Cornrows, a popular African American hairstyle.
Cornrows, a popular African American hairstyle.

African-American hair, refers to Afro-textured hair types, textures, and styles that are historically connected to African-American culture, often drawing inspiration from African hair culture. It plays a major role in the identity and politics of Black culture in the United States and across the diaspora.[1] African-American hair often has a kinky hairy texture, appearing tightly coiled and packed.[2] African-American hair has a complex history culture, and cultural impact, including its relationship with racism.


African origins

Since the beginning of African civilizations, hairstyles have been used to convey messages to greater society. Before boundaries divided Africa into states and countries through colonization, the continent was divided into kingdoms and clans,[3] and different hairstyles could "indicate a person's marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, rank,"[4] surname, health status, geographic origin and the clan to which they belonged.[5][6] A Wolof man’s braided beard could indicate that he was preparing for war.[7] In the Himba tribe, dreadlocks worn down in front of a female's face was a sign that she was going through puberty, while dreadlocks tied at the back of the head were worn by women seeking marriage. Erembe headdresses signified new mothers and married women.[5] In Yoruba culture, people braided their hair to send messages to the gods. As the most elevated part of the body, hair was considered a portal for spirits to pass through to the soul.[8] According to a 20th-century study, the Yoruba often shaved the heads of newborns as a marker of each individual's arising from the spirit world. A person's head was shaved again at death to signal the individual's return to the spirit world.[9]

Hair maintenance in traditional Africa was a time-consuming process that aimed at creating a sense of beauty and honoring its spiritual power. According to author Sylvia Arden Boone,[8]

A woman with long thick hair demonstrated the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity...a green thumb for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children.

Hair was considered divine due to its position at the top of the head, and to allow someone to touch it meant you could trust them.[5][10] Therefore, hair maintenance was only entrusted to relatives and hairdressers for fear of enemies bringing ill-will to the person in need of hair care.[8] The hair maintenance process could last anywhere from hours to days and involved “washing, combing, oiling, braiding, twisting, and/or decorating the hair.”[11] The Himba people, for example, styled dreadlocks using ground ochre, goat hair, butter and hair extensions.[5] Hair that was clean and neatly braided or arranged with adornments such as beads or shells was a sign of vitality, whereas unkempt and dirty hair signified affliction.[12]

Hair during slavery and a historical view of afro-textured hair

Because North America's Indigenous population was being decimated by European colonists' extreme labor conditions, insufficient diet, violence and diseases,[13] British Europeans began forcibly transporting Africans to British North America in the early 1600s.[14] Before transporting them, captors and traders shaved the heads of all African adults and children taken captive.[6][15] The claimed purpose for this action was to prepare for the unsanitary conditions of the slave ships.[16][15] Because of the cultural and spiritual importance of hair for Africans, the practice of having their heads involuntarily shaved before being sold as enslaved people was in itself a dehumanizing act. In Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Byrd and Tharps write:[17]

The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves’ culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair... [it] stripped them of a lifeline to their home and a connection to their people. Their language was taken away and they were unable to identify with others from their tribe.

Once their hair began to grow back, many enslaved people did not have the time or the tools to properly maintain their hair, and it became tangled and matted as a result.[18][19] Enslaved people typically worked every day of the week, lived in poor conditions and faced the risk of head lice and ringworm. To protect themselves from the sun, dirt and scalp afflictions, women repurposed unwanted fabrics into hair scarves or kerchiefs (especially if they worked outdoors), while men who worked outdoors wore sunhats with their hair cut short or completely shaved off.[20]

In describing runaway enslaved people in wanted ads, slaveowners proved that many enslaved people were able to style and maintain their hair after it grew back.[21]

...some slaves wore their hair long and bushy on top and ...others cut it short, or combed and parted it neatly, or shaved it at the back or at the front, or trimmed it to a roll. An African American's hair might be closely cropped on the crown but left long else where; it could be tied behind in a queue, frizzed, combed high from the forehead, plaited, curled on each side of the face, filleted, cut in the form of a circle on the crown, knotted on top of the head, or worn bushy and long below the ears.

