In ancient times, Africans braided and cornrowed their hair into intricate patterns, some symbolizing wartime, religious conviction or a betrothal. Other styles let the world know that the wearer was a king or a queen.
In these modern times, more and more African-Americans are realizing that their hairstyles are still broadcasting a message to the world. And, increasingly, more are choosing to send a message of freedom -- by deciding to wear their hair in a "natural" style.
Locks. Cornrows. Twists. Braids.
Free of relaxers and other potentially harmful chemicals, those who have opted to go natural say they feel healthier and more at ease with themselves. They believe they have more time, more money. And, most of all, they love the way they look.
"This is your hair in its freest state," says Alycyn Roye, 34, of Pikesville, who decided to stop putting a relaxer in her hair in 2000, and has had dreadlocks for the last three years. "I feel like I'm more natural. I feel uninhibited. I feel really beautiful."
For many in the African-American community, Roye's statement may seem hard to believe. Hair can be beautiful without being chemically straightened? That's not what Grandma -- wielding a hot comb and a jar of hair grease -- would have had us to believe.
"I think when it has been told to you, and you've absorbed [it], that something is better when it's soft and silky and blows through the wind, then it's hard to dismiss that," says Neal Lester, a professor at Arizona State University who is an expert in African-American literary and cultural studies.
For centuries, Lester says, the dominant culture convinced African-Americans -- through books, movies and advertisements -- that their hair needed to be something other than what it was. Sleeping Beauty was blond, not brown-haired. Rapunzel's hair flowed like spun silk down her back; it didn't curl up at the roots or spring back when pulled.
"It's hard to erase those things because those start defining the ideals for us," says Lester, who also is a contributor to a traveling cultural exhibit called Hair Stories.
But more and more, African Americans are discarding that hard-to-attain -- and even harder to maintain -- ideal.
Relaxers and other chemicals, they've found, are drying, damaging and expensive. Some have even found them to be frustrating to use, time-consuming or even harmful to their spirit.
"More people are making more conscientious decisions about natural living, healthy living," says Latavia Ehoize, co-owner of a natural-hair salon on York Road. "It's not a militant, revolutionary type thing like the afros were in the '60s and '70s. This is about 'I'm loving who I am.' Whether it's for spiritual reasons or medical reasons or even emotional reasons, there's something driving them to want to do something different, to do something better."
Ehoize is one of those people.
After wearing her hair relaxed in high school, in what she calls an "attempt to conform," the Western High School graduate decided to cut her hair into a short natural -- a low and tight bush. To her, the decision was a long time coming, and felt right.
"I said, 'It's not about what other people think about whether I'm beautiful,' " she says. "So that was it. I said, 'I'm done [with relaxers].' "
That decision was so freeing Ehoize wanted to share the feeling with others. Today, she and her godbrother, Carmel Allen -- whose long locks have been growing for 13 years -- run Nappee by Nature salon, helping clients both male and female, young and old, learn how to make the transition to unprocessed hair.
In their cozy shop, fingers fly. Over here: kneading and soothing temperamental scalps. Over there: stroking, pulling and twisting coarse and kinky tresses into smooth braids, coils, two-strand twists and locks.
These stylists use natural hair dyes, shampoos and moisturizing products. Aloe and shea butter, tea tree oil. Reggae artist Bob Marley plays in the background. Clients sometimes doze off.
At natural-hair salons across the city, the scene is often the same.
At Utopia's Touch on Belair Road, gospel music plays as natural stylist Robert Young transforms Alycyn Roye's free-flowing locks into an artful bun at the back of her head. At Heritage Hair Braiding, just down the street, Danielle Buckson dozes on her day off as two Senegalese hair braiders furiously braid close to 400 "micro-minis" into her hair.
The atmosphere is relaxing. Self-assuring. Those with natural hair say that feeling is totally different than the feeling they got in traditional hair salons. That's because philosophies in most traditional salon are about change: Straighten your curly hair, add color or a hair weave. Be your favorite celebrity or someone in a magazine.
But natural salons are about "bringing out you," Ehoize says, "the beauty within yourself."