The Evolution of Black Hair

1 January 2017

Abstract African-American, or Black, hair is very diverse. It ranges from extremely thin and straight, to extremely thick and curly. Throughout history, it could be seen as a gift and a curse. Hair in previous and modern times is seen as a sign of beauty, but all races are not always treated equally. Problems with identity and the struggle to conform caused many African-Americans to be ashamed of what they were born with. Even today, evidence of the struggles are still present. In the project we hope to learn how the views and opinions have changed throughout history.

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We would also like to educate others about African-American hair and inform them on the common misconceptions. Ms. Miller Social Studies 8 March 2012 The Evolution of African American Hair African-American hair has a history as long as the term itself. From desperate attempts to cope to an inability to maintain, Africans and African-Americans, when it came to hair, were seemingly “forced” into hiding or altering their hair to conform to what society saw, at the time, as “normal”. What made life that much easier at the time, made it a struggle to break away from that dependence or constant attempt to be normal or to fit in.

In a world today where individuality is just beginning to be embraced, people must look back in history to see where some of the stereotypes and feelings come from, so that they may understand why people do the things that they do. The first African slaves were brought into Jamestown in 1619, but soon after, African language, culture, and grooming habits began to disappear. Without the privilege of access to hair grooming tools, items like butter, kerosene, and bacon grease were used as conditioners and cleaners (Naturallycurly. com).

These products were usually excess items that the slave owner, or master, didn’t use in his home. Pictures from this period would depict female Africans or African-Americas with scarves or cloth on their heads. Several sources say that they were symbols of enslavement and subordination. In fact, there were laws passed in the South that said female slaves must wear the head wraps. Other sources say that it was a misconstrued sign of rebellion, adapted from African culture (The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols).

While the head wraps protected the hair from the elements and protected them from lice, they bonded them to slavery. With nothing to care for their hair, they covered it up to hide it. The pressure to change didn’t stop there. Slaves with lighter skin and straighter hair were worth more at auctions. This led many to believe that the slaves with darker skin and curlier hair were less attractive and worth less. Although several years after the end of slavery, skin bleaching products were released.

African-Americans, who styled their hair like, or closely resembled, white people, were respected even though they were not seen as equals. The end of slavery bought new challenges for everyone, and the same feelings and views associated with African or African-American people before, were still there (A Look Back at the Black Hair Story). Hiding out of embarrassment did not last too long. Garrett Augustus Morgan, the child of two former slaves, noticed that certain chemicals he used at the clothing factory he worked at could not only straighten fabric, but also hair (Taylor).

After his first successful live experiments, first on the naturally curly fur of an Airedale dog and later on himself, he opened the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company in 1913 and began to straighten hair in his home workshop. The chemicals he used were very strong could never touch human skin. The alkaline and lye chemical mixture strips the hair of proteins and removes the curl permanently. In order to maintain the chemically straightened hair, the relaxer would have to be reapplied every six weeks, or every time the curly hair began to grow back.

Stemming from the time of slavery, many African-Americans found it hard to manage their hair. Relaxers supposedly made their hair more “manageable” and caused them to be widely accepted. Years later, African-Americans who used relaxers saw the harmful effects that lye had on their hair. It could cause burns, hair thinning, and hair and skin loss. No-lye relaxers were made to reduce those results. In relaxers today, chemicals a lot less than harmful lye, such as potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide are used.

Despite the harmful effects, African-American women who styled their hair like white women, whether it was with chemical straighteners or straightening combs, were seen as “well-adjusted” and more widely accepted in the white community although African-Americans even though blacks were not seen as equals (Little-Known Black History Fact: Hair Relaxer). Years later, in the twentieth century, the nineteen-sixties were a time of change or transition. In the early part of the decade, the Black community still tried hard to be accepted, or to feel normal.

The surge of Civil Rights and “Black power” fuelled a sort of rebellion for many Black people. Relaxers fell out of style, and many African-American leaders urged people to return to their “roots”. Black pride was centered on political and social issues, but it could be evident in appearance. Many African-American men and women began to “go natural” and wear their hair in large afros. The afro was not an only a political symbol, but also a huge milestone in fashion. Soon after this style came to be, many white people began to copy the style as well.

The tables had turned. Instead of looking for normalcy or acceptance in the way the blacks wore their hair, it was the other way around. This marked a huge step in the acceptance of African-American independence and their hair (Civil Rights New Zealand). People from all races began to go natural, but the question is “what is natural hair? ” The answer is clear and simple. Whenever a person is born their hair is natural. Natural hair can have no curl, a slight curl, or be completely curly as long as the texture it is not chemically altered.

After Garret Morgan invented the relaxer, several African-Americans, men and women, straightened their hair permanently to be accepted by the white community. After their hair was previously straightened, it was no longer natural. Even though they had a relaxer applied, their hair would always grow back curly even if the hair that was relaxed never did. So basically, if they stopped getting a relaxer, the straight hair would remain, but their naturally curly hair would grow from the roots. Many, though, did not stop there.

Several African-Americans continued to get a relaxer to maintain the straighter look. The Civil Rights and Black Power era caused many African-Americans to stop getting relaxers, or to “go natural”. Whenever they felt they were ready, they would cut of the straight, relaxed and let the rest of the curly hair grow. At the time black natural hair was a trend, a large part of fashion during the time, but like every trend it had to come to an end (The Truth About Hair Relaxers). Hair extensions have had a checkered history in the African-American community.

Women of all races have used wigs, weaves, and other types of extensions, but there is sometimes a certain stigma tied with them and African-American women. Hair weaves are applied by braiding the hair and long wefts or tracks of hair are sewn with needle and thread to the braid. The hair can be human, synthetic, long, short, straight, or curly. Most of the controversy comes from this. Some women African-American women wear weaves all the time so that they can look more professional and others wear them for convenience.

Some will even wear them for the transitioning to natural period. Many women are penalized for wearing weaves or extensions of any kind because others see them as fake. Weaves or extensions are one of the most common forms of hair styling seen in the African-American, or Black, community, almost tying with braiding with extensions (Fashion-Era. com). Now that African Americans have gone through these changes and experiences through the years how has it changed since today’s era? The twenty-first century brought new changes to the way the African-American hair was viewed.

The Civil Rights era was a huge leap towards equality, and even though people of all races still fight towards equality every day, it was an important part in America’s history. However, history does tend to repeat itself. The relaxer made its way back into African-American homes. Many people believed that natural hair was, once again, unmanageable and unprofessional. Also, pressure from friends of other races to be more “normal” could push African-American women to straighten their hair. The end of the decade, however, brought new changes. More and more people are “going natural”, and proving the stereotypes wrong.

This will produce a whole new generation of African-American females with new feelings and ideas about their own hair. America was built on the principles of opportunities and freedom from persecution. Anyone who knows American history knows it was never that easy. Even today, equality in all aspects of life is a goal we will always try to obtain. The past is full of memories, some that we may not remember, ones that we cannot forget, and even those that we are ashamed of, but in order to learn to make a better present and promising future, we must remember the past (Black Hair).

Conclusion Learning about the history of African-American hair and how it has evolved was a tough, but interesting process. The history was filled with struggle. The struggle to become what was believed to be normal, and the struggle to break away from it. We were surprised to find out what products were used during the slave era and also that many other races began to copy the afro during the Black Power Movement. We were amazed at the transformation African-American hair has gone through throughout the years. We hope that our project will enlighten others, just as it has enlightened us.

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