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.
This is fascinating! Ladies, what are your thoughts?