by Myra Saturen
March 04, 2014
In a talk originally scheduled during Black History Month, but postponed due to snow, Kamau and Janice Kenyatta of Northampton Community College (NCC) discussed their book The Truth About Black Hairstyles: The Whole Story Revealed on March 4 at Main Campus. The talk traced the historical background of African American hairstyles, the characteristics of black hair, health, and what hair choices say about self-expression.
Janice Kenyatta is the experiential learning/internship coordinator at NCC. Kamau Kenyatta, her husband, is an adjunct professor of history at the College. The couple's book is published by Songhai Publishing.
The genesis of the book came about when Janice Kenyatta taught high school. "Why is our hair a curse?" she heard a young black woman, a student, say. The question resonated with her and impelled Janice to question "Why do we hate our hair?"
Kamau Kenyatta had been curious about this, too. "Why do you straighten your own hair?" husband asked wife, who after an initially outraged response, gave the subject more thought and changed from straightened to natural styles.
The Kenyattas then spent many years doing research and talking to family members, friends and stylists about black hair.
"Black hair is unique in the world," said Kamau Kenyatta, who wears his hair in long locks gathered into a ponytail. He explained that African hair has a unique structure; the hair emerges from the scalp in tendrils with hooks that loop and interlock with adjacent strands. The result protects the scalp and keeps the body cool.
Natural black hair twisted into locks hearkens to ancient Egypt, but straightened hair comes from just the last 150 years, the Kenyattas maintain.
"During enslavement, black people did not have the tools to care for their natural hair," Kamau said. Taught by their white masters that black natural hair did not conform to white standards of beauty, black people took to covering their hair. "Black people were made to feel ashamed of their hair," he said. Even after slavery, attitudes of scorn persisted, and most black women-though not men--straightened their hair.
The 1960s popularized the afro as a political statement. The style came and went, but these more health-conscious times raised questions about the safety of chemical use on the scalp. Showing a picture of drain cleaner on the PowerPoint screen, the Kenyattas pointed out its chemical and corrosive similarity to lye-based hair relaxers. Although relaxers labeled "no lye" have appeared on the market, this wording represents deceptive marketing. "No lye is a lie," Kamau said. "If stylists applying relaxers to a woman's hair have to wear protective gloves, imagine what that chemical is doing to a woman's scalp," he said. He expressed alarm that some young children are having their hair straightened.
The Kenyattas countered oft-made arguments that straightened hair is more manageable, that it leads to better chances of getting hired and that it appeals to black men. They showed pictures of newly awarded Oscar winner, Lupito Nyong'o, Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver to demonstrate the beauty of natural styles.
"There are endless possibilities for natural hair," Kamau said, showing pictures of women with locks arranged in creative ways, braids, short natural and longer natural hair.
Janice Kenyatta concluded the program by asserting that "hair is about self-esteem. Love yourself no matter what kind of hair you have. This is true for white women, too. How you feel on the inside manifests itself about how you feel on the outside."
Soon to be an e-book, The Truth About Black Hairstyles can now be obtained through Amazon and by going to blackhairstylestruth.com.
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