The Roots of Hair Culture in Brazil
What does your hair say about you? How does the story of your ancestors appear in your hair? How does the history of social relations in Brazil materialize in the way we view and wear our hair?
Clearly it would be impossible here in a few lines to recount the history of hair. The task would never end because the amount of stories is as large as the current population living on the planet, about 7 billion. Even after death our hair can say a lot about the society in which we live, for it remains as a physical fact of times passed. The Egyptians, for example, left traces of hair fundamental to the understanding of their past in Africa. And they liked hair so much that despite habitually shaving their heads, they wore elaborate wigs. Unlike ancient peoples as the Sumerians, Hebrews, Babylonians and Greeks, the Egyptians let their hair grow during periods of travel or mourning. Hair and nails grow a little even after we die.
Hair can give bodily form to a social and political movement, such as the Black Panthers, the African American social movement very active between the years 1966 and 1982.They promoted Black Power, whose iconic hairstyle symbol is that of socialist philosopher Angela Yvonne Davis (1944). Sporting a mass of nappy hair constituted in that country a political attitude toward racial oppression and white society in the United States.
In Brazil, the Black Movement, with strong expression onward from 1975, would sport a hair culture of affirmation during which many viewed nappy hair as a positive fact of racial experience, producing an aesthetic of differentiation against oppression and the imposition of short hair for men and straightened hair (by extreme measures) for women.
From 1859 onward with the publication of Origin of the Species, by British scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), a revolutionary explanation of the origins of the human species emerged. For Darwin we were culturally different, but crucial similarities showed that we had a common ancestry. We were the same and the physical differences were related to inheritance and the capacities of adaptation to the earth. In Europe, the manipulation of the term race identified blacks with the ape, in a negative manner, as a common ancestor. Thus skin color, hair texture, facial features became the basis for separating the supposedly superior whites from the inferior blacks and, later, other people considered to be inferior like Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. As Chico Science (1966-1997) says "Indians, whites, blacks and mestizos, nothing wrong in principle. Yours and mine are equal ceaselessly running through the veins."
Anyone who watched the soap opera Da cor do pecado [Of the Color of Sin], aired in 2007, will have a notable example of how misguided conceptions of race are tied to preconceived notions of skin color. The main character, Preta, a young woman with dark skin and curly hair, played by Taís Araujo, was of the color of sin. In this sense the black woman was associated with the sexuality of original sin. In the advertisements, Thaís never appears with natural hair and, often, what was advertised was wavy hair, bright, full, long and perfect, a far cry from the hair of black women. As has been noted by Lamartine Babo (1904-1966), and the Irmãos Valente “your hair does not negate your mixed-race heritage” because you are the color of mulatto.
Richarlyson (1982), former player of the Sao Paulo [soccer team], black, openly gay, while he was part of the club, used hair extensions and was forced to remove them in preference for the standard short haircut, mass produced to please fans, executive board and fellow players. His attitude toward censorship calls to mind lyrics to the carnival march Cabeleira do Zezé, when the chorus says, "Cut his hair!" In ancient Egypt the use of extensions as by the soccer player would have presented no problem whatsoever.
Smooth and soft?
But will straightening hair cause us to lose our black or mixed roots? Straightening hair is a good thing as long we don’t do so to deny the history we carry in our very bodies and with which we live daily. However, we know that certain sectors of society condemn hair that is nappy, rebellious, course. Pity for those sectors that don’t open wide the doors to the realization of egalitarian democracy that values differences. The out however, for those with hairstyles defiant of established norms, is not only "shock treatment", "progressive brush," "definitive," "Japanese," or shaving the head. The difficulties faced by those who have don’t have so-called “sexy” and desirable hair are many, but technologies exist to affirm what we have as well as to completely remodel its texture, shape, volume. For men, it appears out of the question, at least for some, to wear extensions as Richarlyson has done, but straightening hair can be an interesting option for men. Shaving the head is also a way to display a hairstyle, which may contain something of negation, but also of practicality. If the Egyptians are on the African continent and their ancient ancestors shaved their heads, I believe this was not motivated by a denial of nappy hair. It is a fact that they used wigs and wouldn’t dare say that they had “colored eyes.” In any case, the moment of decision as to what to do with hair rooted deeply in history is flexible, but resist and say what Chico César sings in the song Respeitem meus cabelos, brancos [Respect My hair, Whites] (2002):
If I want it nappy, leave it be
If I want to curl it, leave it be
If I want to dye it, leave me be
If I want it crunk, let me be
Leave it, let the locks swing
Beleza pura: símbolos e economia ao redor do cabelo do negro.
Master’s Thesis (Anthropology)
Corpo e cabelo como ícones de construção da beleza e da identidade negra nos salões étnicos de Belo Horizonte.
Nilma Lino Gomes
Dissertation (PhD in Social Anthropology)
FFLCH / USP
O teu cabelo não nega? Um estudo de práticas e representações sobre cabelos
Patrícia Gino Bouzón
Thesis (MA in Social Anthropology)
UFF / RJ