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Sullivan’s Island: My Sankofa Moment Part 2

It should be mentioned that when in Africa, Africans took pride in maintaining beautiful hairstyles. Slaves might use a wooden comb and palm oil to create elaborate styles. Those with matted, disheveled, unkempt hair were shunned and often viewed as insane. Thus, imagine the shame slaves must have felt when they were stripped of their grooming aids and their hair grew matted and unkempt?


Carding combs, a device that slaves may have used to comb their hair

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post (http://tropie7189.blogspot.com/2012/01/sullivans-island-my-sankofa-moment.html), today’s post explores how slaves groomed themselves once they arrived on U.S. soil.

It should be mentioned that when in Africa, Africans took pride in maintaining beautiful hairstyles. Slaves might use a wooden comb and palm oil to create elaborate styles. Those with matted, disheveled, unkempt hair were shunned and often viewed as insane. Thus, imagine the shame slaves must have felt when they were stripped of their grooming aids and their hair grew matted and unkempt?

Again, hair is nothing in comparison to the atrocities of slavery; however, slaves cared and were resilient. Slaves may have used a sheep carding comb (Byrd & Tharps, 2001). A carding comb is a device used to comb through matted or tangled fibers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carding).

It’s easy to think that slaves wouldn’t have cared about their personal appearance given the atrocities of slavery. However, even under such circumstances, these men and women found ways to groom their hair. You see, hair is much more than a head covering. It symbolizes what we think of ourselves. This small glimpse into slaves’ grooming processes tells us that slaves indeed valued themselves even though their masters considered them less than human.

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Sullivan’s Island: My Sankofa Moment

Hair seems like such a trivial topic when contrasted with the overwhelming pain that slave men, women and children endured. However, it’s important to remember that these strong men, women and children came from a culture where hair rituals were deep, rich and involved. It would have just been one more injustice to have your hair shorn or to be unable to groom yourself. The wonderful book Hair Story by Ms. Ayana Byrd and Ms. Lori Tharps, discusses how slaves were not inclined to think about their hair given the inhumane and unclean conditions in which they lived. Plus, the grooming aids slaves had used in Africa were nowhere to be found in their new environment. Thus, slaves’ hair often became tangled, matted.

During my family’s recent RV trip from Boston to Florida, we made many stops. We designed our trip so that we would have time to visit Sullivan’s Island. Sullivan’s Island is known as the African-American Ellis Island because it was where slaves were quarantined before they were transported to Charleston, SC (North America’s main entry port for African slaves).

When I arrived on Sullivan’s Island (specifically, Fort Moultrie, a National Parks Service museum that traces the African Passage), I began to place myself in the shoes of those slaves who would have walked on its soil just over two centuries ago. Those who know me well already know that I’m a highly sensitive person when it comes to other people’s pain. When people share their travails with me, I’ll be in tears in a matter of minutes because their pain hurts my heart. So it’s no surprise that I got weepy as soon as I began to walk through the halls of Fort Moultrie at Sullivan’s Island. If I’m honest, I wasn’t just weepy, I was crying and I was hit with a deep sadness that my ancestors experienced this AND that this history is largely overlooked, ignored or downplayed. After all, this was centuries ago right? Oh, that reflection caused me such sadness because as I look around today, it is evident that slavery still impacts our society.

As my children walked ahead of me in the arched, cavernous hallway, I imagined what it must have been like to reach American soil and then realize that you were about to be subjected to further pain, anguish, torture. That I might be looking at my children for the last time. I also realized that had I been born then, I may have been one of the shackled.

Hair seems like such a trivial topic when contrasted with the overwhelming pain that slave men, women and children endured. However, it’s important to remember that these strong men, women and children came from a culture where hair rituals were deep, rich and involved. It would have just been one more injustice to have your hair shorn or to be unable to groom yourself. The wonderful book Hair Story by Ms. Ayana Byrd and Ms. Lori Tharps, discusses how slaves were not inclined to think about their hair given the inhumane and unclean conditions in which they lived. Plus, the grooming aids slaves had used in Africa were nowhere to be found in their new environment. Thus, slaves’ hair often became tangled, matted.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how slaves, as resilient as they were, found ways to groom themselves.

Find out more about the movie Sankofa.

IMAGE:  http://images.moviepostershop.com/sankofa-movie-poster-1993-1020235232.jpg

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