If you know anything about black women, you probably know that hair can be a touchy subject. For black women, our hair history is complex, to say the least. From the time of capture during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, black women immediately lost autonomy and pride in their hair, as it was shaved before the long, inhumane journey for sanitary purposes.[1] The conditions of living in slavery did not allow for hair maintenance in the way which African women were accustomed. Work conditions were hot, sunny and dirty. This led to kerchiefs worn out of sheer necessity. Women who worked in the owner’s homes wore wigs to present an appearance the masters found more presentable.

Because of the sexual exploitation of black women by white males, many interracial children were born with a less kinky hair texture. This became the preferred look, further lowering self-esteem for those whose hair was kinky and tightly coiled.

Along with the new standards of appearance blacks faced, they were also forcibly converted to the religion of their oppressors, Christianity. Christianity, rooted in Middle Eastern, Jewish culture, along with Hellenistic influences, eventually became the dominant religion of Europe. Needless to say, these texts were not written with Sub-Saharan African, female readers in mind.

1 Corinthians 11 is a highly referenced bible verse in black culture. However, Paul’s mandate on female head covering during worship is not why this passage is well known. The part of the scripture that is often referenced is Paul’s statement that a woman’s long hair is her glory.

Women’s hair appears as a topic elsewhere in the New Testament. In the gospels there are several texts involving a woman anointing Jesus, wiping away her tears from his feet with her hair. This act pleased Jesus greatly, and these vivid images evoke visions of Christ rewarding this display of adoration, marked by a supremely feminine gesture.

Paul and the Corinthians

Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians instructed the church about how to handle some social problems within the community. One such problem was the fact that women in the church were prophesying and praying during worship without their head coverings. Paul felt that this was improper, and urged women to cover their heads. In his letter, Paul states, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering”.

The Greek word δόξα (doxa) means glory. The same word is used throughout the New Testament referring to the glory of the Lord, denoting the importance of this concept of glory. When it comes to female glory, Paul awards it through long hair.

Paul’s emphasis on covering in this passage is related to his idealized concept of femininity. He demonstrates this by setting up a male-female dichotomy based upon hair style. It is a disgrace for a man to have long hair or to cover his head in prayer, but the woman needs covering to show submission to both her husband and to God. In verse 15, Paul states that a woman’s long hair is given to her as a covering. This notion of long hair relates not only to female glorification but to a definition femininity itself.

Why, then, does Paul make this appeal to the femininity of the women of the church at Corinth? More insight may be garnered from Paul’s statements regarding the silence of women. The fledgling Corinthian church seemed to need some direction. From bad manners at supper to unveiled women, Paul’s letter addresses what he believes are best practices for the church meetings. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says that women should be silent and ask their husbands to answer their questions regarding religion at home.[2] Between this and Paul’s instructions on when to speak in tongues, it is clear Paul wants the meetings to be organized. 1 Corinthians 11 indicates that Paul knew women were praying and prophesying. We know this because of the fact that he gave the head covering edict. What then, were these noisy women saying that needed to be silenced?

Women had a particularly low status in the 1st century, lacking autonomy and formal education. They were often illiterate. The early church offered a potentially new world for women. In this newly minted faith community, women likely saw an opportunity for equality in Christ. As Paul stated to in his letter to the Galatians, there was neither male nor female in Christ.[3]

However, Paul, in his quest for an orderly and cohesive church, instructed women not to speak. Some scholars contend that this is because the uneducated women were likely adding to the services without a proper understanding of what was going on. Throughout his letters, Paul often urges his churches to ready themselves for the Parousia, more commonly known as the second coming of Christ. Living simply, orderly and with faithful behavior was his priority. Establishing clear gender roles was a part of that goal.

