The Recent History of Hair in Afro-American Culture – ADJOAA
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The Recent History of Hair in Afro-American Culture

For Black History Month in America, there is a lot to cover. The civil rights movement, Black pioneers, the effects of slavery, but we’ve decided to start with the crowning glory of every African and Afro Descent person: hair. 

In 2019, a landmark bill was passed in the US, Former state senator of California, Holly Mitchell was the driving force behind the CROWN Act, which stands for (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair). This Act bans discrimination of natural and textured hair in the workplace in California. This bill eventually became US federal law in 2022. 

The road to accepting natural hair in the US is long and full of tangles. It has always played an important role in African-American identity. 

Traditional African Hair 

Most of the history around Black hair revolves around the West African region where the way hair was styled could indicate one’s status and even what was going on in their life. There was a hairstyle for women about to give birth, soldiers, royalty and more. Hair styling in precolonial Africa was done by all. If one didn’t style their hair at all, a person was suspected of being mentally ill. But this all changed when Europeans came to Africa, and while images and art of precolonial African cultures have survived, the names and specific meanings of many styles are lost to history. In Benin, a Dutch explorer took note of the many ways locals combined braids and careful shaving to create intricate styles. Some of these included hair shaved on top and braids on the side of the head as well as shaved sides with hair on top, similar to an undercut. The traditional African names of these styles weren’t recorded but shaving later became a weapon against African identity and culture when the Transatlantic slave trade began. 

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade 

As part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonisation, attempts were made to erase African identity and culture. Hair, being an important marker of African identity and self-expression, was often shaved when people were sold and transported. Shaving hair was a type of punishment used by slave traders who no doubt would've noticed the importance of hair to the African identity and used it as a way to punish those who rebelled. Slave traders would often say it was done for practical reasons and to decrease the spread of bacteria but was mainly another way of breaking down the African identity. After almost a century since the abolishment of slavery, African American people, especially women, began taking back control of not only their hair but the discourse surrounding it. 

Early 1900’s: The Beginning of Growth

In the early 1900s, one name dominated the Black haircare industry: Madam CJ Walker, the first Black female millionaire in America. She was credited with pioneering a line of hair products and the hair-straightening comb for African American women. She used her wealth to advocate for the education and economic freedom of Black people and by the end of her life had employed 40,000 Black women and men throughout the US, Central America, and the Caribbean. She also was part of the anti-lynching movement and funded the education of six African American students at the Tuskegee Institute. 

Madam CJ Walker’s hair straightening comb and accompanying products aimed to “tame” natural hair and make it appear more European. Straight hair was associated with Eurocentric ideals of beauty and was adopted as a marker of belonging to a higher class amongst certain African Americans and also the culture at the time, which was focused on social and economic advancement rather than rebelling against the system. This idea continued throughout the early 1900s.

1960s: The Roots of a Revolution 

During the topsy-turvy times of the 60s, there was also the first wave of natural hair appreciation. It came on the heels of a cultural revolution, specifically the “Black is Beautiful” movement, which was started and perpetuated by prominent activists like Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis and Hoyt Fuller. Marcus Garvey’s quote “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!” refers to rejecting Eurocentric beauty standards and embracing natural hair. Activist Angela Davis’s debut with the afro was a further sign of resistance and rebellion against Eurocentricity and was a symbol of Black power. 

During this time of revolution was the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned employment discrimination and made segregation illegal in public spaces. However, this wouldn’t take into account the rights of being able to wear one’s natural hair.  

1970s: The Fight for Natural Hair Continues

The natural hair movement continued to grow stronger throughout the 70s. Hair became bigger and bolder. Think voluminous ‘fros, Donna Summers' loose curls, feathered hair and locs, which came onto the scene thanks to the rising popularity of Bob Marley. With the 70s also came the first recorded case of natural hair discrimination. In 1976, the Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual 

Hospital Insurance case appeared in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The insurance company was accused of discriminating against afro hair and the plaintiff, Beverly Jenkins, won her case. The court agreed that Jenkins had the right to wear her afro under the Civil Rights Act. 

However, the fight for accepting natural hair continued, as the rhetoric of assimilation regained strength. The 70s became a blended period where the natural hair movement was battling against this rising discourse of wearing Eurocentric hair because it was seen as more socially acceptable. 

1980s: Hair v. Court  

In the 80s, natural hair became hotly contested in the workplace while continuing to be a symbol of Black pride. Styles like the afro and cornrows became more mainstream in the Black community. But the beauty industry was losing out on profit gained from hair treatments and products. The infamous Jheri curl came into existence due to these targeted marketing campaigns along with more straight textures and Eurocentric hair. Heat styling came back into fashion along with relaxed hairstyles. 

Natural, braided and hair of different textures seemed to co-exist. But natural and cultural hairstyles faced a lot of discrimination. One of the most famous examples is the 1981 Rogers v. American Airlines case where a young Black woman, Renee Rogers, took the airline company to court after they told her not to wear cornrows at work. The court sided with American Airlines, saying that cornrows weren’t a racial characteristic, so the act wasn’t declared as discrimination. This court ruling set the stage for other cases to come, like the 1987 case of Cheryl Tatum, a restaurant cashier at a Hyatt hotel. A personnel director told Tatum to unbraid her hair and that according to policy, Hyatt didn’t allow “extreme and unusual hairstyles”.

1990s: The Flair of Black Hair in the Media

The tension between workplaces and natural hair continued throughout the 90s. But Afrocentric hair gathered new meaning in pop culture. Black hair is made to be seen and appreciated. That is why whenever Afrocentric hair appears in music videos, MTV awards, etc., it also makes the front page. The 90s was an era of experimentation with Black hair. The Bantu knots became an iconic style of this decade. 

Bantu knots originated from the Zulu and other tribes in Southern Africa. The style of the knots themselves hold a beautiful meaning and are said to resemble shapes found in the cosmos. The word itself was appropriated and used against local tribes by Dutch colonisers, who used the word ‘Bantu’ as a derogatory term to refer to southern Africans. Later, Bantu and its hairstyle was reclaimed by the Zulu and related tribes and became reminiscent of spiritual empowerment and the heavens. 

2000s - 2020s: The Second Wave

The increased visibility of Black hair due to pop culture and social media meant renewed interest in the natural hair movement. This second wave of interest once again meant straightening combs were left to gather dust in draws and perms became relics found in old high school yearbooks. 

The invention of social media meant many people, especially Black women, could take control of the hair narrative themselves. They explore the haircare world outside of relaxers and get advice from women who are in a similar situation and have similar experiences. The conversation around natural hair also became more nuanced. Previously having “natural” hair meant dedicating hours to hair styling and spending hundreds of dollars for the right tools and products to achieve a certain look. But many people have different textures that all come under the umbrella of natural hair. 

The easy spread of knowledge about Black hair culminated in the 2019 CROWN Act and its subsequent application to the entirety of the US. With that, we come full circle. 

Be Proud About Your Crown

To this day, Black hair is a source of cultural pride and experimentation. In both online and real life, you can see the full and wondrous spectrum of textured hair and creativity. The use of traditional African hair care foods and products are also making a comeback. Ethical African brands like Suki Suki, Beauty 101, Skin Gourmet and Adeba Nature use ingredients like shea butter, moringa oil and carapa oil to restore and rejuvenate textured hair. These brands and many more can be found on ADJOAA, an online marketplace whose purpose is to champion the success and propagation of sustainable African fashion, self-care and lifestyle brands.  



Image Credit: Puffy Afro @efikzara via Black Beauty Bomb Shells 

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