Do I Hate My Hair? Understanding its History

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I was very eager to delve into the history of black hair, a story I know innately, but not formally. So I was eager to “see it on paper” with the hope of understanding the larger context of my current hair choice.

My hair is 100% natural in the sense that it’s not chemically relaxed. Most people don’t know that because for the past few years I’ve been wearing fake hair. I started with weaves but then I discovered the ease and convenience of wigs! When it comes to fashion, beauty and hair, ironically, I am an extremely lazy person. I don’t like to do my hair. So for me, fake hair is a HUGE convenience. I can have big voluminous waves without ever having to lift a curling iron. But I also like extensions and wigs because I like the way the styles look. This assertion made me, of course, raise the question: Do I not like the way my own hair looks? That question has been in the back of my mind for a while, but has finally made it’s way to the forefront.

Me and my natural hair!

So on the heels of Black History Month, I jumped into the pages of Wikipedia (and also read some poorly written articles that all seemed to site the same sources). At first I just wanted to understand how black hair has evolved, where it’s been and why/where it is now. But in the process I found myself trying to validate where my own hair is now. Here’s what I learned.

Black American Hair History in a Nutshell

Natural → Slavery → Straightened → Afro → Jherri Curl → Straightened → ?

Our hair has evolved from the elaborate hair styles of the motherland, to the hair-straightened wig-wearing days of post-slavery and our Black Pride moment in the 70s.

We started as natural-haired Sub-Saharan Africans, then became “unkempt” slaves. Once slavery was abolished and the straightening comb and relaxer introduced, we straightened our hair because our wooly coarse hair wasn’t acceptable. We went from relaxers to wigs until someone in the 1960s spoke the words “black is beautiful” and with the energy of the Civil Rights movement within us, we tried to reconnect with our African roots, molding our hair into a halo known as the Afro. But that moment of natural hair was only a 20-year blip in our 600-year history in the United States. In the 80s we traded our Afros for a chemical variation known as a the Jheri Curl. We held onto Africa just a little bit with the emergence and popularity of braids in the 90s. But weaves became affordable and not just for celebrities. And straight hair, as it has been through most of history, across ethnicities, was more revered. So we continued to straighten and extend. Today with all the history and experimenting we have behind us, we have a ton of options. But in very recent years we’ve seen a re-emergence of natural styles. Whether the re-emergence is just another blip is yet to be seen. But I think the fact that it’s back not out of defiance or political statement is indicative of an evolution of the Black American identity.

Slavery Has Made Black Hair a Big Deal

University graduates. Straightened hair was more socially acceptable and offered upward mobility.

Delving deeper into the Black American identity and it’s history, it was clear to see that the submission of blacks in America has made what we do to our hair a source of controversy, a political statement and even an internal conflict.

During slavery there was no time for blacks to do their hair because they worked seven days a week for up to 15 hours a day. As a result, black hair would turn into matted tangled locks (although men had the benefit of being able to cut their hair). House slaves could braid their hair or wear scarves. But black hair, to the larger (white) community, was seen as something that needed to be fixed. Light skin and straight hair were better embraced socially, a social diktat that set the stage for all the black hairstyles that came after slavery. Essentially, we were told our wooly coarse hair wouldn’t fly. So we changed it. We were in Rome so we did as the Romans. And we had to do so for 600 years.

So now weaves and relaxers and hot combs still hold that heavy implication that a lot of people, white and black don’t want to face, that our hair isn’t good enough. It can be a touchy subject. Hence, when Dorothy Reed was fired for wearing beaded braids on air, it was a big deal. When Don Imus called us “nappy-headed hos” it was a big deal. When the Black Pride movement inspired us to wear afros, it was a big deal. And now that natural hair is back, it’s a big deal.

We’ve Always Experimented With Our Hair

Ancient Egyptian wig
Ancient Egyptian hair grooming scene

Coming to understand the historical and psychological weight of what I do with my hair, I’m very much frustrated by the fact that the weight exists. Black people have always experimented with their hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a gene for it. Wikipedia describes the role hair played way back in the day in Africa:

Communities across the continent invented diverse ways of styling afro-textured hair. …In many traditional cultures communal grooming was a social event where a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds between herself, other women and their families. …Hair grooming of afro-textured hair was considered a very important, intimate, spiritual part of one’s overall wellness, and would last hours and, sometimes, days depending on the hair style and skill required. Diversity in, and experimentation with, afro-textured hair styles was the norm up until the European slave trade, and the height of the Arab Slave Trade, penetrated sub-Saharan Africa.

As much as we play around with our hair, I will go so far as to say that if slavery hadn’t happened, someone in Sub-Saharan Africa would’ve stumbled upon the idea of straightening hair. And they would’ve done it just because they could. Their Northern African counterparts did. The Ancient Egyptians were one of the firsts to embrace wigs and weaves. They dyed their hair, cut their hair, wore wigs, wove jewels into it, braided it, just for sheer expression and experimentation with no weight of past victimization. In the 16th through 18th Centuries in Europe wigs were all the rage, especially among the royals and the wealthy and there was no larger implication of self-loathing, lol. But for African Americans there is, regardless of just wanting to try different hairstyles.

Hair, to me, is ultimately superficial. It’s like clothing. Different styles come in and out of fashion. And whether or not we admit it, we are all followers of what our society says is the latest and greatest and what is socially acceptable. We all want to fit in. We all want to be looked at positively and not frowned upon. Unfortunately, black hair, for a very long time, was frowned upon and has rarely been in style.

So returning to the question of whether or not I like my own hair, now having a larger perspective, I feel more comfortable attempting to answer it. I love my hair’s texture. I love how strong and resilient it feels. But I have assimilated to the dominant definition of beauty. And I haven’t given my hair a chance in its natural state. I am quite appreciative of the plethora of natural hair styles and content that has emerged online. And now that I have a little more time on my hands, I’ll be experimenting. I do know for sure that I’ll never stick to one hairstyle. It’s not in my nature ;0). But I definitely will give my own hair some air time. It’s been a while.

P.S. I’d love to hear how you feel about your hair.  Leave a comment below or chat with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Update 2/3/16: look at me now and now and now!

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An entrepreneur at heart, I founded Unruly in 2013 after spending six great years in advertising. I’m über lazy when it comes to doing my hair so I’m always looking for easy and quick ways to care and style my hair.

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  1. Our hair have always presented us with problems when it comes to its’ texture and understanding the history of how black hair has evolved up until now. It was the latter part of the 19th century when Madame C. J. Walker relieved the stress that came with styling black hair. Yet, today, black people; particularly black women, have entangled themselves anew with the issues surrounding the unruliness of their hair.

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