Throughout history and across different cultures, hairstyles have been used as a symbol of cultural expression, identity, and even resistance.

Visual artist and educator Justin Beatty comes from a mixed background of Native American and African American heritage. 

Beatty joined Zydalis Bauer for a conversation about the history and cultural significance of several hairstyles and the intersections that exist between Indigenous and Black cultures.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Throughout history and across different cultures, hairstyles have been used as a symbol of cultural expression, identity, and even resistance.

Visual artist and educator Justin Beatty comes from a mixed background of Native American and African-American heritage.

He joined me for a conversation about the history and cultural significance of several hairstyles and the intersections that exist between Indigenous and Black cultures.

Justin Beatty, Cultural Educator: Hair is really probably one of the first forms of art within a given culture.

Folks wanted to find ways to signify that they were parts of a particular group. Folks wanted to be able to stand out within that group. It was used as an identifier, you know, going back to probably some of the earliest formations of given cultures.

When you see artwork from ancient cultures, including, you know, Egyptians, even some of the styles in Central Africa, you find that there are specific elements of their hair being done a certain way.

Things like what are called Bantu knots with your braids that are tightly curled. You look at things like cornrows and even close-cut hairstyles were used in some ways to not only say, “Hey, I’m part of this particular ethnic group,” but also in some cases status within that group.

You are allowed to wear your hair a certain way if you were a warrior or if you were a person who was responsible for medicine or if you were a matron.

All of these things go back to some of the earliest stages of community and culture.

Zydalis Bauer: I know that I was reading also that during enslavement in America, a lot of those who were enslaved actually communicated things through their cornrows. And so, it kind of really piqued my interest on how can hair — what kind of information can hair convey, both within the culture and externally?

Justin Beatty: Well, it can do a lot of things, right?

As I said, it can be a signifier of your status, if people are aware of the culture.

But in things like cornrows, it was used to, in some cases actually be maps to say follow this path. Things were used — like cornrows were used to hide rice and seeds, information, in terms of notes or particular elements of a community.

So somebody would say, “Hey, I have this thing that means that I’m part of this community.” It’s a pretty well-documented fact that was something that was necessary, became a means of survival and protection to use your hair as a means of survival and security.

Zydalis Bauer: It seems that within the Black community, hair has always played a really important part, from Afros to cornrows, dreadlocks to braids.

How have we seen Black hair reflect Black history throughout the years?

Justin Beatty: In 70s, 60s and 70s, looking at Afro, that was a statement about, “Hey, this is our natural state of hair. We don’t need to do anything it and I’m going to grow it out so that you can see it. You can’t deny that I’m here.”

You know, it was an identity of invisibility in the 50s, where people weren’t seen as, you know, human. And in the 40s weren’t seen as human. And how we had to look to survive going before that.

You know, the things that Black folks did to their hair to be able to operate in society: pressing their hair, using lye, you know, perms, all of these things. And then in 70s, 60s and 70s, when we started to take ownership of our Blackness, we start to look back to what was going on previously in Africa, what were the things that we weren’t allowed to do? And we started to express ourselves in those ways.

So, going into dreadlocks, Afros, even fades of certain kinds. That was a way to say, “Hey, we’re still here and we’re still connected to our Blackness,” to our cultures that we developed here because we didn’t necessarily have access fully to our individual cultures based in Africa.

Now, you’re starting to see very intricate braiding patterns. You’re starting to see people using color. People are actually using accessories in the hair, you know, where the beads are entwined and braided into the hair and not just on the end.

At hair and fashion shows, people are really pushing the limits of what you can do with hair, but all of that still holds to the esthetic that is accepted by particular community, right? Because that’s where it comes from.

What is acceptable is determined by culture and by accessibility to culture. When you teach something that’s kind of outside of that, you go, “Uh, I’m not so sure.” But when you teach stuff, that’s part of it, it’s grown out of all of this time and how the culture is evolving over time.

Zydalis Bauer: And I want to expand on that because it’s really fascinating and interesting.

You know, in the past several years, we’ve seen this this country have a racial reckoning. And I think there’s also been some increased attention on hair discrimination. But you touched on it a little bit.

How have professional and social situations affected cultural hairstyles and the people who wear them? How have we seen that play out?

Justin Beatty: You have people that feel, “Okay, I have to conform in order to be able to have a job and take care of my family.” Right? That’s a standard. What what is accepted as “professional” wasn’t necessarily developed with our cultures in mind.

Then you have the opposite of that, where it’s not a matter of the professionalism itself, as much as it’s a matter of saying, “This is who I am and I should be allowed to be who I am in every context, whether it’s in the workspace, in home space, recreational space, that should not dictate what I’m allowed to do.”

Zydalis Bauer: And Justin, you come from a mixed cultural background of Native American and African-American heritage. When it comes to hair, how have you seen these two cultures intersect?

Justin Beatty: There’s a lot of shared experience from, you know, in the 1700s, 1800s, where, you know, folks were learning how to deal with these new people that had come to our lands.

We were seeing, as Indigenous folks, we were saying, okay, there’s now new people coming here that we don’t know, but we’re seeing how a segment of that population is being treated similar to how we’re being treated.

So, we have a mutual cause here in our liberation that we need to work towards.

Then going forward, you know, with the redlining of neighborhoods, who’s allowed to live where. And a lot of times Black folks and Native folks were allowed to live next to each other or, you know, they went to the same schools because, guess what? You don’t fit into this other demographic, and so you’re not really welcome here.

So, in that there was a lot of interplay and exchange of culture. And with the advent of like hip-hop, right? Hip-hop had spread all across the country, all across the world.

It goes into Native communities, too. And the esthetics that come along with that, right, are melded, you know? Because I think with most people, when you’re involved with something, you want to have some ownership of it.

You want to feel like it belongs to you.

So I’ve seen, you know, Native folks wearing, you know…modified versions of clothing that fits the hip-hop esthetic.

You see it with sports stuff all the time, Because like a lot of times within, like, hip-hop esthetic, you wear basketball jerseys, football jerseys, etc., etc.. I’ve seen those types of clothes modified with, you know, Native designs on them. And I think there’s also the understanding that, like, you look at people, the Mohawk hairstyle, right?

Zydalis Bauer: Yes.

Justin Beatty: You see that in punk rock. You see Black folks wearing it where it’s just kind of faded on the side, but it’s like faux hawk, things like that.

So, these are the little pieces of interplay that I think people don’t necessarily recognize that that’s where it’s coming from. But there’s this sort of very often very subtle, places where you have these touchpoints and in that there’s growth.

Zydalis Bauer: And as we’ve just discussed in this conversation, hair really is more than just hair.

So, what would you want people to know and understand about this cultural artform?

Justin Beatty: I think it’s important to understand that it’s something that most people have. But is there a difference in hairstyles, hair types, hair color? Absolutely.

But it’s something that identifies us as human.

And so, when we can start to have those conversations, when you see something, like, “Man, that’s cool! I wish I could do that with my hair.” That is something that we can stand to have the conversations around. It’s something that most of us have or why we don’t have it.

Maybe you have alopecia. Maybe you’re like me; I cut my hair in honor of a family member that was passing years ago, because that’s a cultural thing.

We can find ways to connect and find ways to experience being human outside of ourselves. And hair, although it’s maybe an unlikely and unexpected way to do that, it is still a way to do that.