"How I grew to believe Black hair has power, genius, and magic in it, defying gravity and limitation. I mean, look at how marvelous it is: Black hair grows up and out." - Michaela Angela Davis
Black hair and its multifaceted history is extraordinaire. People of the African Diaspora have used their hair as a symbol of creativity, culture and authenticity. Through the years, this expression has transformed into political exclamation and impacted Black people socially, economically and internally. Western and European beauty standards and levels of professionalism have socially turned Black hairstyles into burdens that must be taken on and off to please a white society. Black people wearing their hair authentically and as they personally desire has become a form of liberation and resistance.
Comprehending the journey of Black hair evolution and fighting against oppression in the form of policing Black hair is a part of the many sectors of diversity and social justice advocacy. Before beginning to advocate for Black life and rights, we must first seek to understand Black history and experience. Black hair history is one place to start.
The history of the Black hair journey begins in Africa. The various hair textures and types seen in Africa are representative of the diversity of African people. The commonality in the various hair styles and patterns of Africa is in the hair’s symbol of social and cultural significance.
In the early fifteenth century, many West African societies used hair to communicate and carry messages. Hair was more than an accessory or thing of simplicity. African hair was a part of a complex and intelligent language system. The people of West African societies including Wolof, Mende, Mandigo and Yoruba, were the people forced on slave ships, unwillingly journeying to a foreign place. On this journey, hair styles were used to indicate things like marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and community rank. Hairstyles could also identify a person’s geography or place of origin. For example, people of Nigeria, called Kuramo, were identified by their completely shaven heads, except for a single tuft of hair left on top.
In the 1700s, enslaved African women who worked in the fields were known to cover their hair in head-rags due to the harsh demands of their work. However, enslaved Africans who worked in the “big house,” sometimes mimicked the hairstyles of their enslavers, by wearing wigs or shaping their hair to imitate them. In cities like New Orleans, free Creole women proudly wore hairstyles that displayed their kinks and coils. The city implemented laws, called the Tignon Laws, that required these women to wear a tignon (scarf or handkerchief) over their hair to signify that they were members of the slave class, regardless of whether they were free or enslaved.
As European and Western beauty standards seeped into the fabrics of society, they began to heavily impact Black people and their opportunities, treatment and view of themselves. In the 19th and Early 20th centuries Black people were continually judged, ostracized and isolated by society. Depictions of Black people in the media were prejudiced and discriminatory, painting Black people as savages. Many depictions in cartoons, children’s stories and food and home item advertisements showed Black people as beady eyed and thick lipped and their hair was usually wild and unkempt. This sparked a change in the African Diaspora when it came to hair and for some, caused a shift in cultural identity.
“Out of the ashes of black beauty a new look emerged. A mutation. A hybrid of black and white — of Africa meets America. Blacks took the basic canvas of their Africanness and grafted on a new kit of components transplanted from white beauty values. And so transracial beauty was born. It was not black, it was not white, it was a brew of the two” (Arogundade, 2001).
An example of this transformation is conking, a hair trend from the early to mid 20th century. This was a chemical way of manipulating and straightening Black and African hair that became a fashion symbol among Black entertainers in pre and post war eras. Many members of the Black community opposed this trend as to some, it sent a negative message about the inferiority of Black people. It was also a painful and unhealthy treatment that often left burns and blisters on the scalp. This shows the intensity of the impact of Black hair discrimination and how it influenced the thoughts, emotions and acts of society. Below is a quote from Malcolm X regarding his experience conking his hair to align with the trend.
“The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire. I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin” (Malcolm X, 1973).
Sneak Peak of Part 2: Black Hair Politics & Economics:
Although the various ways that Black people style and wear their hair should be uplifted and celebrated, in many academic, professional and social spaces, it is considered unpresentable and unkept. Many Black people deal with the prioritization of European standards over Black cultural staples. Today and in the past Black people have faced denial of access in academic and cultural spaces, including music halls, galleries, theaters, museums and clubs. Black people have also grappled with denial of job and academic opportunities because of their afrocentric hair styles.
Byrd, A. D., & Tharps, L. L. (2014). Hair story: untangling the roots of Black hair in America. St. Martin's Press.
Dash, P. (2006). Black hair culture, politics and change. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(1), 27–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603110500173183
Arogundade, B. (2001). Black Beauty. Editions du Collectionneur.
Griffin , C. (2019, July 3). How natural black hair at work became a civil rights issue ... https://daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/.
Congdon-Martin, D. (1990). Images in Black: 150 years of Black collectibles. Schiffer Pub.
X., M., & Haley, A. (1973). The autobiography of Malcolm X: with the assistance of Alex Haley. Ballantine Books.