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 African-American hair is one of slavery, tears, self-hatred, rebellion, and finally, self-love. Together, we'll go through the history of the African-American hair and its hair 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 the African-American 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 and sometimes strange-looking hair-styles, 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-care 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 naturally 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. From a society of short “kinky-haired” people to another of white folks with straightened hair. 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 African hair made them feel inferior to Western society.

Even slave traders placed more value on light-skinned Africans with soft hair. The darker you were and the kinkier your hair, the less attractive you were. African slaves no longer had access to their natural hair care products and herbs. 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 burnt their scalps.

This era saw the rise of many African-American entrepreneurs like Madam CJ. Walker, who came up with numerous African-American hair care products. Her first and most famous haircare 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 the African-American hair at a time when black hair 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 the study of hair care products as she sought the cure to her problem.   

In the course of her research, she was able to come up with different hair products specifically for African-American hair. She was thereafter able to open up nation-wide stores.

She was so successful that she became one of the few self-made African-American millionaires.

Melba Tolliver

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 the African-American culture and dared to show up for work with her natural African 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 Affiliate, African-American men and women learned from her and were able to fight for the freedom of hairstyle in their workplaces.

The Stories Behind Famous African-American Hairstyles

These are stories on how the ‘Afro’ and ‘Roots’ emerged as famous hairstyles in the African-American community.

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 conserved hairstyles, the Afro was a sign of rebellion towards the White’s conformity.

 

The Afro hairstyle became an Identify for the African-American people during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. It became a political symbol as great African-American politicians like Jesse Jackson and Angela Davies took up the hairstyle.

Roots

This hairstyle also grew in popularity as a political symbol. It was adopted by Marcus Gavey when he came up with the Rastafarian Theology as he sought better lives for his African-American brothers and sisters.

The hairstyle became iconic for black people all over the world when Bob Marley appeared on stage with dreadlocks.

The Growing Love For African-American Hair: Black Is Beautiful

African-American 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. Even though there are still some who link ‘afros’ and ‘roots’ to hooliganism and drug abuse, we’re glad to say that many African-Americans are now proud of their natural black hair. And so are we!

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