Do You Know Your History? The History of Black Hair in America

There is a reason why the evolution of black hair and it’s impact on our society speaks volumes about the black experience: Our hair is an integral part of our history.

It has a versatile story of tears, self-hatred, rebellion, and self love. Taken to foreign lands and pressured into fitting a certain beauty standard, Black folks have had a long journey in making the choice to appreciate our natural hair.

Apart from beauty, hair has always been a part of one’s identity. In early African civilizations, hairstyles could indicate a tribe, social status, religion, class, or family background. For instance, when men went to war, they often braided their hair. African women either shaved their heads or adopted a subdued style when they mourned the loss of a loved one (BBC).

Journalist Lori Tharps, who co-wrote the book “Hair Story” about the history of Black hair, said, “What’s more fascinating is that many believed that hair, given its close location to the skies, was the conduit for spiritual interaction with God.” Africans were also able to manage and maintain their hair using products made from herbs they found in their environment.

These kingdoms enjoyed there prosperous economies until the Transatlantic slave trade started in the 16th century. Though some enslaved people took their African customs with them, such as their specially-designed combs, black hair was ridiculed. Slave masters referred to black hair as “wool” in an attempt to dehumanize them. Africans Americans were made to feel more inferior because of their hair, and therefore felt that they were less attractive. In an attempt to fit these standards, black people began to look for products and routines to straighten their hair throughout the 1900s (Bustle). Unfortunately, most of them put themselves in harm’s way and damaged their hair to fit in with the Western society.

“Black people felt compelled to smoothen their hair and texture to fit in easier, and to move in society better and in camouflage almost,” says exhibition producer of Origins of the Afro Comb, Aaryn Lynch, “Men and women would put their hair in a hot chemical mixture that would almost burn their scalp, so they could comb it back and make it look more European and silky.”

After so many years of viewing their hair as a sacred form, black people saw their hair as a burden and sadly, this struggle still remains for many. For instance, wearing natural hairstyles has kept many Black women out of the corporate workforce and from advancing in their careers. A new 2020 research study from Duke University found that bias against natural hairstyles limits job opportunities for Black women. This is because in Western societies, the standard professional appearance still reflects the physical appearance of white women, especially with their hairstyles.

Most black women, including myself, grew up with the idea that straightened hair was the standard of beauty. As early as four or five years old, most of us were forced to endure “relaxers,” a process in which harsh chemicals are applied to their natural hair to straighten it. I experienced my first relaxer at the age of three which completely damaged my natural hair. Still, in a reckless attempt to achieve the desired norm, every morning I begged my mom to straighten my hair with an iron comb that had been heated over a burner on the stove. I can remember thinking of the word “straight”  as in no longer making my hair look “crooked” or “bad”. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school where I decided to finally do the “big-chop” and start my real natural hair journey. For me, making this decision was symbolic in choosing to love and accept myself in all of my blackness.

Elizabeth George, a freshman Exercise Science and Health Promotion major said that she had a similar experience. “I grew up in Arkansas and natural hair was not really acknowledged as it is now. The value of straight hair was the definition of beauty at my school and I believed straight hair was beauty.”

George went on to talk about what inspired her to change this perspective. “My stylist had this blonde afro and I loved it. She wore it with such confidence that I was ready to do the same. This representation is what started my natural hair journey. The uniqueness of natural hair is what I loved.”

Fortunately, we have made a lot of progress and saw the rise of a natural hair movement during the Civil Rights era which encouraged our black communities to accept their hair and turn away from damaging products. Prominent civil rights activist, Angela Davis, was one of the trailblazers who led many women to take pride in their natural hair. Because of her influence, the afro became a symbol of power that reflected the pride one had in their ancestry.

Along with this, several states and cities this year have passed or proposed laws banning policies that penalize black people for wearing natural curls, dreadlocks, twists, braids and other hairstyles that embrace their cultural identity.

For black people, hair is not just a standard of beauty anymore, it is an expression of our resilience and crowning glory for all we have gone through. Though we still have much progress to make before black people are finally able to make choices to their hair for reasons beyond conformity to European beauty standards, I am hopeful that we will remember the historic and social significance of black hair. It is time that we appreciate our natural hair and its history — knotted and wrapped around the issues of race, politics, and pride.

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