African American hair care and culture has evolved over the past century in spectacular ways, particularly thanks to an infusion of pop stylings from the arts and entertainment world where hair care and culture have created new looks meant to express individuality, creative energy and so on. However, going back in history one can see that African American hair care and culture was similar yet different from what it is today. White and White showed that in the 1830s Negro quarter of a plantation in the South, the men could be found shaving the women â€œarranging their frizzy hair, in which they take no little pride, or investigating the condition of their childrenâ€™s headsâ€ (45). In other words, it was the same then as now with respect to hair care and cultureâ€”the only things that have changed are the styles. This paper will discuss the history of African American hair care and culture and show how it has evolved over the years to become what now is today.
The Benefits of Black Hair
One of the best natural qualities about the hair of African Americans in the days of slavery was that the â€œfrizzy, kinky hairâ€ was a natural insulator of the head from the sunâ€™s rays and heat (Byrd, Tharps 1). Hair styles in Africa had been used to convey status, state, age, religion and other cultural aspects. In the New World, the elaborate hair styles used in African were not maintained; the culture of the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs) was primarily impressed upon the slaves and that included how hair was to be worn. Hair care in the South before and after Emancipation in the 19th century was different from the days in Africa, as well. In the South, African Americans did not have access to the kind of combs and herbal treatments they could use in Africa so they had to make do with bacon grease, kerosene or butter as conditioner or as cleaner on the plantations, where slaves did not have regular access to salons in the way whites did (Candelario). Yet their natural hair protected their heads, so taking care of the hair rather than cutting it off was a top priority.
Following Emancipation, free blacks began to find ways to emulate the higher social classes as a way of fitting in. For that reason, changing the nature of the â€œfrizzy, kinkyâ€ hair to more reflect the straightness of white hair became a new top priority. To help African Americans pursue that option, Thompson notes that â€œin the early 1900s, Madam C.J. Walker received a patent for developing the â€˜hot combâ€™ also known as a â€˜pressing combâ€™. This device was the first of its kind to be marketed by a black woman to other black women, and it completely changed the hair gameâ€ (Thompson 1). African American men and women both could show off straightened hair that they hoped made them more acceptable in white culture. Yet, the natural qualities of the hair being what they were, anytime their hair came into contact with moisture, it would return back to its natural state; so African Americans were still able to retain a sense of uniqueness and authenticity, which served them especially well in the early 20th century when their musical talents began to catch the notice of the music scene and the first African American leaders in the blues and swing started making waves. As Patton points out, thanks to their natural qualities, African Americans â€œhave challenged White definitions of beautyâ€ (24)â€”and their hair has been a big part in that.
By the 1960s, however, the chemical straightener aka â€œrelaxerâ€ was developed and introduced into the market and African American women took to it in droves (Thompson 2). They took not only to straightening their hair with a degree of permanence but also to growing out their hair so that it was long like the hair of white women in the 1970s and 1980s (Tate). It was important for black women to feel â€œless blackâ€ in order to fit in with the white culture for much of the 20th century mainly because there was so much tension between whites and blacks as a result of Jim Crow in the U.S.: as Rooks recollected of her own personal experience, â€œWhen I went South for the summer, my grandmother could not get me to Miss Rubyâ€™s beauty parlor and a straightening comb fast enough. She reasoned that because no one was ever going to mistake me for having anything other than African ancestry due to the dark color of my skin …straightening my hair would give me an advantage in the world. It was one less battle that would have to be foughtâ€ (3). It was only following the Civil Rights Movement and the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that African Americans began to demonstrate a desire to stand out and separate themselves from white cultureâ€”and hair style was one way of doing that.
Getting Back to the Roots
As musical influences and styles changed and began reaching back to earlier origins, such as Reggae going to the earlier Caribbean days for influences and further to African sources for style and rhythm, African Americans began focusing on styling their appearance to reflect their new focus. This was the case in the latter half of the 20th century especially. As the culture of America changed, so too did the orientation of blacks with regard to feeling like they had to â€œblend in.â€
The Rastafarian hair style is one example of how some African Americans began to view their individuality and unique ethnic history: introduced in the latter half of the 20th century, it was â€œoriginally intended to reproduce the ‘ethnic’ look of some East African tribesâ€ (Hebdige 1264). Hebdige called it â€œstyle as homologyâ€â€”the act of creating a â€œsymbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group, its subjective experience and the musical forms it uses to express or reinforce its focal concernsâ€ (1264). The Rastafarian hair style was popular among Bob Marley devotees. Marley grew his hair long into dreadlocks and this symbolized an aspect of authenticity for him and his followers. Various other aspects of their own musical culture were intertwined with this hair style, too, such as smoking marijuana and being passiveâ€”i.e., non-violent protestors. During the days of Vietnam, it was important for some to protest but in a non-violent way.
As Rooks notes, hair was a politicized among African Americans, particularly in the 1970s when social and political revolution was happening all over the world. Many African Americans were tired of feeling like they had to belong to or fit in with the white culture that had oppressed them for so long. However, not all African Americans were on board with cultural and ethnic expressions like those of Bob Marley. Some still sought to display a respectable appearance that would be accepted in white culture: their aim was not to stand out but to fit in (Rooks). Thus, even in the era of the Black Panthers and the Afro, when African Americans began to let their hair grow out naturally, letting the â€œfrizzy, kinkyâ€ qualities shine, others retained the more customary short-cropped cut for men and straightened look for women.
