kathleen cleaver 2
Kathleen Cleaver

Not too long ago, I found an old photograph of my parents wearing gigantic afros and wondered, “What happened to the natural hair movement of that time? Why did it die out?”

Many naturalistas are aware that the current natural hair “trend” is not a precedent and that an earlier movement existed back in the 60s and 70s. Nonetheless, the history of this “first” movement is often overlooked and even oversimplified.  The “afro” of the 60s and 70s was not just a “style” of that period nor merely a political statement.  Let’s go back in time for a moment …

The 60s: The natural hair movement begins

Between 1964 and 1966, the Civil Rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement, according to Byrd and Tharp of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.” “Negroes and colored folk were becoming black people,” and for many, that meant accepting “a new, Black-identified visual aesthetic, an aesthetic that not only incorporated an alternative to straight hair but actually celebrated it.  In a book titled “Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness,” Ingrid Banks, Associate Professor of Black Studies at University of California Santa Barbara states:

“the pressing comb and chemical relaxers became oppressive because they were tools that symbolized the shame associated with black hair in its natural state.”

The immigration of Africans to the United States, according to Byrd and Tharp, also fueled the natural hair movement of that time period.  For some black people, wearing their hair in its natural state became a “way of showing their visible connection to their African ancestors and Blacks throughout the diaspora.”  For many, returning to natural meant shedding one’s appearance and ideas (of beauty) accumulated through assimilation into White America.  In 1968, Kathleen Cleaver of the Black Panther Party said this about the natural hair movement occurring in that time:

“The reason for it, you might say, is a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, their physical appearance, is beautiful. It is pleasing to them … For so many, many years we were told only white people were beautiful. Only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful, and so black women would try everything they could to straighten their hair and lighten their skin to look as much like white women … But this has changed because black people are aware, … and white people are aware of it too because [they] now want natural wigs … They want wigs like this [points to her natural hair].”

The 70s: The movement reaches its height and the afro becomes a target of repression

By the late 1960s and 1970s, the natural hair movement was permeating the black population. The afro was not just seen on members of the Black Panther Party, but on college students, other activists, and in film.  Blaxploitation films, like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown, were also featuring female characters with their hair in its natural state.

nina simone
Nina Simone (in 1969).  She had been wearing her hair natural years before this moment.
pam grier-foxy brown
Pam Grier. (Movie: “Foxy Brown”, 1974)
tamara dobson-cleopatra jones
Tamara Dobson. (Movie: “Cleopatra Jones”, 1973).

During the 70s, prominent black members of activist groups were also forced “underground,” or into hiding from law enforcement. Disguises for some of these women included wigs to cover their natural hair. The afro was becoming a target for arrests and interrogation.

Toni Morrison and Angela Davis
Angela Davis (L) and Toni Morrison (R).

In “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” Angela Davis discusses how photographs of herself, including those on the FBI posters, affected the perceptions of others, and more importantly, the lives of other natural-haired black women:

“While the most obvious evidence of their power was the part they played in structuring people’s opinions about me as a “fugitive” and a political prisoner, their more subtle and wide-ranging effect was the way they served as generic images of black women who wore their hair “natural.” From the constant stream of stories I have heard over the last twenty-four years (and continue to hear), I infer that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Afro-wearing Black women were accosted, harassed, and arrested by police, FBI, and immigration agents during the two months I spent underground. One woman, who told me that she hoped she could serve as a “decoy” because of her light skin and big natural, was obviously conscious of the way the photographs constructed generic representations of young Black women. Consequently, the photographs identified vast numbers of my Black female contemporaries who wore naturals (whether light- or dark-skinned) as targets of repression. This is the hidden historical content that lurks behind the continued association of my name with the Afro.

angela davis cover
Angela Davis on the cover of LIFE as wanted by the FBI.

Early to Mid 80s: The natural hair movement dissipates

In the early to mid 80s, the natural hair movement was slowing down and ultimately came to an end. Why? While it is difficult to pinpoint one exact reason, here are some possible factors:

The afro became a target (as discussed above).

The Black Power movement decelerated in the early 80s. (The Black Panther Party ended in 1982.)

The invention of the Jheri Curl, Wave Nouveau, and other permed styles occurred in the mid to late 70s. These styles rose in popularity among blacks in the 80s and part of the 90s.

The “afro” look was becoming more mainstream — being worn by non-blacks — and losing much of its original meaning.

Braids and cornrows — the new “natural” styles —  were not welcome in many workplaces. (In 1981, Renee Rogers lost her job at American Airlines for wearing cornrows.  In 1987, Cheryl Tatum lost her job at the Hyatt hotel for wearing braids.)

