During a brief conversation with an Indian friends of mine, she expressed how she never realized that black hair is deeply rooted in our culture and history (she has only been in the states for the last seven years), so I explained how black hair was always associated with the idea of the European standards of beauty. She was utterly amazed at the levels of complexity in the psychological and sociological behavior and thoughts behind it all as they don’t have anything like this in India (at least from the area/state she’s from). Thus, started the history lesson regarding the complexities of black hair.
In early African culture, a person’s family, background, tribe and social status could be defined by their hair. As a result, black hair has always been important to our culture. During slavery, white people called black hair “wool” essentially dehumanizing slaves and equating our lives with animals. Additionally, slaves with lighter, straighter, more curly than kinky hair became more valued which promoted the idea that blacks with darker and kinky hair were less attractive and worthless.
Conforming to European Standards
With slavery’s end, the average black person realized it was necessary to conform to the mainstream (white) society to survive. As a result, blacks hair adjusted to fit accordingly with the smoothing and softening of the hair texture to appear more European. In 1905, Madam CJ Walker designed hair products to make Afro-textured hair more manageable and redesigned the pressing comb to be usable with afro-textured hair (widened the spaces between the teeth). As she popularizes the press and curl, some would say that she encouraged black women to look more European versus encouraging them to embrace their natural hair texture. Additionally, the lye relaxer was introduced in 1950 which allowed for a semi-permanent ability to straighten the hair which is still much used to this day along with the pressing comb.
Rediscovering Our Roots
The 1960s and 1970s brought the “Black Power” and Civil Rights movement when black people fought against racial oppression and segregation through rebelling against all things mainstream European and called for a return to our African heritage including the traditional hairstyles such as the afro, braids, and locs. Also, the Jheri curl (which allowed for more defined curls) skyrocketed. It was during this period that the relaxer and the pressing comb became objects of oppression for being the tools used to remind black people of their collective shame for not loving their hair in its natural state. Wearing the hair in the natural state allowed black people to show their pride and connection to the homeland (Africa). Blacks were no longer willing to assimilate into European culture, and more willing to embrace African culture.
A resurgence of the natural hair movement started in the 2000s where black women and men began to reacquaint themselves with their natural hair. Websites, bloggers, DIY hair care and black-owned hair product companies have emerged triumphant. Children with long, beautiful natural hair run around and the days of the pressing comb, relaxer, & texturizers are almost gone. Sales of relaxers have dropped 25 percent in the last seven years. Sadly, while most versions of the black hair have been accepted by other races, I continue to hear blacks and other culture speak about how more afro-textured hair looks nappy, people with locs being told they look dirty and unkempt, and black woman saying that “going natural” is not for them. Wearing your hair natural is controversial, but the increase of black women and men going “natural” means that mainstream media and culture will soon be forced to accept us the way God made us. Beautiful and Black.