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A photo of Majestie Varnado, a 2023 CCDI Junior Fellow.
Majestie Varnado was a 2023 CCDI Junior Fellow. Image courtesy of Majestie Varnado.

CCDI Junior Fellow Spotlight: Majestie Varnado, “Heavy is the Hair: Evolution of African Hair in America from the 17th c. to the 20th c.”

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This blog post is the last in a series that features the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Junior Fellows from the Library’s 2023 Junior Fellows program. These posts highlight each fellow and the projects they developed. CCDI funded six interns in this year’s virtual 10-week program. CCDI is part of the Library’s Mellon-funded Of the People: Widening the Path initiative.

This summer, CCDI’s Junior Fellows created guides that examine Library collections and demonstrate how to use those collections to develop creative projects such as zines, textiles, and collages. They explored topics that ranged from Black and Asian American activism, to the LGBTQ+ Latinx movement, to community-based collaborations, to art and expressive culture, including Asian textiles and African American hair history. As part of their work, they interviewed Library staff and other users to discuss their research topics and to learn more about the Library’s collections.

This guest post, written by Majestie Varnado, a 2023 CCDI Junior Fellow, introduces her project, “Heavy is the Hair: Evolution of African Hair in America from the 17th c. to the 20thc.” Majestie is a Master’s student at Texas Woman’s University pursuing a degree in Library and Information Sciences.

You can read her guide here.

Reading the term “good hair” brought me back to hearing it for the first time in my childhood, where a hot comb burned my scalp in my mother’s kitchen.

As a Black woman, my hair has always been a topic of conversation. Since I was little, I remember being called “tender-headed” when my mother would braid my hair so tight it hurt. I was thankful when I was old enough to get my hair straightened, even if it meant sitting for two hours while my mother combed and greased and parted my hair, blowing on my scalp every time the hot comb or flat iron got too close to skin. I was told I had “good hair” because it straightened well and grew long. I remembered having my hair touched and played with and feeling pride in it, feeling relieved that it was “good”. I burned my bangs right out of my head trying to straighten out any curls that dared see the light of day.

As I got older and the natural hair movement started taking off, I got curious. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I started reaching for the pressing oil less. I bought new hair products and practiced the LOC method (Liquid, oil, cream—and later, liquid, cream, oil), and I tried to learn to love it that way. The struggle was real. My eyes began to open to the world around my hair, Black hair, and I wondered why I’d gone so long hating what I’d been given.

I remembered how fascinating Black hair could be while brainstorming ideas for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI)’s “If We Tweet, Will They Come?” project. I was inspired to think about ways in which I could interest BIPOC with the Library’s digital collections. There is so much rich history tied up in Black hair, and a lot of it was still unknown to me. I started my search on the Library of Congress website with one goal in mind: I wanted to find something I hadn’t seen before.

There are quite a few collections on African-American history in the Library’s digital archives, from photographs of Black students attending Howard University to transcribed narratives from former enslaved people about their lives on plantations. At first, I was overwhelmed. Within the Library was a bounty of first and secondhand sources that mostly depicted the daily lives of African-Americans in the 19th and 20th century, and this bounty was a task to search through.

I recognized quite early on that because the Library’s collections date back so far, there were many items that had not been updated (let alone touched) in years. This comes through the most in terminology. I focused on a very wide time period—the 17th to 20th century—because I wanted to capture (close to) the beginnings of African-American culture. However, I was met with two problems: one was a lack of illustrations of African-Americans, and the other was figuring out how to search for the documentation that did exist when not every item used the same terms. For instance, a drawing from the 1700s might be found searching the term “Negro,” whereas later photographs from the 1900s might have the subject heading “Blacks” or “African Americans.”