Men and women were often given similar clothing to wear and labor tasks to complete, so to achieve a more feminine appearance and differentiate themselves from the men, some women ironed their hair to make it sleek,[22] or they wrapped their hair by brushing it and binding small sections of it with a material such as thread or cotton to prevent knotting. This technique, known as "wrapping" or "threading", shaped the hair into a curl pattern that women kept protected under a scarf or kerchief while working, and took down for special occasions such as church service or weddings.[23][24]

Plaits, braids and cornrows were the most convenient hairstyles to keep their hair neat and maintained for a week. Enslaved people who worked indoors were forced to wear their hair in one of those styles or a style similar to that of their slaveowner if they did not cover their hair with a scarf, kerchief or wig.[25][26] By the early 19th century, Sunday was legally declared a day of rest and religious observation, and on Sundays, enslaved people braided each other’s hair using the grease or oil they had available, such as butter or goose grease. They used wool carding tools to detangle their hair, kerosene and cornmeal to cleanse it and the scalp, and fats, oils and eggs as conditioner.[26][27] Enslaved people in North America named cornrows for their resemblance to rows of corn in a field.[28] (In Central and South America and the Caribbean, enslaved people called the style "canerows" because of its resemblance to sugarcane fields.[28]) Braid patterns became symbols for freedom, and different styles and patterns were used as guides to plantations, resembling roads and paths to travel or avoid.[29]

Racial attitudes among White people in 17th and 18th century America held a negative connotation of the afro-textured hair of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. They called afro-textured hair "wool" in an effort to deem it inferior to the texture of their own hair.[30][26] Since the onset of the enslavement of Africans in British America, the slurs "kinky" and "nappy" were also used by White people to express unacceptance of afro-textured hair.[31] It was also mocked through caricatured stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans in the media, which motivated women especially to keep their hair covered. Although the practice of wearing head scarves was forced upon women by law or by slaveowners, the type of head covering worn came to symbolize respectability, and could distinguish a married woman from an unmarried woman or a fieldworker from a houseworker.[32]

After slavery

After slavery had been abolished in the United States, negative attitudes about the appearance of Black Americans and derogatory terms for afro-textured hair persisted into the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, because Black people were still considered inferior to White people.[33] During this time, wig manufacturers were the only companies that advertised a Black standard of beauty.[34] Afro-textured hair worn in its natural state was still considered undesirable,[35] and media promoted a Eurocentric beauty ideal that included straight hair.[36] In her article "Hairitage: Women Writing Race in Children's Literature", literary critic Dianne Johnson notes an early 20th-century advertisement:[37]

Once upon a time there lived a Good Fairy whose daily thoughts were of pretty little boys and girls and of beautiful women and handsome men and of how she might make beautiful those unfortunate ones whom nature had not given long, wavy hair...

The image of Winold Reiss's Brown Madonna (1925), one of his most famous works, reimagines Black women as maternal and spiritual figures with straight hair. The image serves as the frontispiece of The New Negro, a text written to counter negative Black stereotypes and redefine Black people during the New Negro Movement.[38][39][40][41]

For some Blacks, the notion of assimilation in to White American society was ideal, because it held a perceived promise of better socioeconomic status.[42][33] One way they attempted to assimilate was by straightening their hair to fit the White American beauty ideal.[43] straighteners marketed by white companies suggest to blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within black communities and social acceptance by the dominant culture.[34]

— Noliwe M. Rooks

To straighten their hair, African-American women used a hair product and wide-bristled pressing or hot comb, a metal tool that was heated in an oven or on a stove before it was passed through the hair.[44][45] It could take hours to complete the straightening process, and because of the high temperature of the hot comb, burning and damaging the hair or skin were always high-risk.[35][44] Because it easily absorbs moisture, afro-textured hair straightened with a hot comb can quickly return to its tightly-coiled state if exposed to too much moisture,[44][46] such as rain or humidity. African-American men typically wore their hair relatively short, and they avoided passing a hot comb through their hair, because it was more difficult and dangerous to do so.[47]

