Black Assimilation Through Hair

Hair is an aspect of identity many women are made to confront. It is a projection of how a woman would like to be perceived and who she believes she is within her society. Black women in America face an interesting dilemma when it comes to hair. When African slaves were brought to America, they were confronted with the Eurocentric ideal of beauty, which, in addition to pale skin and Anglo Saxon facial structure, also included straightened hair.

As time progressed, black people sought new ways to assimilate. Throughout the course of time many hair straightening agents such as straightening irons, perms, and hair extensions have been used to help aid black people in mimicking the hairstyles of the socially accepted white standards. More black women than not began to perm their hair, in effort to fit in with what now, was not only a norm among the white community but also in black communities. The altering of natural hair became a norm of necessity.

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Already embodying an “otherness” that was rooted in their dark skin and that proved to be the initial separation from what was viewed as female, black women found an entryway into societal acceptance through the alteration of their hair to the majority’s favor. Soon, black women began to internalize these ideals themselves. The development of black assimilation through hair is a direct result of the internalization of white standards and the double conscious mind set of looking at one’s self through societal ideals. In the early 15th century, in Africa, various African cultures were represented through the hairstyles of its citizens.

Historically, afro-textured hairstyles were used to define status, or identity, in regards to age, ethnicity, wealth, social rank, marital status, religion, fertility, manhood, and even death. Hair was carefully groomed by those who understood the aesthetic standard as the social implications of hair grooming was a significant part of community life. Dense, thick, clean and neatly groomed hair was something highly admired and sought after. Hair groomers possessed unique styling skills allowing them to create a variety of designs that met the local cultural standards.

Hair worn in its loose state was not the norm, and usually left the impression that an individual was filthy, mentally unstable or in mourning. Hair had many uses in many societies everyday ways of living and communicating. However once slavery was enacted black hair lost its value in society. Once brought to the United States through the slave trade, slaves were discriminated against because of their looks by the whole U. S. population; slave owners in particular. Slave owners began to call black people and their hair derogatory names such as “wool” in order to dehumanize and “break” the slaves away from their African culture.

Whites favored lighter skinned more loosely coiled haired blacks over darker slaves with kinky hair to instill separation in the black community. Lighter slavers were often house slaves whose job was to tend to children, chores, and preparing meals for their masters’ family and guest. They were often given more in terms of privileges, such as freedom to style their hair, than the darker field slaves who stood in the sun for hours at a time planting and picking crops with no down time to relax or to tend to their hair.

Lighter slaves with curlier hair were often worth more at slave auctions which internalized color consciousness and promoted the idea that lighter straighter-haired slaves were more attractive and worth more than darker slaves with coarser hair. When slavery was emancipated and blacks were completely separated from their Traditional African cultures. Each generation of blacks born within the 400 years span of slavery was more broken down and accustomed to American civilization than the previous generations.

Once this social construct was instilled in society, blacks, living in a white supremacist nation, found that the only way to survive and succeed in society was to alter their features to conform into white culture. Once able, African American inventors began to invent hair straightening tools to help alter the natural state of their hair to become longer, straighter, and more Eurocentric to meet societal standards. The first hair straightening methods started to appear in the U. S. around the late 1800’s early 1900’s.

One of the first inventors was an African American Woman named Annie Turnbo Pope Malone, who obtained the first US patent for the hot comb. The hot comb was simply one of the ways Ms. Malone sought to improve the hair straightening practices and techniques used by African-Americans at the time. The hot comb was a metal comb that is heated on either a range top or burner to a temperature between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. By pulling the heated comb through the hair, the pressure applied during the combing process breaks down the hair fiber’s biochemical bonds. As the temperature diminishes, the bonds reconnect and keep the hair straight.

This process was not easy nor was it 100 percent safe. Hot combs tended to cause heat damage to hair and could burn the scalp if used incorrectly. It also was a very tedious task to hot comb the natural coarse nature of African American hair. However black women at the time would virtually do anything for straight hair and mostly ignored the risk of these items just to achieve this look. She studied hair textures for nearly a decade before developing her own line of products that were later marketed and sold door to door by trained saleswomen, one of which was Madam CJ Walker.

Walker later followed in the footsteps of Malone by creating her own line of hair care products and improving upon the design of the hot comb. Their businesses were booming at the time because of the high demand for straight hair. Both women became millionaires through the marketing of hair products and beauty techniques. Another famous African American inventor was Garret A. Morgan. He was the creator and inventor of the relaxer: a topical cream used to make African American hair more “manageable” (according to the white standard) by smoothing out the hair follicles in a way to force the naturally curled hair straight.

The idea for hair relaxers came from working on sewing machines in his workshop. He found that chemicals used to repair sewing machines relaxed the curls of kinky hair. His first live test subject was an Airedale dog, a breed that has naturally curly hair. The dog’s hair successfully uncurled. The same results occurred when he tested the chemicals on his own head. Once he discovered this he quickly established the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the cream to African Americans. Hair Refining Cream, sold under his newly formed G. A. Morgan Refining Company.