I interviewed Melissa Lindberg— a Reference Specialist in the Library’s Prints and Photographs division—about this issue, and she discussed with me that while the Library is making efforts to create cohesive language for items in the catalogs, some items are still reflections of their time. The sheer breadth of information available across time presents so much, but you have to know where to look. If I want a drawing of a Black man from the 1700s, I have to know that the subject heading will likely be “Blacks,” but if I want a drawing of a Black man from the 1900s, I have to know that the subject heading will likely be “Africans” or “African Americans.”

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of international differences. “Blacks” is a blanket term that can be used for any Black person anywhere, but it’s often used in the Library’s catalogs for any Black person who isn’t from Africa or America. It’s not guaranteed that a user will find African-Americans or Africans included in the results.

As a student pursuing a degree in Library and Information Sciences, it is my job to not only be an expert on database searching but also be able to evaluate the best searching strategies for any given database. On top of that, I grew up on the internet. Finding information online is a no-brainer for me. But I found myself discovering information I needed by accident rather than on purpose. For instance, searching photos, prints, and drawings for “African American braids” in the catalogs yields five results, and only one of them features a Black subject. Instead, I found pictures of African Americans with braids within an interview for the Occupational Folklife Project: Hairdresser and Beauty Shop Culture in America collection. These pictures, included with the interview, do not show up in a general search. If I were an ordinary user, I’d see that first search as indicative of the Library’s archives.

The Library’s catalogs also contain a mixture of new, fine-tuned, and upgraded indexing versus older archives. For instance, I was able to find “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938” and read through them fairly easily, but it took deeper digging to access the “Images of African American Slavery and Freedom” collection. There was also a stark difference in user interfaces and experiences: the slave narratives could be arranged by viewing format, oldest to newest, location, and availability online. On top of this, the collection was arranged in the same interface design as the home page. The Slavery and Freedom collection was more straightforward: two gallery pages of images with little ability to refine your search and an interface design that resembled that of webpages from the early 2000s.

There was no cheat sheet for this, no guide for my guide. I understood that I had quite a difficult journey ahead of me.

And it was difficult, but I wasn’t alone. I received help from Melissa Lindberg, Adrienne Cannon (the African American History and Culture Specialist in the Library’s Manuscript Division), Connecting Communities Digital Initiative Program Director Marya McQuirter, Senior Innovation Specialist (and my mentor!) Kimber Thomas, and my wonderful Junior Fellows cohort. Throughout the process of creating my project, Heavy is the Hair: Evolution of African Hair in America from the 17th c. to the 20th c., I’ve learned so much. Not only about the Library’s vast collections, but also about a special part of myself that I share with my ancestors.

Looking through these collections, I felt a sense of belonging. The people in these photographs felt familiar to me because they were me: my ancestors. I realized that I knew about our hair through personal experience, and I was aware of hair discrimination, but I was not aware of the full scope. My eyes opened as I began to learn about things like the 1786 Tignon Law of Louisiana which forced freed and enslaved Black women to cover their hair, or about the painful ways we tried to make ourselves meet standards we simply weren’t born to fit. Analyzing the language of hair advertisements in the early 1900s from other African-Americans gave me a glimpse into how our hair was not only policed from the outside, but from the inside too.

It turned out that what I was really looking for was something I had already seen before, but never understood: the context behind how African-American hair has evolved.

The truth is that mentions of African-American hair occur in more places than you think. What may have been inconspicuous, unremarkable even, has always been visible and therefore political. Being able to see descriptions in runaway slave ads (“wooly”, “bulky”, “bushy”) or photographs of hair styled after the powdered wigs of the White elite communicated the complicated attitudes toward Black hair at the time. How was Black hair perceived? How were Black people perceiving their own hair? How were they perceiving it through the lens of colonialism? How did they begin to perceive it through a growing sense of cultural identity? In what ways can we observe these changes through multi-medium historical accounts?

My guide is in no way exhaustive, and there are plenty of things I wished to cover in my time here at the Library, but my hope is that this guide can be a start and provide a basis for future scholarship.

Check out Majestie’s guide here!

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.

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