After Allison and I talked about me developing this article, I really had to think a little bit deeper about my positions and views on African American women’s hair over the span of my life. My wife of six years has been going natural for over the last three years, but what is my real perspective on natural hair.
Because I’m a history instructor by profession, let me do the historical stuff and then share my position.
From 1650 to 1900, 9.8 million slaves were exported from Africa to the America’s. The African people were wearing hairstyles like locks, plaits, and twists. The Africans were proud of their hairstyles. In some tribes, the hairstyles reflected social status, religion, and belief systems.
In the 1600 and 1700’s, Africans were forced into the chattel slavery labor system. The chattel slavery labor system forced them to work from sunrise to sunset. This began to strip them of their African culture and many hair traditions. White slave masters also began to become critical of African hair, calling it “wool.”
In the 1800’s, African slaves began to use other forms of hair products like bacon grease and kerosene. Harriet Tubman is seen in many pictures with her hair covered, which shows that many of them began to wrap their hair with a rag.
Because of intermingling of Africans with Europeans, the idea and distinction of “good hair ” & “bad hair” began to be promoted. Dark skinned women with kinky hair became less attractive and light skinned women with straight hair became more attractive.
During Reconstruction and the early 1900’s, color consciousness becomes a major factor in American society, but also is a factor in the African American community. Certain schools, churches, and social organizations made “good hair” and complexion a requirement for entry. Lawrence Graham highlights this in his book, Our Kind of People.
Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire, developed hair care products for black hair starting in 1905. It was her attempt to develop a scalp treatment and to help Blacks assimilate into mainstream culture.
From the 1920’s to 1950’s many different hairstyles trended. Marcus Garvey pushed for Blacks to reclaim their African roots. George E. Johnson developed the Ultra Wave Hair Culture. In the late 1950’s, braids resurged.
By the 1960’s, the Afro was in style and represented a political statement. It was very common to see activists, people fighting Jim Crow laws, and the Black Panthers wearing an Afro.
I was born in the 1970’s in Burlington, Iowa. Burlington was a predominately white, with Blacks that had moved to the north for industrial jobs. I clearly remember my mother wearing an Afro and I loved it. I would tour in Iowa with my grandmother to teach African & African American history to high schools. We would explain African artifacts, talk about African American music and culture, and I would end the daily session dancing.
The white students and faculty members would come up to me after every session and engage me further in the dialogue. The major question that they would ask me was, “Can I touch your hair?” Many of them had heard so many stories and negative rumors about black people’s hair, and they just wanted touch it for themselves. This really made me appreciate my Afro.
When we moved to New Orleans and I grew older and started dating. The Afro was no longer the “in” hairstyle for teenage girls. They were either wearing a perm or a curl. Honestly, some of my friends use to make fun of girls wearing a curl. Their comment was that it was to messy. I did date a girl that wore a wave nouveau for one year.
The Afro Centric movement was in full motion while I was in college. As we would began to dig deep into the thoughts of Diop & Karenga, sisters in the study group would begin to transition to braids or was trying to figure out what going natural was about. I was more intrigued with the process of them of trying to go natural, than the natural hair itself. The process of going natural usually involved a whole lifestyle and clothing change. The Sisters would start wearing African/Afro centric clothing and start looking for hair products from “conscious vendors”.
Over the last three years, my wife has been going natural. When she first started talking about it, she was very intense about researching products and support groups. I made it very clear from the beginning that I support and stand by her. I must be honest and share that I did have my moments of nervousness. I would ask myself, “what is this going to turn out like?”
I didn’t think about it deeply then, but in recent reflection, I may have been struggling with the straight and kinky issue as talked about in School Daze.