- The Washington Times - Friday, April 22, 2005

As moviegoers delight in the sassy coiffures and quips of Queen Latifah’s “”Beauty Shop,” a new exhibit is exposing the roots of the complex and often painful legacy of black American hair care.

“Hair and history are intertwined for African Americans like they are for no other people,” Cheryl Morrow says in an interview. A hair historian, Miss Morrow is the daughter of noted black hair care expert Willie Morrow, whose 1973 book “400 Years Without a Comb” supplies the theme for “African American Beauty: A Journey Through Time,” a traveling exhibit on display through month’s end at Howard University’s Armour J. Blackburn Center.

“The 400 years represent our years in slavery, when we weren’t allowed to groom our hair,” Miss Morrow says of the book and the exhibit. “It is the time in our long history when our standards of beauty were stripped away.”

Today, images of black women wearing all manner of styles are commonplace — the cascading flaxen locks of pop diva Beyonce, the natural curls of singer Macy Gray or the cropped androgynous fade of model-actress Grace Jones. Maintaining such styles has meant big business, with sales of ethnic hair care products topping $218 million in 2004 at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart), according to the Household and Personal Products Industry (HAPPI), citing data obtained from the Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.

Yet beyond aesthetics and commerce lies a conflicted chronology.

Blacks with straight, free-flowing tresses were idealized by some in their communities as having “good” hair, a trait often rewarded by preferential treatment. Years later, style rather than texture caused divisions both in and outside the race. Despite the mass popularity of the beaded cornrows worn by actress Bo Derek in the 1979 movie “10” — a style created by blacks centuries ago — several companies fired workers for wearing the intricate braids or other natural styles deemed unsuitable.

“It’s about presenting a legacy of truth, suffering and surviving,” Mr. Morrow says of his exhibit. “If nothing more, I would like to see our children become proud of themselves and proud of their hair. It doesn’t matter whether it’s curly or straight.”

Those who perused the collection at the Blackburn Center were by turns fascinated and heartsick while taking in the antique curling irons, rare photographs and little-known facts. There are success stories — for example, of pioneering entrepreneurs Madame C.J. Walker (the daughter of slaves) and Annie Tumbo Malone, whose shampoos and oil and wax potions revolutionized black hair care and made both women multimillionaires in the early years of the 20th century.

There are gut-wrenching tales, too, including accounts of the damage caused by harsh lye-based hair-straightening products and the indignities of slavery. Fearing their sale to another plantation owner, older slaves often used axle grease to camouflage the gray hairs that crept outside their head wraps, one display explains. Another features graphic photos of scalp disease and hair loss caused by the lack of grooming.

“Slaves were prohibited from combing their hair, so they kept it wrapped to prevent tangling,” says Mr. Morrow, a celebrated hairstylist for more than 40 years whose celebrity clientele has included actress-singer Vanessa Williams; Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta Scott King; and the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

“The wraps were also associated with whatever work they did on the plantation,” he explains. “If you were a cook, the head wrap was tied in the front, while field hands knotted theirs in the back.”

The injustice, however, fueled invention. “They made shampoo from pine needles,” says Mr. Morrow, who has been passionate about hair his entire life.

Now 65, he sports a waist-length ponytail and holds more than 100 patents for hair care products and styling tools, including the nozzle used on blow dryers. The 200-plus artifacts in his exhibit, some dating to the early 1700s, represent just a fraction of a collection of more than 1,000 items, say those familiar with his work.

“Willie Morrow has been collecting these incredible items for decades,” says Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat who represents California’s 51st congressional district, which includes San Diego, where the Morrows reside. “He is an expert on hair, a connoisseur and a philosopher. He’s more knowledgeable on this than anyone I know.”

Following its Blackburn stay, Mr. Morrow’s exhibit will travel to Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit. Meanwhile, interest in showcasing the history of black hair care is growing. Chicago’s DuSable Museum is hosting an exhibit on industry pioneer Annie Malone through December. The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif., will open “Hair Stories,” an exhibit examining the impact of black hair on American culture, in July.

Jason Miccolo Johnson, a D.C. photographer and author who attended Mr. Morrow’s Blackburn opening, isn’t surprised. “There are three things all African Americans have in common no matter where you go in this country,” he said. “Food, church and stories about hair. I guarantee it.”

WHAT: “African American Beauty: A Journey Through Time”

WHERE: Armour J. Blackburn Center Gallery, Howard University, 2397 Sixth St. NW

WHEN: Through April 30. The gallery is open daily from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.


INFORMATION: Call 202/806-5983

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