Hair & History: A short story on the evolution of hair in the African American community
The History of Hair in The African American Community
The story of the multifaceted Black hair is one of slavery, tears, self-hatred, rebellion, and finally, self-love. Together, we'll go through its history and its products all the way from Africa to the billion dollar business it is today.
After so many years of weaves and artificial hair care products, many African Americans are now going back to their natural hair. They’re now looking for the hair care secrets that were lost when their ancestors were first taken into slavery.
Read on to discover more about the history and secrets of Black hair.
Back To Africa, Where It All Started
You might not know it, but hair is and always was a big deal to Africans.
Apart from beauty, African hair was part of someone’s identity. From your hair, people could tell which tribe you came from, your social status (royal, soldier, or peasant), religion, class, and even fertility. Africans had a hairstyle for just about any occasion.
African women shaved their heads as they mourned the loss of a loved one. African kings had fancy hairstyles, and warriors often braided their hair as they went to war. Life was good and Africans were able to manage and maintain their hair using natural hair products made from herbs found in their environment.
An example of a native hair care product is Chebe powder. This unique product boosts hair growth. Evidence is seen in the Basara women of Chad with their abnormally long hair. Its ingredients include Lavender cotton, Cherry kernels, Mastic Gum, Clove, and perfumes. Africans even believed their hair helped them to communicate with their gods. Africans were proud of their natural hair until the Transatlantic slave trade hit hard between the 16th and 20th centuries.
A Change Of Opinion
The Transatlantic slave trade saw the forceful migration of millions of Africans into America where they labored as slaves.
You can just imagine the culture shock these Africans must have went through. Their slave masters treated them badly and even referred to their African hair as ‘wool’ in an attempt to dehumanize them. After so many years of seeing their hair as beautiful and sacred, Africans now saw their hair as a burden. Their natural hair made them feel inferior to Western society.
Even slave traders placed more value on light-skinned Africans with soft hair who felt that the darker you were and the kinkier your hair, the less attractive you were. African slaves no longer had access to their natural herbs, butters and oils to take care of their hair. They resorted to bacon grease, butter, and kerosene as their moisturizers, conditioners, and shampoo.
The Great Oppression
Fortunately, the slave trade was abolished in the US in 1865. African Americans were now free to lead their lives.
However, an end to the slave trade did not stop racism.
African Americans were made to feel bad and inferior because of their skin color and hair. Slowly, it worked and many African Americans saw the white man’s hair to be better and more refined. They now started looking for hair care routines and products that would straighten their hair.
Aaryn Lynch, an exhibition producer in Liverpool, refers to this period as “The era of the Great Oppression”. He further explains that African Americans went to great lengths to straighten their hair and achieve a European look. Most of them put themselves in harm's way as they dipped their hair into chemicals that almost burned their scalp.
This era saw the rise of many African American entrepreneurs like Madam CJ. Walker, who came up with numerous hair care products. Her first and most famous hair care product was Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower and Shampoo. It was natural and purely plant-based. Its ingredients were murumuru, Shea, Jamaica black castor, and coconut oils.
Major Contributors To Black Hair History
These are more details about a few of the people who stood up for Black hair at a time when it was despised.
Madam CJ. Walker
Madam CJ. Walker was a victim of a scalp disease that made her lose most of her hair. This pushed her to research hair care products as she sought the cure to her own problem.
In the course of her research, she was able to come up with different hair products specifically for Black hair. She was thereafter able to open up nation-wide stores with Black women as her sales agents.
She was so successful that she became one of the few self-made African-American millionaires.
Her story is a story of courage and confidence.
Back in the 1970s, Melba was the first African-American anchor for a television news show - ABC News Affiliate. However, she stood up for Black culture and dared to show up for work with her natural hair. She even covered Trisha Nixon's wedding (daughter of the then US president, Richard Nixon) with her natural hair and without a headdress.
Although her actions got her fired from ABC News, Black men and women learned from her and were able to fight for the freedom of hairstyle in their workplaces.
The Story Behind The Afro
The afro became popular among teenagers in the 1960s. Black teenagers were tired of the oppression and brutality of white people. At a time when African-American men had short and conservative hairstyles, the afro was a sign of rebellion towards the white conformity.
The afro became an identify for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. It became a political symbol as Black activists and politicians like Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis took up the hairstyle.
The Growing Love For Natural Hair: Black Is Beautiful
Black hair has come a long way as many people are now embracing their heritage. Masses are moving from weaves and chemicals to natural hair and organic hair products. For example, the State of California was the first state to accept and respect black people’s hair in schools and workplaces. We’re glad to say that many African Americans are now proud of their natural hair. And so are we!