SOURCES:
[1] Faraj, Gaidi. Ph.D. Dissertation, “Unearthing the underground: A study of radical activism in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.”  University of California, Berkeley, 2007.
[2] Davis, Angela Y.. “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 37-39, 41-43, 45.
[3] Byrd, Ayana and Tharps, Lori. “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.” St. Martin’s Griffin, January 12, 2002.
[4] Banks, Ingrid. “Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness.” NYU PressJan 1, 2000.

What other factors do you believe played a role in the decline of the “afro” and natural hair in general? What are some differences/similarities between the movement of the 70s and that of now?  Do you think this movement is here to stay?

Chinwe

Healthy hair care tips and more!
http://www.healthyhairbody.com

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53 Comments on "The Natural Hair Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s; How It Began and Why It Ended"

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Claire

This natural hair is beautiful. Why put a whole lot of chemicals in your hair? Natural is best.

Howard Hutchinson

Psychological warfare to keep us from recognizing our self worth and to assimilate into the so called dominate culture. Attacking our natural hair styles is still warfare. Our hair is versital and anything can be done with it in its natural state.

trackback
[…] I do NOT dry my hair because MOISTURE IS WONDERFUL FOR NATURAL HAIR. My curly hair air dries over the course of the morning while I’m moving around at work. I don’t use a comb or a brush because I just really love the way my hair looks when I let it do its own thing. It’s SO curly and soft. By the way, here’s a recent pic of my hair just doing its own thing. I love it and not because I spend money every week to get it done because at this point, I spend about $15/every… Read more »
trackback

[…] Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of Black women’s beauty. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking about the politics of Black women’s hair. But I don’t want to engage in a discussion about the sociopolitical dimensions of the Natural Hair Movement. Nuanced conversations on that topic are (and have been) occurring in numerous places… […]

Sarah

1981 a woman is fired for wearing protective styles. 2016 a child is suspended from school for having locs. Not much changed…

Hakikah Shamsiden

Great article. Also, many people who formerly had Afros, started wearing locs in the 90s. That was the next natural hair explosion.

TWA4now

Wow! Awesome article! Yes, the braids and Jerri.curl took over. The beloved Afro faded in.the back ground–the true meaning. The natural hair moment is here is stay! It was birth with self-love…love your hair, skin, body, and soul.

Anjanette Potter

Thanks for the history lesson. I plan to order the two books you mentioned. I’m hoping this wave will last simply because we are learning t accept each other’s reasons and motives for style choices AND we learning that there’s no one way to be “black enough”.

lisa sanchez
I think black women back in the day were a lot prettier when with their natural hair these women these days have wanted European hair put into their hair and it has become a mental thing where they cannot live without it and even to where it causes forehead cancer on that black model and it caused many other infections also on actresses that would be like a European woman putting on an afro why would somebody do that is just ridiculous a lot of black American women have damage their hair to the point where they will never be… Read more »
Ama

Excellent post to a great article. We still face discrimination because of our hair but we are strong and will endure. I too am along for the ride! And totally agree with the poster who mentioned integration emulation.

Christian Adika

Thanks for educating! Keep up the great work!

LaNeshe @Nesheaholic.com

Great post!

Nikkis Power
Yes I remember in the 70s wearing my big fro mentally associating myself with the black power movement. The Black Panthers wore fros and they were totally my hero’s, I planned to join them when when I turned 18. But before I reached that age many Black Panthers were killed or jailed and the black power movement wasn’t in our faces as much. My rebellious feelings turned towards a more spiritual seeking. The black movement got replaced with the inner peace spiritualism afforded me. The only other option for doing my hair natural at that time for me was dread… Read more »
Amie
I love this glimpse into the more complex story of natural hair movements in black American history. I sometimes wonder whether or not this natural hair movement will fade out eventually. I’ve seen a few YouTubers returning to relaxed hair or texturizing their hair. (Not that Youtube is necessarily indicative of most black naturals) The natural hair movement is certainly less militant and more beauty-focused these days, for a lot of women. It’s inherently about beauty either way, but I think the image most women are trying to aim for daily is very different. We aren’t usually picking out the… Read more »
Chevanne

Came back to read this again and say well done. 🙂

BlueCornMoon

I NEVER did that. I was a teacher & wore my afro on the job as did many others. I taught in inner city schools with mostly black kids. I did have straight haired wigs & only wire them to give my hair a break or to wear a different look without having to deal with salons & hot combs.

GoldenLadyP

Great article! I’ve always thought about the very short time ago when Natural Hair wasn’t just about fashion. You were opening yourself to persecution, abuse and all kinds of negatives especially with locs. Respect to our amazing pioneers!

mjslyfe

BeUtifullyHuman you took the words right out of my mouth. I love this article. We have really lost focus of what going natural really means and this article definitely puts things into perspective. Great read!