This marked the birth of the alkaline relaxer and the start of a revolution in the Black hair care market. However much Morgan contributed to African-American history, he never reached the heights attained by Madam C. J. Walker, who was known as the “de-kink queen. ” Madam Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957) were colleagues in a way. Malone was actually Madame Walker’s teacher and mentor who had founded a school in 1917 for training beauty culture specialists in the art of styling Black hair, as well as in the art of marketing and distributing the line of beauty products she manufactured.

The school claimed to have graduated as many as 75,000 people, who became agents located throughout the world. Madam Walker had been one of these agents and followed in Malone’s footsteps, building a similar empire that would hold its place in history. Shortly after, Malone’s empire collapsed from misdirected financial advice. Madam Walker’s widespread influence was the catalyst for the social changes that would give Black and White women alike a stronger voice in American society and business. Her contribution actually expanded the growing belief that women could also be major players in industry.

In her time, society saw women solely as wives and homemakers, but Walker’s determination to succeed in a man’s world was very well noted and that stance became a platform for other women to go into various businesses. Although Madame C. J. Walker is noted for having a positive impact on women and the black community as a whole, many researchers and historians believe that since her hair products loosened the natural curl of black hair, it changed the view that many African Americans had on their hair in a negative way.

Madam Walker’s hair care products were the first of their kind to be made especially for African-Americans, revolutionizing Black hair-styling practices by making tightly curled hair softer, shinier, and easier to comb. The five original products: Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, Temple Salve, Tetter Salve, Vegetable Shampoo, and Glossine became known as the “Walker System. ” Collectively, they were designed to cleanse the scalp and hair, heal scalp disease, and prevent balding, but were not intended to straighten hair.

Later, when Walker had her trained agents distribute these products as a kit with a hot comb included, her products became known as the “shampoo-press-and-curl Walker System. ” Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower was a pomade made of various oils and therapeutic sulfur and was a booming success. In combination with the pressing comb, the pomade may have been thought to have somewhat of a straightening effect due to its sulfur content. However, there was no scientific evidence that a possible reaction could have resulted in order to straighten hair in the presence of heat.

However the kit was sort of a figure head for women in the black community. Majority of the black population “press and curled” their hair straying away from their natural kinky curly hair. Societal assimilation was not only a fad in the black community but it also became a societal norm where more black women sported straight hair instead of their natural look. This proved black women’s double-conscious mind set in which they would see their hair as more beautiful and more manageable through the eyes of the white standards in society.

Although hatred from both black and white people towards natural black hair remained and thrived through the U. S. for years, there was suddenly a shift in the perception of black hair during the 1960’s black power movement when African Americans were encouraged to abandon white standards and return to their natural culture by wearing and afro. Kinky tightly coiled curly hair was given the term “nappy” which is usually associated with bad “hair”. Afros fall into the “nappy” category which is why many blacks wore them as a political force during this movement.

The Black Power movement turned popular fashion and aesthetics on end. In the 1930s, skin lighteners and hair straighteners were used by fashionable black women in an effort to look whiter. By the end of the 1960s, being proud of the African heritage dictated that afros and dark skin were desirable. As the afro’s popularity increased, the meaning of nappy hair came to mean more than a celebration of natural black beauty adopted by the Black Power movement; it was increasingly becoming synonymous with Black Power. According to Robin D. G.

Kelley, BPM group, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), believed that a complete denial of “western” values in favor of traditional African values was necessary in order to achieve liberation. Among the western values that liberationists were encouraged to reject was a white aesthetic as the beauty ideal. Kelley illustrates that RAM’s push for a denial of cultural and ideological oppression “also meant an end to processed hair, skin lighteners, and other symbols of mimicking the dominant culture. Undeniably, the revolution targeted not only assimilated “bourgeois” Negroes but their accomplices; barbers and beauticians. The advocacy of natural hair during the BPM, in correspondence with the movement’s transvaluative messages, encouraged a renewal of the mind in which blacks no longer believed their natural hair was inferior to the standard of straight hair. If natural hair was an evident symbol of transvaluation, from a Black Power perspective, straightened hair and those who straightened hair (barbers and beauticians) questioned their loyalty to the cause of black self-determination, as their hair-straightening seemed in direct opposition to the movement.

The life of world-renowned Black Power activist Angela Davis provides one example that complicates the fixed image of nappy hair as indistinguishable from black liberation politics. From Davis’s standpoint, liberation, and not just black liberation, was the key idea represented by her large, trademark natural afro. Marcus Garvey addressed straightened hair when he declared that blacks should “take these kinks out of your mind, instead of out of your hair,” criticizing the idea that “looking white” made blacks better people.

