From 1400, the story of black people’s hair began in Africa where the social, aesthetic and spiritual significance of hair had been intrinsic to their sense of self for thousands of years. Africans believed hair to be the most elevated point of the body, which meant it was closest to the divine.
Among the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba, hairstyles depicted the religion, age, marital status and ethnic identity. The geographic origin, social rank and wealth of members in a community were also identified by their hairstyles. In some cultures, one’s surname could be known from a particular hairstyle. For example, the Kuramo people of Nigeria were recognised by their unique hairstyle, which was a shaved head with a single tuft of hair on top. Nigerian housewives who shared one husband created hairstyles to mock the other wives of their husband. The style, which was meant to be seen from behind, was known as “kohin-sorogun” meaning “turn your back to the jealous rival wife”
Europeans who first came into contact with the African natives in the fifteenth century were astounded by the complexity of style, texture and adornment of black hair. Slave trade began in the sixteenth century when Africans were captured, bought, sold and then transported to other parts of the world in the bowels of ships.
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The hair of these captives were eventually shaved off by slave masters with the intention of erasing their cultural identity. Unable to take care of their ingrown hair, the hair of the slaves became matted and tangled. Arriving in a new land dominated by pale skin and straight hair, African hair was considered deplorable by the Europeans.
This conditioned black people to feel inferior and made it easier for them to be controlled. This pathology was passed down to their sons and daughters and future generations.
On the plantation, the men who worked on the field had to shave their hair. Women were also expected to cover their hair with rough, coarse fabric because Europeans considered it unattractive and offensive. House slaves had to wear wigs similar to their slave owners’ hair – they also adorned wigs during this period.
Black women with kinky hair had to work in the fields. Yet, those with looser curls which had a more Caucasian-like hair texture were made to work in the house. The light-coloured slaves were said to have “good hair,” and the dark-skinned slaves to have “bad hair.” Good hair was thought of as long and lacking in kinky, tight curls and frizz. And the straighter the better. Bad hair was African hair in its purest form.
The 1900’s marked the emancipation era for black people. In order to grasp any given opportunity to improve their lives in a white society, black people mimicked European aesthetic by straightening their hair with a hot comb or flat iron. This was to escape the racist stereotype imbedded in the mainstream collective consciousness. For the white Americans, kinky hair, wide noses and full lips still depicted ignorance and inferiority.
According to Byrd and Tharps, having a straightened hair translated to economic opportunity in the form of finding a job, including social advantage such as finding a marriage partner and getting access to education.
The late nineteenth century also came with huge advertisements of chemical hair straighteners and skin lighteners by white companies, which suggested to blacks that only through changing their physical features will they be socially accepted by the dominant masses. The twentieth century saw black women such as Madame C.J. Walker and Anna Turbo Malone launching their own hair straightening companies. These women manufactured hair products to champion the agenda for self-altering.
The period between 1964 and 1966 saw black hair undergoing its biggest revolution since Africans arrived in America. There was the emergence of civil rights groups such as the Black Power Movement with key leaders including Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Medgar Evers who called for the true emancipation of black people. They came to realise that black was beautiful.
The afro hair became a political symbol for black power and nationalism. Members within these movements began to show a visible connection to their African ancestors and blacks throughout the diaspora by wearing African clothing and adopting African names. This era was marked with the African hair defining the black identity at large.
Whilst Martin Luther King Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) were pushing for equal treatment in the mainstream society, these civil rights groups were pushing for a strengthened black world that encompasses politics, education and a new aesthetic.
In as much as the majority of the black community advocated for the acceptance of afro hair, many of those from the older generation detested the change. These people had either experienced slavery or were children of slaves. They still had the mindset that straight hair was better compared to the afro.
The black churches were also intensely against the afro hair movement. Some preached that growing the afro hair could lead one to hell. Most of the black hairdressers were also against the change because of the loss of business and income.
By 1971, the Black Power Movement and other civil right groups were losing momentum. This was due to internal misunderstandings and other machinations by the white government. In the mid-seventies, most of the black leaders were either dead, exiled or jailed. All these eventually led to the collapse of the afro hair movement.
The 1980’s saw the end of black people’s determination to proudly wear their natural hair. The Jheri curl hairstyle then became popularised. The weave industry took off by the 1990’s and by the late 90’s, huge volumes of human hair were imported from China, India and Indonesia to America. Famous black women like Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson and Diana Ross, including models like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks were shown daily on television wearing weaves.
In contemporary times, women of African descent both in the diaspora and on the continent still continue with hair relaxing, wigs and weave-on which has become a form of tradition amongst black people. Some children get their hair relaxed at an early age of six without any choice of theirs. Young ladies who grew up seeing female figures such as grandmothers, mothers and aunts with relaxed hair also choose to follow suit.
Although there has been an undeniable upsurge of natural hair in Africa and the diaspora, the number of “naturalistas” are still low compared to those with relaxed hair.