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Not just a fashion statement - a history of Afro hair

We can all aspire to a good hair day. But imagine if even the term ‘good hair’ was wrapped up in a myriad of negative connotations that left you questioning your beauty and identity? The history of Afro hair is rooted in much more than protective styling and curl types. More than just an aesthetic, there is celebration and controversy to its ends.

With more black and brown people embracing their hair as it grows naturally, and Lush releasing its Afro hair range in November 2020, we decided to explore the deeper meaning behind the natural hair journey.

The tradition and spirituality of hair

In African countries, tribes would (and still do) fashion their hair for more than just style. The intricate braids they wore signified their standing. From rank, religion, to marital status, a hairstyle would tell you a lot about a person’s identity. These elaborate looks could take hours and sometimes days to create, so the process was also used as a time for bonding within the community. The person braiding the hair would do so as both a social service as well as a ritual, with no expectation of reward.

Hair was also thought to hold spiritual significance and possess immense power. As the most elevated part of the body, it was believed to be the conduit for gods and spirits to reach the soul. Braiding was an art form, taught by the most senior female members of the family, and hairdressers were considered experts and the most trustworthy members of society.

The slave trade

In 1619, the slave trade changed everything, not only by stealing the freedom of millions of African people, but also robbing them of their cultural identity. Travelling on ships for long periods of time meant their hair would become matted, so slave owners would shave the heads of men and women - something that would have been considered an unspeakable crime in many tribes. Slave owners and traders would also refer to slaves’ hair as ‘wool’ as a way of dehumanising them.

When their hair did grow back, men and women adopted a new style born of practicality and began to braid it for comfort when working on the plantations. Not having the tools and herbal treatments typically used in Africa to cleanse and style their hair meant they had to resort to using other things they could get access to such as bacon grease, butter, and kerosene.

Soon, braids became much more than a convenience but a lifesaving tool. Women, who were generally allowed to roam further afield than men, became responsible for mapping escape routes. Drawing or writing the directions (which was unlikely with little or no education) was too risky, so they would braid their hair into maps, and often hide small bits of gold and seeds to sustain them after escape.

The psychological scars

The auctioning of slaves during this time also placed value on the perceived 'whiteness' of the person in question. Wide features, kinky hair and dark skin were deemed unattractive while slaves with lighter skin or softer hair held a higher financial value. This poisonous and deeply damaging mentality remained entrenched in the psyche of generations, giving even black people themselves a complicated relationship with their identity and natural hair.

The 1700s brought about a perceived threat to the status quo when free black women wore eye-catching styles which drew the attention of potential suitors. So, in 1786 the Tignon Law was passed in Louisiana which required black women to wear a headscarf to cover their hair. Forced to adopt this law, they would rebel in the only way they could by wearing head wraps made of beautiful fabrics, which in turn drew more attention.

Slavery ended in 1865 but the emotional and psychological scars continued to be experienced by younger generations - as seen in cosmetic areas such as hair care. In 1872, the pressing comb was invented by Francois Marcel Grateau, a French hair stylist and later patented ‘the hot comb’ by Annie Malone. The hot comb was used by black people to imitate a European hair texture. ‘Good hair’ (that which is finer and straighter) became a prerequisite for getting certain jobs, attending certain schools and churches, and being accepted into particular social groups. Women with straight hair were considered better adjusted and were more accepted by their white counterparts. Soon after the hot comb came along, the hair straightener was invented, and black women continued to opt for straight hair that conformed to a European standard of beauty.

The natural hair movement

In the 1920s, notable civil rights activist Marcus Garvey encouraged followers to reclaim their natural aesthetic and ‘remove the kinks from their mind, not their hair’. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when his rhetoric would be embraced by the likes of American political activist Angela Davis and Cicely Tyson, an American actress, who risked her career by cutting off her chemically straightened hair just before making her TV debut, because she felt that the character she was playing would have had a natural mane.

In 1930, Haile Selassie was crowned the emperor of Ethiopia. When he was forced into exile after leading the resistance against the Italian invasion, guerrilla warriors vowed not to cut their hair until he was freed. Over time, their hair became matted and formed into long locks. These locks became deeply associated with these warriors and as they were ‘feared’ or ‘dreaded’, the term ‘dreadlocks’ was born. Rastafarianism was brought to Jamaica in 1935 and Haile Selassie was seen as a messiah. Today many people equate locks to the Rasta way of life, however, not all people who have locks follow the movement, but rather use them as a form of personal expression.

A permanent hair straightener or ‘relaxer’ was launched in the 1950s. The chemicals necessary to change the hair’s natural structure to a permanently straight state caused scalp irritation and burns, hair loss and hair damage. This was the ugly price of ‘beauty’ for black people. But change was coming. The powerful words of Marcus Garvey would resonate with the black community, and a stand would be taken.

The black power revolution

The black power movement of the ‘60s was a force aiming to change the black community's view of itself and the power it held. It reawakened racial pride and promoted black interest both politically and socially. The Afro became a symbol for black power and black pride. Straightening was seen by some as an outward expression of the burden of assimilation, so the abandonment of this practice was a way of throwing off the mental shackles and recapturing their roots. Black artists and activists turned their hair into a form of expression, and the term ‘black is beautiful’ was coined.

Braids were no longer a source of shame but one of celebration, so when Bo Derek made headlines for sporting braids in the movie ‘10’, and was given full credit for the look which quickly became known as ‘Bo braids’, it was a blow to the black community, This was the epitome of cultural appropriation; People magazine called it a ‘cross-cultural craze’, while the same look on a black person would be deemed ‘ghetto’ or ‘unpretty’.

In the workplace, braids, Afros and locks were frowned upon, with many people being fired over the hairstyle, the corporations claiming that the style did not fit the business’s image. We still see the policing of black hair in society today, the media continues to perpetuate a negative image of Afro hair, and society still uses terms like ‘nappy’, ‘wild’, and ‘untamed’ to describe a black person’s mane.

The natural hair journey of the 21st Century

By the noughties, the ‘natural hair’ movement was ready to make a comeback. This time no specific agenda or political purpose was behind the movement, just individuals choosing to do so for their own reasons. The black hair industry was worth an estimated £88 million and mainstream brands, that wouldn’t usually cater to Afro hair, began branching out to capitalise on that market. The movement was still about freedom, as well as a tribute to what the black community were fighting for back in the ‘60s.

Today, braids might not be viewed in the same way as they once were, but black hair will always be political. Whether you’re having the ‘don’t touch my hair’ debate, following a Twitter thread about the Kardashians’ latest appropriated hairstyle, or you’re bonding with friends and family over your latest ‘do’, the discussion will always be there, and sometimes it will be divisive. But steering the conversation back to what’s important is what really matters; that understanding the history of Afro hair is key.

Black hair is not a fashion, but a way of reclaiming an identity that was once stolen. So when you are next looking in the mirror and wishing away your ‘unmanageable’ hair, or you are asking a friend or colleague how long it takes for them to tame their wild mane, or you are considering how to contain your Afro for a job interview, think again; the Afro, in whichever form, is beautiful and rooted in a painful history that black people are still striving to overcome.

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