Some women took to dreadlocks because they had no other optionsâ€”years of straightening their hair with chemicals had destroyed it (Thompson). Many had worn weaves and braids that had not helped and now their hair was damaged beyond repairâ€”so they had to resort to dreadlocks. It had nothing to do with loving Reggae or wanting to be a Rastafarian but rather everything to do with the fact that for years they had been trying to blend in. Patton described this well by giving voice to one African American woman whose experience was that of having to go to dreads because of years of hair mismanagement and improper care:
How is it possible that millions of black women do not know how to care for their hair? And, why do so many feel they have to hide their natural hair? As a professional who sees the end result of years of hair alteration, Ruth believes that women in large part see no option but to alter their hair because of the images we are inundated with of women whose hair is very long, silky, flowing and mostly blonde. In the media, many of the black women who are glorified for their beauty tend to be women who also have long, wavy hair. (39)
African Americans had always tended to feel that their hair should be straight and long to reflect the white cultureâ€”but gradually they began to realize that natural was okay, and that realization helped to create new trends in hair style and hair care among African Americans. Today, for instance, one of the most popular African American faces is Colin Kaepernick and his recent Nike ad campaign shows him with a tremendous Afroâ€”his hair frizzy and kinky, naturally spreading out with a kind of throwback flare to the 1970s days of political protestâ€”which is fitting since Kaepernick is known for kneeling at the NFL games and kicking off a protest movement among professional sports players regarding how blacks are treated in America. Hair and politics even today are still linked for many African Americans.
Into the 21st Century
With African Americans taking a more central role in the mediaâ€”from Kaepernick to Jay-Z to Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) to Idris Elba to Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Rihanna and numerous othersâ€”the hair culture of African Americans is once more front and center. As Thompson notes, more African American women are being inspired to cut off their flat, straightened hair and embrace their natural hair. However, caring for hair remains a problem as many African American women still want to reflect the popular trends and styles that they see in pop culture and so they try to mimic these trends with things like lace front wigs, which just do more damage to hair. Thompson shows that for black women trying to â€œlook like Tyra Banks,â€ the damage can be irreversible as the glue used to get a lace front wig to stay in place can depigmentize the skin and the hairline (Thompson 3).
That is just one example of what is happening among African American women in the 21st century. Another is alopecia, which â€œis caused by chronic pulling on the hair follicleâ€ and â€œis a form of scarring that is most noticeable along the hairlineâ€ (Thompson 4). Many different women can suffer from alopecia in a variety of demographics, but Thompson points out that â€œtraction alopecia is most frequently seen in black womenâ€ (4). In other words, â€œyears of relaxing, wearing weaves, tight braids, and even improper wear of dreadlocksâ€ has done major damage to the hair of African American women (Thompson 4). Many of them have not even been trying to â€œfit inâ€ with white culture by relaxing their hair or wearing weavesâ€”but rather they have simply been trying to emulate styles and trends among the African American community. Straight hair may have its roots in the white culture style of European hair culture, but todayâ€™s African American culture has embraced the idea of using hair style to assert oneâ€™s individuality and performance artists like Rihanna and Beyonce are particularly effective at conveying this idea to their fans.
This is problematic because it means that many young fans are following in their footsteps and creating hair styles for themselves that are actually bad for their hair. The chemicals and colors and can all do long-term or lasting damage. Many have lost sense of basic ethnic culture and are now simply tuned into pop hair styles and trends because they spend most of their time consuming popular media. They want to wear weaves and tight braids to reflect the hair styles of their favorite artists whom they have come to adore. However, doctors warn that this could lead to serious trouble: â€œwearing a weave or tight braids may set off a dermatological condition known as central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA) or â€œhot combâ€ alopecia. CCCA develops at the crown portion of the scalp. The hair loss is in a circular pattern, and the damage occurs to the hair follicles and leads to hair loss that is progressiveâ€ (Thompson 5). Yet few African Americans understand the risks of trying to look like professionally managed celebrities who change hair styles frequently and who have a whole team of make-up artists at their call to make them look good for the stage or screen. Most African American women are not afforded that opportunity.
Unfortunately today many African American women still view their hair in negative terms. However, there is still a great deal of positive imagery that can be found as more people turn to social media for advice on caring for hair and letting the true natural beauty of their hair shine through. African American hair care and culture has evolved a great deal since the early days of slavery, but in some ways it is still the same. Some African Americans still try to change their hair in drastic ways that is bad for their hair. Others try to let the natural beauty come out.
Byrd, Ayana, and Lori Tharps. Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America.
Candelario, Ginetta. “Hair race-ing: Dominican beauty culture and identity production.”
Meridians 1.1 (2000): 128-156.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The meaning of style. Routledge, 2012.
Patton, Tracey Owens. “Hey girl, am I more than my hair?: African American women
and their struggles with beauty, body image, and hair.” NWSA Journal (2006): 24-51.
Rooks, N. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Tate, S. â€œBlack beauty: Shade, hair and antiracist aesthetics.â€ Ethnic and Racial Studies
30.2 (2007): 300 319.
Thompson, Cheryl. “Black women and identity: What’s hair got to do with it.” Michigan
Feminist Studies 22.1 (2008).
White, Shane, and Graham White. “Slave hair and African American culture in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The Journal of Southern History 61.1 (1995): 45-76.
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