Our Afro-Textured Hairstory
Race is not only defined by skin colour
Upon meeting someone for the first time, the person’s hair may be one of the defining physical attributes that you remember them by. Based on the texture, style, length, and colour of one’s hair, we often (implicitly or explicitly) form an impression of that person’s identity, including their racial background, gender, religion, or even socioeconomic status. For example, well-groomed hair involves frequent visits to barbershops and salons, which may be an indicator of one’s financial success. While hair can be an important reflection of one’s social identity, this is especially true when it comes to the Black community. Hair and hairstyling play a major role in structuring the Black experience as Black people’s hair has been linked to politics and cultural scrutiny for centuries.
The historical importance of hair in Black communities
Black hair dates back thousands of years. In ancient African societies, hair was seen as a sacred symbol of culture and spirituality. In many African societies, it also served (as it does today), as an indicator of social status. Intricate hairstyles, such as braids and twists, were worn to mirror one’s age, marital status, wealth, and familial background. Communal hair grooming was also an important social ritual, a treasured time to bond with friends and family.
However, a new set of meanings were forced upon Black people’s hair when the transatlantic slave trade began in 1526. Between 1526 and 1867, around 12.5 million enslaved men, women, and children were shipped from Africa to the rest of the world, with their traditions forcibly left behind in their native homes. All enslaved Africans’ heads were shaven by slave traders in an attempt to strip away the slaves’ connection to their African cultures. Given the cultural and spiritual significance of hair in Africa, this was a particularly dehumanizing act. Black hair was cast as “animalistic”, “deviant”, and “abnormal” and these labels were used by many Europeans involved in the slave trade to justify the “inferiority” of African heritage. As a direct psychological effect, Black people, especially Black women, have often internalized this perception of “inferiority” linked to Black hair, becoming self-conscious and even ashamed of their natural hair. The slave era precipitated the negative stereotyping around Black hair and withdrew Black people from their traditions and heritage in order to conform to the white standards of beauty and hairstyles.
“The emulation of European styles was to push back against the idea that we were inferior.”Lori Tharps, a co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
Racism and Black natural hair in the 20th century
Despite the many decades that have passed since the abolishment of slavery, the societal standards of “normal” hairstyles persist today and continue to marginalize Black people living in Western society. As the number of incidents related to discrimination against Black natural hair continues to grow, it becomes evident that the struggle for acceptance is far from over.
Consider the case of Arisa Cox, who was promoted to an entertainment and weather anchor while working at the CJOH-TV Ottawa news station at the age of 24, but whose promotion came with one stipulation: she was required to wear her hair straight all the time.
When she replied, “I’m not interested,” in regards to changing her hairstyle, she was told the request was mandatory if she “wanted to keep [her] job” (Cox, 2014). Similarly, the United States Military recently revised their list of permitted female hairstyles to include “multiple braids,” “twists,” and “afros” (which is often the natural state in which Black hair grows) as unauthorized, in addition to calling them “matted and unkempt” (Rhodan, 2014). In light of these injustices, we can look in the past for greater strength and courage to endure the fight against racism and preserve the beauty of African heritage and black hair.
The Afro: A symbol of resistance, self-empowerment, and fight against racism
The Black power movement in the 1960s sparked a paradigmatic shift in society’s understanding of human rights for Black communities in North America. In defiance of the Eurocentric beauty standards, renowned Black activists like Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simon embraced their natural hair textures in the public eye.
Watch this video of activist Kathleen Cleaver speaking about natural hair and its connection to self-love.
“Negroes and colored folk were becoming black people,” and for many, that meant accepting “a new, Black-identified visual aesthetic, an aesthetic that not only incorporated an alternative to straight hair but actually celebrated it.”Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps in Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black hair in America.