BeUtifullyHuman

In order to know where we are going, we must first know where we come from. Great read! Please keep this kind of empowerment/enlightenment coming.

CafeDiva
I’m clapping from my seat!!!! Excellent job and magnificent post Chinwe! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article because it provided a historical perspective and delved deeper behind a seemingly powerful movement. It showed the celebration of the Afro and natural hair but for a multitude of factors dissipated when it was most celebrated; within the black community. I’ve also quietly wondered to myself about this and even questioned my own aunts about their choice to return to perms after rocking natural hair and “Afros” during this era (60’s & 70’s). I feel that this post had great grit, teeth, and… Read more »
Guest
The natural hair movement this time around can not be a fad; black consciouness demands this. As a people, the profound impact and significance that finally embracing, wearing and loving our natural hair after centuries of oppression (physically and mentally), can not be denied–no matter how many times one says “it’s just hair”. No it is not just hair, it’s an awakening to the conditioning that we have been under for the past 400 years. A conditioning that has been past down (conciously and sub-conciously) in our households from generation to generation. I hope to God that we have realized… Read more »
disqus_l5AKLiKBqN
The 1960s rise of minority, women, youth, gay, anti-war and workers movements AROUND THE WORLD were a sociopolitical-financial tsunami against ‘omnipotent’ White patriarchal institutions that were DICTATING global financial markets as well as household spending, controlled media-messaging, waged wars over drugs/weapons/minerals/agricultural territories and single-handedly created and deposed leaders. They were not going down PERIOD! Defiance to war, racialization, religiosity, homophobia, misogyny, poverty, corporate/academic/political elitism was powerful and effective. The change, autonomy and advances of the 1960s threatened THE monopolistic stranglehold on where and how racial-ethnic and social minorities spent their money, the media and psychological methods used to suppress them… Read more »
Adrienne Dubya
The afro during this time period is really an interesting topic for me. Especially the fact that the afro was viewed as a political statement & people could have lost their jobs because of the fear of radicalism. My grandmother is from Louisiana and she told me that many women (herself included) used to wear afro wigs when they were out with their friends or going to night clubs but otherwise it was common for women to keep their hair relaxed beneath the wigs. So I am curious as to whether other women in other parts of the country did… Read more »
marie

afros are beautiful…I have sisterlocks and these pics are making me miss the fro. it just looks powerful, it demands attention!

OXxo

In the UK if you ask most people who had their hair in an afro at the time they will admit it was due to fashion. Most would admit it wasn’t a political statement. Even more so because anyone with dense curly hair regardless of ethnic group copied it.

blacknproud

agree, integration was…is the decline of the black businesses and the community…a lot of yes believe ‘white is right’ smh…

blackangel87

I never thought of from that prospective; eye opening.

Chevanne

It’s funny that people say all day, “it’s just hair”, but hair itself is a big cultural focus around the world. Braids, shaving patterns or just length can be indicators of social status or beauty. There is great value in hair and we pretend like it ain’t no thang. BOLOGNA. I remember girls coming to elementary school in depressive states after being forced to cut their hair. It’s an important facet of our personalities and acting like we have the privilege of not worrying about how society perceives it is a disservice.

BelleNaturelleParis

Sis I love reading your perspective on Black issues. Please keep commenting and bringing your light to this forum.

Rukiya Anthony

I’d love for you all to do more post like this.

Stace
I don’t know how much this has to do with anything in terms of this history, but I never really liked the term creamy crack when I first started coming on natural hair boards. However, when it occurred to me that the use of “creamy crack” came on the scene around the same time as actual crack-cocaine, it really set off a light-buld in my mind. When you think about the way that crack desolated the urban communities and the black community particularly, and then think about what the use of relaxers did to the mentality of the black image… Read more »
Cheryl

Powerful epiphany!

lv

the article is on point. No one reason for the depopularity of the natural hair movement. What i know now is that i am grateful that the trend is back –that the trend is on and poppin now! I am grateful that after 35 years of relaxing that my curls and kinks are still in tact. Thank you Jesus!

Edges_N_Paris
Integration, integration, integration! With integration came the decline of Black businesses and the A okay for us to spend our dollars with Massa. Quite naturally we purchased anything and everything that would ensure our acceptance to the dominant society. Sistahs were conscious then and I see it happening again. It’s ironic because I live in Paris and the consciousness is making it’s way here as well. Although weave is still king, sistahs in Paris are embracing their natural hair. They’re Black and they’re proud! Is the movement here to stay? Who knows? I’m just happy I’m here for the ride.… Read more »
LBell
Taking this slightly a la gauche 😉 : I was a kid in the 70s growing up “in integration” and the only women I saw who wore BAAs were teenagers or slightly older. Women of my mom’s generation, if they wore a natural, kept it shorter. My mom had a curly ‘fro wig that she would wear for special occasions. That was pretty much it in my corner of American suburbia and for my mom’s generation I think it had a lot to do with how you presented yourself in environments that until then you were banned from. Tied to… Read more »
Erickka Sy Savane

I was excited to read this as I have wondered this myself. Thanks for
doing the research! I’m loving the reason you gave that It basically
became too commercial, which is funny when you think of it: Black people
had to leave their own natural hair because white people were trying to
take it over.

