The History — and Mystery — of Black Hair
By Judi Ruiz-Branch, She’s In Color Official Blogger
It’s no secret that black women are obsessed with their hair. From the millions of dollars that we shell out at beauty shops and beauty supply stores for weaves, relaxers and other hair care items, it’s no wonder that even in this stagnant economy, one thing that’s not being cut is hair. But where does it all come from? Who planted this “obsessive” gene in black women that drives them to dish out the dollars for fake or pressed hair and, in turn, sometimes judge those who do not do the same?
Let’s take a look at the evolution of the conceptions behind hair in the black culture.
“1444: Europeans trade on the west coast of Africa with people wearing elaborate hairstyles, including locks, plaits and twists.”
“1700s: Calling black hair ‘wool,’ many whites dehumanize slaves. The more elaborate African hairstyles cannot be retained.”
Black hair being called “wool” insinuates that the hair is rough, unruly and far from “attractive.” Has this thought been subconsciously passed down to black people throughout generations? Perhaps so, which may explain why so many black women go through such great lengths to straighten and lengthen artificially.
“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.”
The fact that slaves had to rely on alternative methods to do their hair was a blatant disregard to their culture and heritage, therefore, continuing to strip them of their identity eventually leading them to believe the adage that “white is right” and the epitome of beauty. Not to mention the fact that fair-skinned slaves with straighter hair were bought for higher prices than their counterparts. I wish we could say, “Look at how far we’ve come,” but sadly, this doesn’t sound too far off from present-day behavior.
“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.”
Slavery ends, however, “good hair” becomes the standard for gaining political, religious, business and social esteem. The whiter you look, the more “well-adjusted” you are.
“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.”
There is nothing wrong with straightening your hair, however, knowing why we make the decisions we do is key. If you don’t know you’re history, you are bound to repeat it, which is exactly what happened this year. Here we are in 2012, and black women are still being criticized about their hair.
At the London Olympics this year, while some were praising gymnast Gabby Douglas for becoming the first African American woman to win gold in the all-around competition, many couldn’t see past something as irrelevant as her hair. As I recall, many of her fellow white teammates had similar, if not the same hairstyle as she, and never once received any scrutiny for it. People flocked to Twitter and Facebook to dispute or agree with whether or not her hair should have even been an issue. In the weeks following the Olympics, many television and radio shows sought to use the topic to stir up conversation. In an interview on CNN, Spike Lee references his 1988 film, “School Daze” and asks Don Lemon, “Are we still talking about this?” Well, no disrespect to Lee, but, yes, we are, and in my opinion, it’s something that desperately needs attention.
In 2007, when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s,” the entire black community was up in arms. But when an accomplished 16-year-old gymnast makes history at the 2012 Olympics and self-hating black women comment on how “bad” her hair looks, the result is nods from other black women, morning show topics and eventually conformity. Gabby Douglas has continued to grace stages following her gold-winning performance in London. She appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” led the pledge of allegiance at this year’s DNC and even performed alongside Grammy Award-winning Alicia Keys during the MTV Video Music Awards. She’s even landed a commercial for the “no texting while driving” pledge. Of course, the Hollywood hounds got their hands on her hair and managed to make it a little bit longer and a little bit straighter. She’s gorgeous nonetheless, but she was gorgeous before.
So why did I take you through this whole spiel about something that is old news now? Because the black woman’s obsession with hair is not old news, it’s still very prevalent and relevant. You can see this firsthand in my upcoming documentary short that takes a look at today’s black women and how they are making choices everyday about their hair based on a history they chose to ignore. Stay tuned.