The Afro: A target of repression
The late 1960s and 1970s was the era of a movement that permeated the Black communities in America. Afros and black hairstyles were worn by college students, activists and in Blaxploitation films. Despite the positive outcomes of this liberation, many prominent activist groups were forced to go into hiding from law enforcement, becoming targets for arrests and interrogation. In “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” Angela Davis discusses the photographs of herself in FBI posters and how it affected the perceptions of others, specifically other natural-haired Black women:
While the most obvious evidence of their power was the part they played in structuring people’s opinions about me as a “fugitive” and a political prisoner, their more subtle and wide-ranging effect was the way they served as generic images of Black women who wore their hair “natural.” From the constant stream of stories I have heard over the last twenty-four years (and continue to hear), I infer that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Afro-wearing Black women were accosted, harassed, and arrested by police, FBI, and immigration agents during the two months I spent underground. One woman, who told me that she hoped she could serve as a “decoy” because of her light skin and big natural [hair], was obviously conscious of the way the photographs constructed generic representations of young Black women. Consequently, the photographs identified vast numbers of my Black female contemporaries who wore naturals (whether light- or dark-skinned) as targets of repression. This is the hidden historical content that lurks behind the continued association of my name with the Afro.
As shown in the photo of Angela Davis, the afro hairstyle became a powerful statement of pride and resistance against anti-Black racism.
In honour of Black History Month in Canada, we also celebrate the achievements of Viola Desmond, a Canadian civil rights leader in the 1940’s who opened the very first Black-owned school of hairdressing in Nova Scotia. She was motivated to start her own business after being rejected from all local beautician schools due to the colour of her skin.
1980s to 1990s: Decline of the natural hair movement
Due to the weaponization of afros, the deceleration of Black liberation movements in the early 1980s, and the popularization of afro hairstyles in non-Black communities, the natural hair movement was in quick decline. The popularity of the Jheri Curl, Wave Nouveau and permed hairstyles took off in the Black community, with asymmetrical, cute, and big curly hair defining the decade.
The 1990s brought back straight hairstyles with many Black women returning to the use of heat styling or sporting box braids. Natural curls were seen on those who had loose textured hair. As with many cultural movements, the Black films in the ’90s showcased many different hairstyles and trends that allowed Black women and men to express themselves through their tresses. The beauty of expression for Black people has always been under scrutiny; akin to the negative experiences that Black ancestors had faced in the past, the transition to braids and cornrows, or the new ‘natural’, protective styles were still not welcomed in places of employment, military, and education. For example, in 1981, Renee Rogers lost her job at American Airlines for wearing cornrows, and in 1987, Cheryl Tatum lost her job at the Hyatt Hotel for wearing braids.
21st Century: Going back to our roots
Crimped hair, flipped ends, ponytails, micro braids, laid edges, and hair accessories galore! Black hair has come full circle in the way of trends, expression, and styles, being used not only as a fashion statement but as a way to embrace the natural, beautiful self. Relaxer sales were in decline in the 2000s with women embracing wigs, extensions, and braids as protective styles and silk presses and blow-dried/flat ironed hair. From the mid-2010s to now, many Black folks returned to the natural hair movement, not only with afros and big curly hair but with voluminous tresses, wash-n-go’s, elaborate cornrows and braid ups.
The renaissance of this movement was made easier with the help of social media influencers and Black-owned hair brands and companies. For most, however, there is still a huge effort needed to better understand natural Black hair, including the need for more comprehensive information on the benefits and harms of certain ingredients on Black hair. We also must dismantle the inaccurate archaic ideas and white supremacist notions that detract the beauty and care of natural Black hair.
One powerful trend that we are noting is the influx of young Black men who are embracing dread locs, twists, extensions, and weaves as part of their own beauty standards. The liberation of Black hair is not a fight that can be won by women alone – it will take the entire community and allies to dismantle the systems that are fraught with racist ideals.
With social oppression, abuse and racial discrimination at the forefront of cultural identity within the Black community, we still have a long way to go. People continue to face termination threats at work due to dread locs, headwraps, braids and afros, and students are being discriminated against based on their hair. It should not be a luxury or a privilege to be able to walk freely without the constant worry about how you will be perceived due to your hair or the colour of your skin. With greater acceptance and celebration of natural hair in society, Black folks will have the liberty to live to their fullest natural, authentic selves.
There is much to learn from the narratives of Black hair — from the times of enslaved Africans to the modern-day world where Black activists and allies persist in fighting for racial equity. With greater awareness and support, Black people can be empowered to reclaim their African roots and traditions, beginning with embracing their natural beauty in Black hair.
To RSVP to our Black Hair webinar on February 24th, 2022, click here: Eventbrite – Black Hair: Our Power and Crowning Beauty