From the early to mid-20th century, conking was a popular style for African-American men, and required the use of a chemical treatment known as a relaxer or perm, which achieved longer-lasting straightening results.[44] The practice of using a relaxer began during slavery, when enslaved men covered their hair in axle grease to straighten and dye it.[26] Before the late 1960s, there were no publications that explained how to straighten afro-textured hair with chemicals. The earliest chemical straighteners caused severe hair breakage and dyed the hair red,[47] so it was not until the mid-20th century that relaxers became a popular and longer-lasting alternative to hot combs for African-American women. Both men and women coated their hair with a strong acid that stripped the outer layer and altered the shape of the hair shaft, causing it to "relax" or straighten,[44] and the longer the chemical was left on the hair, the straighter the hair would become. If left on the hair too long, the relaxer could burn the scalp and cause sores to form.[45]

Civil Rights era

Angela Davis (right) in 1972 with her influential hairstyle
Angela Davis (right) in 1972 with her influential hairstyle

The Afro, which hit its stride in the 1960s, was an expression of pride, connection, power, revolution and differentiation. The Afro first gained popularity with performers, artists, activists, youth and nationalists.[48]

Young people who did not adopt this trend were for the first time judged and subject to "blacker-than-thou" policing by their peers. Blacks began to use their hair as a way to showcase a link to their African ancestors and Blacks throughout the diaspora. The Afro, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, was helping to define black identity (Byrd and Tharps 2001: 51).[49]

Some artists used their actual hair as an expression of art. In David Hammons’s American Costume, he pressed his own body onto paper to create an image of what being African-American means and looks like. Like the way he crafted the hair on the work by applying fingerprints to the paper, during the 1960s and 1970s it was not uncommon for Blacks to use chemicals to artificially kink their own hair if it wasn’t big enough.[50]

Young Black Americans were ‘froing their hair in great numbers as a way to emulate the style of the Black Panthers and convey their racial pride. Although the Afro started in New York, it was Angela Davis, a college professor at UCLA and an associate of the Black Panther Party, who pioneered the Afro as a political statement. In embracing naturalism, she glorified the Black aesthetic and facilitated its power to connect Blacks to the Civil Rights Movement. Her Afro became especially notorious because of its presence in her "Wanted" ad, as it was her most prominent identifier. It became a way to celebrate African-ness and embrace heritage while politically rejecting European ideals. Men and women in Chicago and beyond wore it as a way to support a proud way of carrying oneself in the world and occupying space.

Similarly, Wadsworth Jarrell’s Liberation Soldiers showcases Afros as almost halos. Combined with the shine present in the men’s coats, the painting conveys the spiritual aspect of trans-African culture. These men were seen as angels not only for their place in the Rights movement but also because of their naturalism and portrayal of Black heritage.

In relation to hair, the time between the 1970s and the 1990s could be described as open and experimental. "Despite occasional political flare-ups, individual choice would increasingly dictate African-American hairstyles in this era"[48] Trendy styles like braids were even adopted by whites, especially after white actress Bo Derek wore them in the movie 10. Although braids, cornrows and dreadlocks were becoming mainstream, they stirred up controversy and continue to when worn in the professional sphere.[51][52]

A person from Papua New Guinea with afro-textured hair.
A person from Papua New Guinea with afro-textured hair.
Singer-songwriter and actress Jill Scott in March 2012
Singer-songwriter and actress Jill Scott in March 2012

Popular culture

African-American culture has increasingly embraced natural hair through the natural hair movement. It includes people with afro-textured hair who resist the images used to represent them and abstain from the use of chemical hair products in favor of products that will promote healthy natural hair. The movement has been greatly influenced by society and media, ranging from the work and appearance of textile artist Sonya Clark,[53] singer Solange Knowles,[54] poet Maya Angelou[55] and actress Lupita Nyong'o[56] to an uprising of natural hair-focused YouTube channels and blogs.[57]

