From hot combs to hair grease: The journey behind afro-textured hair in America

So, how did we get to where we are now?

A confident woman. (Pexels photo/stock image)

The story of afro-textured hair in America is a long one.

Ancient African traditions of braiding, styling and care were once prevalent, but then began to fade with time and oppression.

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After years of slavery and dehumanization from 1600 to mid-1800, many known languages, customs and methods of hair care were forgotten, abandoned, suppressed and looked down upon.

So, how did we get to where we are now? Let’s take a look.

Straight hair: The new ideal

From mid-1870 to 1880, Black people began to style their hair to look more like white people, as it helped them to be more accepted, one writer said -- adding that with this straight hair, Black people were considered better suited to white American culture.

Also, straighter hair helped Black women to defy their past lives, sometimes as slaves who had to work in the fields.

The hair relaxer, credited to Garrett Morgan in 1877, and the hot comb, credited to French hairdresser Marcel Grateau in 1872, temporarily straightened out curly and kinky textures. Those with straighter hair were sometimes given more preferential treatment, which accelerated the popularity of hot combs.

By early 1900, the concept of Black people striving to fit white ideals was becoming more widely seen.

Madame CJ Walker, an African-American woman, capitalized off of this trend, offering a hair care line that helped to make afro-textured hair straight more easily. The sale of these products made her the first well-known American female self-made millionaire. Under these circumstances, the ever-popular “press and curl” style was made legendary.

In 1954, the first commercial at-home hair “permanent” (now called a “perm” or “relaxer”) was introduced for Black men to straighten their hair themselves. Women were quickly introduced to this treatment on a large scale, as well. A similar treatment, called a Jheri curl (or curly perm), emerged and became wildly popular around 1970.

The fight of the conscious few

Over the past century, several attempts have been made by those with kinky and curly hair to embrace their natural textures. Around 1920, the influence of Marcus Garvey convinced some to return to their roots and embrace their African heritage with his movement, “Back to Africa."

His efforts didn’t stick, however, and the popularity of straightening hair with the hot comb continued.

Many public figures also displayed their acceptance of their hair in its natural state, such as actress Cicely Tyson with cornrows in “East Side/West Side,” and activist Angela Davis with an afro during the Black Power movement.

As Black people became more enlightened and aware of their heritage, their sense of self and their civil liberties, the way they viewed their natural hair began to change. From late 1960 to late 1980, afros, braids, locks, cornrows, and styled cuts for men gained in popularity. Spike Lee’s film “School Daze” shed light on issues of colorism and the underlying current of “good hair” and “bad hair” that’s still around in the Black community.

The Black hair industry ‘boom’

From mid-1980 to late 1990, in addition to braids, cornrows and box-cuts, a new major trend emerged on the scene that would forever change the face of the Black hair care industry: the weave.

The wearing of human and synthetic hair extensions for women, such as wigs, glued or sewn in wefts often called “tracks" -- and braiding hair (for longer, fuller braids) quickly grew in demand.

By 2000, a greater diversity in hairstyles could be seen throughout the community. Men began to greatly embrace cornrows and locks. Women could be seen experimenting with new colors, styles, devices and techniques. Black hair care quickly rose and became a multi-billion dollar industry.

Chris Rock’s 2009 film titled “Good Hair” exposed many truths and complexities of Black hair care as an industry, and the ways that it affects the identity of African Americans individually and collectively.

Getting back to natural

As African-American men and women become more disillusioned with harmful chemical treatments, like relaxers, damaging weaves, heat tools and poor hair care practices, a desire to care for the hair in its natural state is returning. The need for products made especially for kinky-curly hair is now being met by Black-owned businesses such as Carol’s Daughter, founded in 1993 by Lisa Price, which now sells millions of dollars of product every year worldwide.

Carol’s Daughter is one of the companies that has been at the forefront of a “natural hair” movement.

Today, millions of women and men are choosing to wear their natural hair.

The advent of widespread internet access and social media has also set the stage for communities of men and women from all over the world to learn and explore natural beauty together. Local support groups are sprouting up, Black-owned hair care businesses continue to emerge, and kinky-curly hair is now becoming more widely accepted in the mainstream media.

Currently, laws are even in the process of being changed in some states that would prevent companies and businesses from not hiring or promoting people with natural hair -- the biggest movement to date.

The face and cultural significance of Black hair care and acceptance continues to evolve at a tremendous pace.

This was first published in 2020. It has since been updated.

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