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A History of Black Hair From the 1400s to Present

• Feb 29, 2012

Via NaturallyCurly.com

Whether it’s activist Angela Davis’s Afro or hip-hop diva Lil’ Kim’s “weave of the week,” black hair has long had the power to set trends and reflect societal attitudes.

Since February is Black History Month — a time to remember important people and events that shaped the lives of African Americans—we thought it was an ideal time to explore how hairstyles have been interwoven into that history. It is a story that continues to evolve. Here is a look back at some of the key events and people who shaped the black hairstory.

1444: Europeans trade on the west coast of Africa with people wearing elaborate hairstyles, including locks, plaits and twists.

1619: First slaves brought to Jamestown; African language, culture and grooming tradition begin to disappear.

1700s: Calling black hair “wool,” many whites dehumanize slaves. The more elaborate African hairstyles cannot be retained.

1800s: Without the combs and herbal treatments used in Africa, slaves rely on bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair conditioners and cleaners. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired slaves command higher prices at auction than darker, more kinky-haired ones. Internalizing color consciousness, blacks promote the idea that blacks with dark skin and kinky hair are less attractive and worth less.

1865: Slavery ends, but whites look upon black women who style their hair like white women as well-adjusted. “Good” hair becomes a prerequisite for entering certain schools, churches, social groups and business networks.

1880: Metal hot combs, invented in 1845 by the French, are readily available in the United States. The comb is heated and used to press and temporarily straighten kinky hair.

1900s: Madame C.J. Walker develops a range of hair-care products for black hair. She popularizes the press-and-curl style. Some criticize her for encouraging black women to look white.


Madame C.J. Walker

1910: Walker is featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the first American female self-made millionaire.

1920s: Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist, urges followers to embrace their natural hair and reclaim an African aesthetic.

1954: George E. Johnson launches the Johnson Products Empire with Ultra Wave Hair Culture, a “permanent” hair straightener for men that can be applied at home. A women’s chemical straightener follows.

Read the Rest at NaturallyCurly.com

This is fascinating! Ladies, what are your thoughts?

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42 Comments on "A History of Black Hair From the 1400s to Present"

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R Kahendi
Guest

A truly fascinating history! I hadn’t realized that people criticized CJ Walker back then. Would you happen to know who her strongest critics were?

I had to chuckle to myself at the fact that she became a millionaire, presumably selling the hair-straightening products. I guess she was a shrewd businesswoman.

Tabora
Guest

Booker T. Washington was one of her biggest critics, as well as those African Americans who believed that Blacks straightened their name to emulate Whites. Walker never considered herself a “hair straightener” she stated that she wanted to make Black women feel beauty and be pampered. Clearly, the irony being that “beauty” was tantamount to one’s hair being straight.

LoVeTMiller
Guest
Two words I would like to elaborate on: 1) pampered — there is nothing about relaxing my hair that I remember which allowed me to feel pampered. lol. What I do remember is gripping on the arms of the chair, clenching my teeth, praying to endure the pain.…just so I could feel (2) beautiful at the end of the horrible process we call relaxing our hair. I also remember being annoyed because my hair grew so fast that it seemed as though I was always in need of a touch up. so happy to be natural. I will never go… Read more »
Tasha
Guest
Madame CJ Walker didn’t sell hair relaxers–mostly men mixed the conk at the barbershops then. She sold hot combs (press-n-curl is her trademark), shampoos, conditioners, brushes, and hair pomades. Many black women didn’t used to wash their hair often or at all back then and had problems with their hair falling out and scabs on their scalp. They were used to wearing headscarves all the time from slavery/sharecropping and didnt know what to do with their hair when they were allowed not to wear them. The knowledge of how to do our hair was lost in slavery. Madame CJ Walker… Read more »
Stephanie
Guest

I remember having tears in my eyes because my scalp burned so bad and the scabs. I didn’t feel pampered and relaxed either– I just felt like it was the price that I had to pay to look “good” with straight hair. Now I know better even though it took years for me to truly accept my hair the way that it was without making it fall out with the way that I was treating it. Natural just makes sense for me now.

R Kahendi
Guest

I forgot to ask which nation the woman in the picture was from.

Relo
Guest

girls with their long hair are just too lovely. i try keep mine as natural as possible.:)
[img]https://bglh-marketplace.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Relo.jpg[/img]

chloe
Guest

I’d prefer the term ‘enslaved’ over slave which is dehumanizing and implies a natural condition rather than an involuntary and imposed condition.

GSoldier
Guest
.. And exactly what stae are you in now. enslavement meant a chance of escapism. “she was enslaved in her work” “she was a slave to her work” “she was a slave”. Have a guess of which we were and are. When a massive gang of wolves binded in mentality, outcome, execution and synchronisation wants to prounce on a lion, before the lion is in their mouth, the lion is a prey. Doesn’t matter how strong the lion is, to the wolves, it is a prey unless they wouldn’t bother attacking. In fact, let’s say ants. Now, mind you I… Read more »
anastasia
Guest

+1000 =)

herlucidsKy
Guest

Agreed!

mangomadness
Guest

+1

Tabora
Guest

+1

shannon
Guest

Most EXCELLENT post!

