“The African’s few personal possessions consisted of ornaments for the hair and the comb.
The comb represented an expression of its creator and reflected tribal status, family traditions, or expressions of affection.
When he was removed from his motherland to become a slave in far away lands, his comb was left behind, not to be found for 400 years.”
(Willie L Morrow: 1973)
Adapted from Willie L Morrow’s Book, ‘400 Years Without A Comb’ is a piercing and detailed documentary study of the History of African Beauty, in particular, African hair in the context of the African’s journey before, during and after Slavery.
It was shocking to discover that hair straightening and relaxing products developed from such things as the Sulphur Chemicals used to treat lice in Slave Quarters, and left-over kitchen dishwashing water whose chemical residue was valued for its corrosive effect on the scalp which would then straighten the Slave’s ‘Kinky Hair’ as a welcome side effect.
This sort of ‘beauty advice’ was then passed down ‘lovingly’ by 2nd Generation Slaves who were born Slaves and did not have the Cultural experience and self-esteem of their 1st Generation parents who had grown up in Africa.
Born Slaves, the pathological ‘Inferiority Seed’ as Morrow terms it, was strongest in them.
This was subsequently passed down the generations entrenching itself in the Black Psyche, and manifesting itself in Self-Hatred through ‘remedies’ to straighten the African’s natural ‘Nappy’ Hair.
Madam CJ Walker, reported to be the first Black American woman Millionairess, earned a fortune by birthing the Black Hair beauty care industry as we have come to know it today which unwittingly fed into the Self-Hatred that had been perpetuated for generations.
All this remains relevant to the question of Black identity today, and can also be regarded as an extension of the ‘Tragic Mullato’ dilemma.
The constant dilemma of the African to value himself/herself according to how ‘close’ they come to resembling ‘Whiteness’ whether its through a lighter skin complexion or straightened hair.
It was only in the 1960s when the African Comb re-emerged, resulting in the popular ‘Afro’ Hairstyle.
This according to Morrow, marked the first time in 400 Years, African-Americans re-united with and adopted an aspect of their African origin into their everyday life in America.
With the rise of skin-lightening creams in our own time, 400 Years Without A Comb provides insight into the origins of this phenomenon tracing it to Slavery and the self-hatred it entrenched amongst Slaves which was passed onto subsequent generations and continues to manifest in various forms today.
Before being uprooted by Slavery, Slaves belonged to some of the most glorious African Empires that were eventually destroyed by Colonial Conquest.