Not addressing hair in particular in his book “The Wretched of the Earth”, Frantz Fanon emphasized the need for black Africans to completely overturn the colonized identities instilled in them and to begin to conceptualize themselves as human beings with “inherent dignity” in order to attain freedom. , and Alice Walker suggests that processed hair is “oppressed” hair in “Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain. ” Despite the fact that natural hair is a growing phenomenon in American society today, it is still considered unprofessional and distracting in the work place.

This shift in women owning their natural looks has sparked a conversation on what is considered professional for Black women and their hair in the work environment. Is an afro considered professional? For generations hairstyles generally worn by African Americans like dread locs or braids have been considered unprofessional by the conservative workplace. Many candidates for a job have been either forced to change their style or not be considered for the job all. In 1971, Melba Tolliver, a WABC-TV correspondent, made national headlines when she wore an afro while covering a high-profile wedding.

The station threatened to take Tolliver off of the air. In 1981, Dorothy Reed, a reporter and ABC affiliate in San Francisco, was suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows with beads on the ends. KGO Radio called her hairstyle “inappropriate and distracting. ” In August 2007, during a presentation on the “Dos and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion,” a junior staffer from Glamour Magazine made negative remarks about black women’s natural hairstyles in the workplace, calling them “shocking,” “inappropriate” and “political. These events all prove that African American hairstyles, or any hair style opposing to the white standard, are still viewed negatively despite the “equality” the African Americans have supposedly achieved in society today. Most women in the work place smooth their hair back into ponytails, or wear their hair straightened in order to appear “professional” and “well-kept. ” Today many people have made the switch from straight to natural hair and the movement has gained supporters both white and black. However, there is still many black women who have perms and view their natural hair as unappealing and undesirable.

For decades, many black women have been forced to choose sides between kinky and straight hair styles. Whether we recognize it or not, black women are divided into two sides: one side which supports natural hair and the other side which supports relaxed or weaved hair. Within these two groups, there are a surplus of reasons for choosing to stay natural or go straight. For instance, some natural hair supporters believe to be black is to be natural and we should not change and conform to the look of another race.

Others choosing to stay natural simply have a fear in adding chemicals to their hair because of the many side effects. These are just two examples of the variety of reasons for choosing to go natural. On the other hand, an overwhelming percentage of the unnatural, straight hair supporters wear their hair straight because they don’t like the natural look of their hair and some just because they like the look of weaves and perms more. There are also cases in which women agree with both. Some women wear weaves occasionally and other times wear their hair natural.

According to one industry study, sales of chemical straightening kits, which can be harmful, reportedly dropped by 17 percent between 2006 and 2011, proving that more black women were abandoning perms and relaxers and going natural. The black hair market is a multi-billion dollar business which includes both unnatural and natural products. Both sides of the sales today are close to being equal showing that there are various opinions on how hair should be worn. In my opinion black hair is beautiful and should not be PERMANANTLY altered.

Since society had changed and adapted a new way of viewing black culture I believe that temporary straightening of the hair is more-so a choice of style not conformity, however I do not agree with perms and hair weaves because they totally strip black women on their hair identity. Throughout history African Americans have forcefully and willingly assimilated into America’s societal norms through hair. Though slavery and black discrimination plays a huge role in the disclaiming of natural kinky black hair, today’s society still reflects some hatred for black hair.

Once straightening agent such as hot combs, relaxers, and weaves were introduced into the culturally broken black community, it seemed as if there would be no returning to the natural state of black hair. Until the 1960’s Black Power Movement sparked self-acceptance in the black community creating an opposition in conformity through hair. And though today relaxed hair and weave is very apparent, the uprising of a natural hair movement is proving true and evident acceptance and love of black people for themselves and their culture.

Works Cited
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Baraka, Amiri. “The Need for a Cultural Base to Civil Rites & Bpower Mooments.” 1967. Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965. New York: Random House, 1971. 39-47.

Belcher, Lynda. “The History of the Hot Comb”. January 16, 2010 Copyright 1999-2010

Black Power. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2013, from U.S. History website: http://www.ushistory.org/us/54i.asp

Black Radicals. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2013, from Black website: http://www.blackradicalcongress.org/black-radicals.html

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Brooks, Gwendolyn. “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals.” Primer for Blacks. Chicago: Brooks Press, 1980. 12-13.

Clifton, Lucille. “Homage to My Hair.” 1980. The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women’s Literature. Ed. Valerie Lee. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. 277.

Davis, Angela Y. “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia.” Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 37-45.
—. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974.

Dr. Angela Davis Reflect on The Black Power Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved May

9, 2013, from pbs.org website: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/dr-angela-davis-reflects-on-the-black-power-movement

Kelley, Robin D. G. “Nap Time: Historicizing the Afro.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 1.4 (1997): 339-52.

Tate, S. (2007). Black beauty: Shade, hair and anti-racist aesthetics. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30, 2, 300-319

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