Monday, May 23, 2011

Family, God and Hair in the African-American Community

By Keach Hagey,Assistant Managing Editor,
The Queens Chronicle(Reprinted with permission)

 Carla Brown (left) braids Charmaine Brooks’ locks at Divine Nubian Creations <br>                        in Rochdale. (photo by Keach Hagey)</em>
A drive through Southeast Queens, with its well-kept houses, abundant churches and ubiquitous hair salons, reveals three things are very important to this middle class, mostly African-American community: family, God and hair.

According to local hairstylist and historian Carla Brown, these things have always been strongly intertwined in African culture.

“The whole concept of extensions had to do with the ancestors. They would cut the locks of those who passed on. If somebody had long hair, it meant they understood the spirits,” Brown said. “Everything we do now is just a re-creation. There is nothing new under the sun.”

She recently gave a talk at the St. Albans branch of the Queens Public Library titled Hairbraiding As An Art Form: The Art and History of Braids, tracing the 5,000-year history of braiding and dreadlocks to its roots in Egyptian, Native American and Eastern cultures.

Introduced to the world of braiding by a classmate in elementary school, Brown has gone on to write a book on the subject and teach an art history course at York College. She uses her historical research and travels to Africa as inspiration for her hairstyling work at her own salon, Beyond Braids in Brooklyn, and her consulting work with more than 20 salons.

Divine Nubian Creations, a small, all-natural salon located in the Rochdale Mall in Springfield Gardens, is one of them. Owner Charmaine Brooks shares much of Brown’s philosophy regarding hair.

“The head is the highest spiritual part of the body,” Brooks said. “For those of us who live in the African diaspora, we are very particular about who lays their hands on our heads. It’s in our DNA.” She is a bit more of a purist than Brown when it comes to chemical straighteners, which she sees as part of the traumatic cultural legacy of slavery.

Even Brown, who styles all types of hair, agrees that, for her, giving up straightening was the beginning of being able to have long hair. She remembers trying to grow our her relaxed hair during college, having it break off, and having to start all over again. “It’s a vicious cycle that’s devastating and uncomfortable,” she said.

Since the 1990s, the number of hair salons specializing in natural styles—braids, dreadlocks, extensions and other styles that eschew chemical straighteners—has been steadily rising, today making up about half the market.

Brooks sees this as a reclamation of an African cultural heritage that was lost to slavery, and continued to be suppressed all the way through the 1970s and ’80s.
Both she and Brown remember the infamous story of a local African-American female newscaster being fired in the 1970s for wearing her hair in an all-natural afro.
“Most people think of this style as a rebellious style, but it is not,” Brown said.
She pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, dreadlocks did not originate with the Rastafarian culture of Jamaica. Quite common in ancient times, the practice of wearing hair in long, twisted mats continued among Indian holy men through the Industrial Revolution.

At the turn of the 20th century, a socio-religious movement started in Harlem by Marcus Garvey blended Christian, African tribal and Hindu influences and found a following in Jamaica.
The followers of this movement called themselves “dreads,” signifying that they had fear, or respect, for God. Emulating Hindu holy men, they grew matted locks of hair, which became known as dreadlocks. They focused their attention on the Ethiopian Emperor Ras Tafari, and thus became known as Rastafarians.

Today, the locks are just as common in the board room as on an entertainer’s stage. Brooks explained that, because the locks embrace the natural curliness of most African-American hair, they often provide a way for people to grow their hair long, who were unable to do it before.

A set of “starter locks” takes anywhere from two to four hours to twist, and costs about $100 at her salon. Like any other hairstyle, it requires daily maintenance, and can be styled in an endless variety of ways.

While Brooks specializes in dreadlocks and coloring, Brown is a master braider. Her clients include many entertainers, of both sexes and all ethnicities, looking for a signature look. One photograph in her portfolio shows a woman with a hat, complete with tassel, made entirely of braided hair. Brown has given some of her clients such fine braids that they took three eight-hour days to put in.

Despite the increasing popularity of braids and locks, Brown said that traditional beauty schools have been slow to include them in their curricula. At the same time, the styles are spreading rapidly in Japan, where they are called “hip-hop hair.”

Brown sees it as her mission to dispel the many myths surrounding the role of hair in ancient cultures—such as the common misconception that Ancient Egyptians did not grow their hair long—and to continue inventing new hairstyles.

“I get hit with visions all the time,” she said. “Some people let me experiment on them. Other times, I have to experiment on myself.” As greater awareness of hair heritage spreads, Brooks is confident that more people will want these styles.

“Aesthetically, we feel fabulous, because we focus on our naturalness,” she said.

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