JenniD
Great article! I have so many thoughts on this but I do think that the afro of the 60’s and 70’s saw its demise because many only saw It as a trend or fashion statement. Just as we see now in the comment sections in hair blogs from naturals today. Many don’t think their hair choices are that DEEP.If its cute and in style and worn by black celebs they jump on it. Hence all the wigging and weaving going on now that will look much dated in a few years now as well lol. No matter if we want… Read more »
kia

Very informative. really loved this Chinwe!

Kaila Smith

Thank you for sharing!

Marra

cool article! I’ve wondered about this before as well.

Dee

Difference between the movement of the 70s and now is that we have natural hair products that are more healthy for hair.

Also, there are natural hair product lines created by us (Black people, especially Black women).

Anon46

Great article and love the videos attached to article. My mother is a retired nurse. Before she started working, she had a big, beautiful afro. We live in the South & when she started her career at the largest hospital in our city in the early 70s, there were very few Black nurses. She started using the hot comb because it wasn’t acceptable for her to wear an afro to work. I’m sure many other Blacks experienced & felt the same as she did.

Jas Devi

which is why I ultimately find it in poor taste for nonPOC (really non black ppl) to use the term natural and attempt locs, afros, ect.

lis

Yeah@Jas Devi what do you mean by that….In all seriousness. Anyway, Thank You bglh for the photos….I really love all the ladies pictured….Damn ms.Pam!!!…and for the history lesson…I didn’t k now a lot of the history.

ashlee

Wow I disagree completely. I never understood why people got offended by people of other cultures/ethnicities wearing locs and afros if it is not done to ridicule. I would like to hear your reasons why you find it in poor taste for people to do so.

OXxo
Some people who aren’t Black have dense curly hair which naturally grows upwards. They can’t help having an Afro if they grow their hair more than a few inches because that’s how their hair grows. A couple of them I personally known have got insulted by other White people for the fact their hair doesn’t grow down. There as other Black people leave them alone or give good humoured comments. In regards to locs on -non-Black people they actually offend me. The White people I’ve met with them are rich kids who have their parents to bail them out for… Read more »
lis
Locs are “our hairstyle , a Black hairstyle. “.. ..interesting ….because before it was popularized by Rastafarians to Blacks there were others around the world who wore locs…such as Indian holy men… I wonder if whites and other non blacks with straight hair were offended when most Black women and their mothers had relaxers and now weaves….weren’t you all copying /culturally appropriating? their aesthetics? …and not giving credit to them. I wonder if those Indian holy men were bothered by Blacks copying/appropriating..or does it only apply to whites? Put down your arms Black women….and leave people alone because this self… Read more »
$8319184
I tend to flip flop on this issue. Black hair has so much history attached to it, it’s more than just “hairstyles”. It’s like if non muslims started wearing hijabs or burkhas saying it’s just fashion. There’s more to it than that. There’s the white person who’s a culture vulture who will not only wear the hair but also want to act like he belongs with the black community and has struggled like them but someohw magically maintians his white privilege. Then there’s the white person who may wear locs but doesn’t try to claim black culture or “overidentify” with… Read more »
JenniD
I find it of poor taste because locs and afros have a symbolic meaning as stated in the article above. That would be like me putting on a hijab cause its “cute”. Other races wearing our hairstyles are not flattering at all as many do it only as a way of looking “different” or alternative. I don’t think its done out of ridicule but it ignores what something stands for and waters it down. Bet you no white girl will get fired or side eyed if she came to work in trendy braid extensions, but a sister will fret over… Read more »
cheryl

And you know it my sista!

Tracienatural
Hi, ashlee. I can’t speak for Jas Devi, but as for me, I agree. You see, if you see the world as “post-racial,” then maybe it makes no difference what people wear or do–people should be free to do whatever, right? However, if you see anything positive about race, e.g., if you think pan-Africanist, then you see people wearing “black” or “African” hairstyles as cultural appropriation. Why, you ask? Because when non-black peoples “borrow” black culture, they claim it as their own, never giving homage to the black people who create it. In comparison, when white people create culture, you… Read more »
cheryl

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!!! I could not have expressed your sentiments better myself! Speak the truth, sista!

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