curl-I-Cure, Kinkilla and KKK (Knocks Kinks Krazy). I lamented the irony of black newspapers that wrote about racial pride on pages overrun with advertisements for skin whiteners and hair straighteners.

I loved this book and recommend it highly to anyone seeking insight into black culture in America–our hair speaks volumes.


In fact, I have only a few grumbles about it: the artwork, the less nuanced present-day perspective and a few too many mentions of one Nat Mathis, who by some editing glitch was introduced in four different chapters. With a nickname like “The Bush Doctor” he stood out, in a jarring way.

As the book’s narrative inches closer to 2014, the authors don’t provide the same depth of context and insight that they do from slavery to the 60s. We get a good picture of “what” is going on with hair styles and hair debates, but the analysis is missing a bit of the “why” that we got in earlier chapters, which chronicled slavery through the Black Power Movement.

Perhaps the authors assume that the reader brings sufficient personal knowledge of the social and cultural context in which new hairstyles and hair attitudes are emerging. Maybe the reasons behind the profusion of styles we see today are too hard to pinpoint given the increasingly diverse social, economic and cultural lives of black people in America.  After all, today we are mass incarcerated in jail cells, own television networks and occupy the White House, a range of black experience never before witnessed.

Still, I wanted more of the Byrd’s and Tharp’s distillation of hair stories in relation to large-scale social trends affecting contemporary black people in recent decades. What exactly was going on with black people in the 70s and 80s that made a Jheri-curl (wet mess that it was) seem attractive? How are contemporary trends like failing public schools, growing wealth inequality and a black First Family expressed in hair? (Basically, I’m lobbying for an illustrated Hair Story II so that we can all hear more from these fantastic authors.)

In Living Color

Additionally, better paper stock and photography would have taken this book from great to exceptional. While several photos are featured within the book, the fuzzy reproductions just don’t do the styles or the author’s analysis justice. I wanted to really see the drip off of the ‘80s curly perms on page 109 and the kinks and curls throughout the book.

Until my dream of a fully illustrated edition of this book comes true, I recommend “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present” as a companion to “Hair Story.” “Posing Beauty” features gorgeous duo-tone and full color photographs of everyday folks and celebrities rocking the naps and conks and perms and twists that Byrd and Tharps contextualize so well.

“Hair Story” talks about the brief moment in time when singer James Brown abandoned his press-and-curl for a short ‘fro and sang “I’m Black and I’m Proud” with such charisma that it became an anthem. But you need a copy of “Posing Beauty” to see the sharp-as-a-tack, unstraightened style on him after a concert where the “Black is Beautiful” slogan was introduced.

The Hair Craft Project

Locals who share my interest in black hair and styles can explore the topic further this month at 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. The gallery is hosting The Hair Craft Project, an exhibition led by artist Sonya Clark, which explores hairdressing as the primordial textile art form—the earliest manipulation of fiber toward an aesthetic and functional purpose. Artists from VCU’s Craft and Material Studies program will prepare canvases hand stitched with threads to simulate hair growth. Local hairstylists will each be given a stitched canvas and the opportunity to braid it as skillfully as possible. Photographs of stylists’ creations on Clark’s head will be shown in conjunction with the canvases. The project aims to break down barriers by crossing boundaries between hair salons and art galleries as sites of aesthetics, craft, skill, improvisation, and commerce. Click here for more details.

FEBRUARY 14- MARCH 8, 2014
People’s Choice Award: Vote for your favorite artworks and hairstyles

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2014, 5:30 PM
Gallery talk with Bill Gaskins and juror A’Lelia Bundles

THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2014,  5:30 PM
Gallery talk with Henry Drewel, Ruti Talmor, and juror Lowery Stokes Sims

The featured stylists include Kamala Bhagat, Dionne James Eggleston, Marsha Johnson, Chaunda King, Anita Hill Moses, Nasirah Muhammad, Jameika Pollard, Ingrid Riley, Ife Robinson, Natasha Superville, and Jamilah Williams.