Good Hair

"Good hair" is a phrase used in some Black communities to describe the perceived prestige of straight or loosely curled hair, especially when genetically influenced by non-African ancestry, in contrast to afro-textured hair. "Good hair" is also used to refer to hair that is strong, thick and soft to the touch. Although many hair stylists or beauticians would define "good hair" as "healthy hair", the phrase is rarely used in this manner in informal African-American circles. Instead, it is used metaphorically to characterize beauty and acceptance. These standards vary for African-American men and women.[58]

The term's circulation within the Black community in the North America has an uncertain origin. Artist India.Arie's song "I Am Not My Hair" speaks specifically to the usage of the term "good hair" in the African-American community and in broader contexts.[59] Comedian Chris Rock's 2009 documentary Good Hair made a wider audience aware of the importance of the term within the Black community. In the documentary, Rock explores the role of hair in the lives of African-Americans. He interviews Reverend Al Sharpton, who asserts, “My relaxed hair is just as African-based as an Afro because it all came out of black culture.”[60]

Facial hair

Maintaining facial hair is more prevalent among African-American men than in other male populations in the U.S.[61] In fact, the soul patch is so named because African-American men, particularly jazz musicians, popularized the style.[62] The preference for facial hair among African-American men is due partly to personal taste, but also because they are more prone than other ethnic groups to develop a condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae, commonly referred to as razor bumps, many prefer not to shave.[63]

Popular African-American Hairstyles in pop-culture include[6]

Discrimination related to Black hairstyles

In Rogers v. American Airlines (1981), Renee Rogers, a Black female flight attendant, sued her employer American Airlines for prohibiting her from wearing cornrows and braids at work. The court dismissed Rogers' arguments that ban was discriminatory based on race and sex, and ruled in favor of American Airlines. The ban prohibited braids and dreadlocks in favor of a bun style, which can be a challenge to achieve with afro-textured hair that has not been straightened with heat or chemicals.[64] Since the late 20th century, many restrictions have been loosened, and professional African-American women now wear a wider variety of hairstyles.

In 2014, the United States Army implemented a ban on predominantly Black hairstyles.[65] The ban includes dreadlocks, large cornrows and twists. The rationale for this decision is that the aforementioned hairstyles look unkempt, with kempt hair being implicitly defined as straight hair. African-American women in the Army may be forced to choose between small cornrows and chemically processing their hair, if their natural hair is not long enough to fit a permitted hairstyle.[65]

Discrimination in Schools

More and more African American students have been discriminated against because of their hair in their schools. African American students are disciplined at a much higher rate than their other ethnic counter-parts.[66] They are also more likely to be disciplined because their natural hair styles are deemed not appropriate or distracting by their schools dress code. Even African American athletes are being discriminated against during games.

In 2018, African American wrestler Andrew Johnson was told by his white referee, Alan Mahoney, that he needed to cut his dreads or forfeit his match. That same night videos and pictures began to surface online of Andrew having his dreads cut off with a pair of scissors. This sparked public outrage online, with some people questioning why Johnson was able to play in matches prior to this one and not have any problems. People began to question Mahoney's call during the match; some saying that the ultimatum was derived from racism. In 2016, Mahoney was accused of calling his fellow referee a racial slur. Since this incident Mahoney was suspended from officiating for two years, and the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association and the states attorney general's office's civil rights division have opened investigations into the incident.[67]

Crown Act

On March 18, 2022, the United States House of Representatives passed the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act an act aiming to protect individuals from hair based discrimination in the workplace. The bill forbids race-based hair discrimination at the federal level, notably when the hair style or hair texture being discriminated against is particuclarily tied to a culture or race. The act states that "In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination."[68] This protects workers from discrimination related to popular African-American styles such as afros, and cornrows.[68]

Similar acts had already been introduced and passed in several U.S. states including California, New York, Colorado, New Jersey, New York City, Virginia, Washington, Illinois, and, Maryland.[69]

See also


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