Hair is big

on the Grand Concourse. I pass at least one hair salon on every block, interspersed with supermarkets, household goods, bodegas, hookah shops and the goat restaurant.

The signs are not all for hair braiding. Straight hair gets its due.

Including this goofy martian coif.

But mainly the ads showcase braids.

Extravagant hair styling makes me think about novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, described accurately by the New York Times as “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic,”  and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013. It’s a moving story about two people from Nigeria, one of whom comes to America and one to London. I won’t tell the rest in case you read it (and you ought to). But one thing that stands out for me in the fabric of the novel is the amount of time the main character spends in African hair braiding salons. This was foreign to me. If you read Adichie, the granular detail with which she describes having her hair done could only have come from her own experience.

Scholars of African history see the practice as many thousands of years old, with braids even etched into the back of the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza. African tribes, groups and regions adorned their heads in specific ways, not restricted to cornrows. Styles date back to at least 3000 B.C., including Ghana braids, Fulani braids, Goddess braids, Box braids and dreadlocks.

On the Concourse, there are many more images of fancy hair braiding than there are actual stylings on the street. It seems to be more aspirational, or maybe done for a special occasion.

Of course there are other origin tales besides the African. Some go back to the Venus of Willendorf, thought to be 25,000 years old and discovered in Austria in 1908. 

Just 11.1-centimeters tall, this limestone beauty  seems undeniably to have a head of cornrows. If I could steal one object from a museum, this would be it. I’d have to go to Vienna, where the Venus is exhibited in their Natural History Museum

Now for an alternative narrative, possibly apocryphal. It is said that cornrows were used to help the enslaved escape their misery. Cornrows were used to transfer information; they were maps of a sort. Benkos Bioho, a radical who lived in Columbia, South America, is said to have devised the practice in the 1500s. Bioho and ten others escaped the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque, known as the “village of maroons.” Later this became the first free village in the Americas. His reward: he was captured by the government, hanged and quartered. Before that, though, he taught braiding.

iCurved braids represented roads to be traveled to escape. Also, the enslaved hid seeds in their hair to plant crops once they reached freedom. No slaveholder would ever suspect.

It’s also said that braided hair was called “cane rows” to denote the sugar cane fields in which captive workers toiled so horrifically.

This strategy recalls the red blanket hung on the line to guide those on the underground railroad to freedom.

How much of this legacy is embedded  in the hair styles of Grand Concourse? The signs advertising braiding always looked gaudy to me. It’s good to look deeper.

 

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