Womanist Biblical Interpretation

“’You shouldn’t cut your hair,’ he proclaimed as he leered over his Oakland Tribune. It was too late; my stylist had already shaved a thick row of my chemically straightened hair down to its naturally curly roots, so I ignored him. With his Newport Menthols-inflected voice he ranted, ‘Hair—a woman’s hair—that’s a woman’s glory!’…Although the gentleman may not have been aware that he was mangling a biblical text, he as offering an interpretation of the text prescribing long for women as justification of his effort to police my gender expression. This salon incident shows that even when biblical texts are not cited explicitly, they remain influential in efforts to maintain and perpetuate patriarchy.” Nyasha Junior, An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation.[4]

Womanist biblical interpretation considers the historical and cultural contexts of biblical texts and evaluates them from the perspective of black womanhood. In her book, Junior discusses the masculinization of African American women[5], illustrating the way that gendered ideals of “true womanhood” in American history diminished the idea that black women were “real” women, or “ladies”.

The notion of black inferiority was supported by oppressive biblical interpretations, with arguments that the societal treatment of blacks as inferior was “God-ordained” or in the “natural order” of things.[6] While all Black Americans were dehumanized under this theory, Black women lost their femininity as well. Their marginalization occurred because of their dual identities, with racism and the patriarchy working against them simultaneously.

Junior’s account of the man who disapproved her hair cut illustrates the notion that black women experience gender oppression from within the black community as well as from outsiders. In Junior’s example, the black man used the scripture to bolster his sexist opinion on her gender expression. His interpretation of scripture led him to believe that a woman’s long hair was her glory, and that cutting it was an act done in defiance of God.

A similar story was shared on the popular black hair blog called Curly Nikki. The guest blogger details an experience where a man criticized her short haircut as unbiblical. “He quoted a scripture that apparently says it’s disgraceful for a woman to cut off or shave her hair. He also referred to a scripture that says a woman’s hair is her glory. He explained that when a woman cuts off her hair as dramatically as I had, she is rejecting a God-given glory.”[7] Similar to Junior’s situation, a black man used the 1 Corinthians 11 passage to disapprove of a black woman’s hair choices.

These anecdotes illustrate the way in which Christianity has affected black women’s self-esteem and autonomy regarding their hair. The New Testament writers left a legacy of judgments about female hair that harms black women to this day.

The New Testament passages about women and hair were written exclusively by men, for 1st-century readers from Semitic and Hellenistic cultures. With that, the standards of beauty for women in those places and at that time influenced the texts. When canonized as scriptures, these standards of beauty became memorialized as the “Word of God”. Using texts with these prescribed standards of beauty to proof-text beauty standards to black women is problematic. Black women have endured discrimination based on their race and gender. The use of the Bible to devalue black female hair has a profound effect; especially if the women feel that the Bible is the inerrant or infallible word of God. Unfortunately, this more conservative theology and attitude toward scripture are prevalent in predominantly black churches. Consequently, Black women are in essence experiencing negative judgment within their own sacred text.

“The Hair Issue” often seems trivial, especially to those who are not black women (and even to some black women). This issue seems to focus on female appearance, taking time and energy away from issues of greater import. However, I believe it is an example of the reasons which womanist and feminist biblical scholars have focused on reading scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion. And in doing so, we must quash any efforts to weaponize our text against our sense of self-identity. Howard Thurman wrote that his grandmother applied a hermeneutic of suspicion to Paul’s texts on slavery; she instinctively smelled a rat when these texts were used by a white preacher to legitimize slavery. Her instincts were correct, and just as a text should be used to perpetuate the abuses of slavery, they text also shouldn’t be used to demean black female bodies, including their hair.

[1] Redefining the Identity of Black Women: “Natural” Hair and the Natural Hair Movement. By Henderson, Amber, M.A., George Washington University, 2010, 71 pages. 9

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

[3] Galatians 3:28

[4] Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 19.

[5] Ibid. at 42

[6] Ibid. at 43

[7] http://www.curlynikki.com/2011/11/big-chopping-and-bible.html

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