Alexandra
Guest

I love this post! This is very refreshing to read during my lunch hour. Thanks!

Alisha
Guest

Very interesting… @Relo, that’s a pretty color in your hair.

Relo
Guest

@Alisha thank you very much.

sosoulful_0125
Guest

Very interesting post!

O0oro0O
Guest

The whole article is great ! I’m shocked to see that a little girl was about to be out of a ballet because of her hair O_o some people are too rigid…

Mandy
Guest

Great post, short and to the point. I never had any reverence for Madame CJ Walker. Not all business is good business but in a era like that, I couldn’t possibly imagine the mindset of our race and what they had to endure in regards to what was physical beauty. I guess she did what she had to do.

We need to teach our daughters young about the history of our hair and how to manage it, so they can grow up proud.

ladyluo
Guest

Loved this post. I learned some things I didn’t know

Mai
Guest
Love this post. If anyone is interested to get a full history on black hair pick up the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Hair in Black America” by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps. One of the best purchases I have ever made. The book points out that Madame CJ Walker created her business because many black women didn’t feel beautiful about their physical appearance and she wanted black women to be proud of their appearance. She actually went to door-to-door ala Avon to sell her products. Even though I am not happy that feeling beautiful at the time… Read more »
Alexandra
Guest

Thanks for the info. I will definitely see if my library has it to read.

Israel Investigations
Guest

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Jeanna
Guest

I enjoyed this immensely! I love BGLH. Your articles are so informative and intelligently written. Thank you for all that you do to encourage Black girls young and old.

Nimi
Guest

Interesting read. I quite enjoyed it.

Dominika Shelton
Guest

idk ‘enslaved’ seems sweeter, like there is a chance of getting out, breaking out, when that was not the reality. ‘slaves’ meant that there was not even a chance of being free, not even a thought of being free,not even a dream of being free. this was the mentality black people were fed during this time, and there aint nothing ‘sweet’ about that. being enslaved is a physical thing, being a ‘slave’ is a mental thing . saying ‘enslaved’ would be degrading the riveting reality of the African Diaspora.

ButterFlySoulFire
Guest

This article is very U.S.-centric and isn’t very substantive but did pique my interest a bit. I will take another commenter’s advice and look for the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Hair in Black America” by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps. I’d be very interested in learning about black hair practices in Africa, Papua New Guinea and the African diaspora.

CJ
Guest

I guess I am the only one that is a little upset by this article. The information is fine, but why does the history of black hair start when Europeans entered the slave trade. As if we didn’t exist before then. Or if we did, we weren’t worthy of being mentioned until the Europeans found some type of value in us. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I’m feeling some type of way about that.

SFF
Guest

No, I agree. I feel the exact same way.

Ogo
Guest

No. This article is absolutely ridiculous.

Jo Somebody
Guest

Agreed! I also think the title should be a history of African American hair. Very few of the facts affected me or my parents (and certainly not my grandparents) or relate to me at all. This is a very specific history and is a fascinating history, but even as a Black person, it is not my history.

Ogo
Guest
Ok, so I will try to phrase my thoughts in a mild and measured manner. This article is ridiculous. It is poorly worded. Or perhaps, it is worded to properly express the sentiments of the owners of NaturallyCurly. This is precisely the sort of super general, non-specific, redundant filler that “Black History Month” is criticized (and known!) for! I mean, what did this teach anyone who has entered and exited the 6th grade? And, the article begins with “Europeans” gazing at Africans. Oh, the subject looking at the object, great! And, then “African culture, tradition and grooming practice disappear” in… Read more »
SFF
Guest
I won’t go into too much detail b/c the last few posts touch on some of my views about the post. Even though I respect the intention behind the article & the desire to inform, there are serious errors as mentioned in previous comments. When talking about the disappearance of “African language, culture & tradition”, you fail to add the plural & acknowledge that there are MANY different, languages, cultures & traditions of Africans. Generally, the history in this article isn’t representative at all. I’m not implying that this article should have gone into a lot of detail but if… Read more »
Kimsuccess M.
Guest

Great article writen for “Black History” month! For those that feel the article did not cover enough, I would love to read your summary of African (and other countries) History that covers the gaps. Don’t just critize, fill in the gaps and educate us all! I am interested. This is what February is about.

Likewaterforchocolate
Guest
Likewaterforchocolate

I also find it interesting that Johnson created a hair-straightening product for MEN, first and the women’s product came after.

nachereyl
Guest

All I need to say is, if God saw that it was necessary to straighten our hair, He would have. We were truly and uniquely created in His image. That is what makes us special and stand out from the rest, because we are different. I just thank God I’ve come to realization that I can be at peace with myself, by accepting what true beauty is and that is by being the real me.

gia kirby
Guest

pls put on mail list. chris rock movie moved me.

Natalie
Guest

I like the thought of my hair being compared to wool, because my heavanly father hair is desrcibed as wool.

waroEpivaDari
Guest

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kara
Guest

Sorry but i have to correct something in your post.
Slavery was first established in Florida by the Spanish in 1565.
Dates are VERY important, because they are keys in unlocking who we really are.

Sources:
http://staugustine.com/stories/120201/new_319098.shtml
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/us/27florida.html?_r=0
http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/120201/met_7970180.html
http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/08/st.html

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