Musée Massillon exhibit explores the rich culture and history of black hair
MASSILLON – Deborah Redmond looked at the photographs lining the walls of the Fred F. Silk Community Room atMassillon Museum.
The images of braided hair, dreadlocks, tightly coiled locks and the process of creating these styles bring to mind her childhood.
“It brings back memories,” said the resident of Massillon. “Speaking of hot combing, I remember sitting in this chair in the kitchen. My mom put the iron on the stovetop. That’s how you heated it. She m pressed the hair. Sometimes you burned yourself.”
From the age of 5 and throughout her young life, Redmond’s mother squeezed her hair every few weeks.
“It was like that back then (in the early 50s),” she said.
Most black women have had a hot comb in their hair at some point, Tamara Ellington told those gathered at the museum on Tuesday for her brown bag talk about the history of black hair.
“It’s ingrained in our memories,” she said. “We can still smell the grease and burnt hair.”
Ellington, a speaker, educator and empowerment researcher, has studied black bodies and hair and the culture around them since the early 2000s.
“I was so interested in the disdain society has for black hair and black bodies,” she said. “From the beginning of slavery (black people) were called animals and hair was called wool. That started the unkind reaction to black hair.”
Wherever there was colonization, struggles for black hair were present
Ellington, along with Kent State art history professor James Underwood, curated an exhibit examining the discrimination of black lives and cultures.
“Wherever colonization happened, the struggles for black hair were real,” she said.
Ellington’s work focuses on the socio-psychological aspects of black hair culture.
She has published several books, including encyclopedia entries for natural hair, braids and African American clothing, leading to the development of her larger project “TEXTURES: The History and Art of Black Hair”, a museum exhibit and catalog at Kent State University.
The exhibit, on view at the Kent State University Museum through August 7, examines three concepts of black hair: community and memory, hair politics, and black joy.
The illustrations presented describe animal perceptions of the black body. Works by famous artists including Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, works by Annie Lee, whose work depicted black women having their hair done in salons, are on display.
The exhibit also features hair artifacts and artists’ interpretations of black hair.
As early as the ancient Egyptians, black hair was on display with styles including cornrows and braids, Ellington said.
Tribes in African regions had specific styles identifying their members.
There are many stereotypes and black people have had to manipulate their hair to be acceptable.
“After slavery was abolished, they had to become employable,” Ellington said.
Companies such as Madam CJ Walker and Lucky Brown began marketing products aimed at black people to straighten their hair and lighten their skin.
“It was a way of survival,” she explained. “Black beauty is always in question, and so we continue to experience forced assimilation.”
News anchors (among other jobs) often straighten their natural locks or cover them up while on air.
Brittany Nobel Jones was fired from her job at WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi, because her natural hair was unacceptable.
“The black community is still so brainwashed that we willingly assimilate,” Ellington added.
Black Women Face Hair Loss and Stress About Their Natural Hair
A Perception Institute Study conducted in 2016 revealed that black women suffer from stress and anxiety due to hair problems.
Ellington battled her own trauma, losing her hair three times to perms or chemical treatments as she tried to assimilate. In 1998, she adopted her natural style.
The psychological aspects have consequences such as low self-esteem and make women give up certain aspects of life to maintain societal perception of beauty, she said.
In the black community, those with naturally straighter hair are considered to have “good hair”.
“Frizzy hair is considered bad hair,” Ellington explained. “It’s been an internal battle that black women have with their hair.”
Black hair through the eyes of a child
The Massillon Museum and the Kent Region Chapter of The Links Inc.a national professional women’s service organization, have partnered to bring the exhibit—“The Art and History of Black Hair: Through the Eyes of the 21st Century African American Child”—to the museum.
Kendra Preer, president of the arts side of the local organization, said the chapter is focused on serving youth and the arts.
Each year, the group hosts a middle school class in Stark, Summit, Portage and Medina counties.
In the Classics Through the Ages course, students focus on digital photography, film, literature, and writing to help students understand and appreciate art.
Each student received a camera and a tripod. The Massillon Museum and the Cleveland Print Room provided classes in photography while others, including Ellington, provided classes in the history of black hair.
Students in grades five through nine were asked to photograph aspects of black hair.
“You will see life in the community through the photographs,” Preer said. “It gives a perspective of black hair and culture through these college kids.”
The class tries to incorporate a kind of social learning so that participants learn more about the community, culture and art, she said.
In the photographs, we see a student’s mother, dreadlocks, a braided bun, brightly colored rubber bands adorning a child’s head, Bantu knots, the process of using a hot comb, products capillaries used on black hair, a barber, tightly coiled hair, and someone’s natural hair in the wind.
Canton City Schools Arts Academy sixth-grade student Naomi Seeden snapped a photo at a local Dunkin’ Donuts of a smiling worker with her long tresses sticking out of her visor.
“It’s a magnificent exhibition created by talented middle school students,” said the director general of the Massillon Museum, Alexandra Nicholis Coon. “You want to make sure you see it.”
The exhibition is on view until March 23.
Contact Amy at 330-775-1135 or [email protected]
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