The Culture of Black Hair
Black hair care is a multi-billion dollar industry and has been for a long time. Market research firm Mintel estimated the size of the 2012 black hair market at $684 million. More recently Mintel has said that without factoring in products such as hair accessories, wigs or electric styling products the black hair care industry is valued at more than $2.5 billion.
Did you know that black hair care was a major industry? I bet if you have ever walked into an urban beauty supply store marketed at the black community, you would have seen a plethora of products, tools, accessories, and nick-nacks lining the walls from the floor to the ceiling and overflowing rows and rows of shelves. To be honest, it is easily an overwhelming experience. But that is not were the experience starts, or where it has ever started. The retailers are just a small peg in the black hair care machine and culture.
Let’s unpack some of this. I want to start with some history. Early Africans used hair styling as a form of nonverbal communication. The intricate hairstyles could represent the area of origin, tribe, status in the tribe, wealth, age, marriage status and many other important factors in their community. The hairstyles included braids, twists, thread wrapping, locs, knots, specific partings, and adornments. The styles would take a lot of time and effort to install and so the styling sessions also became apart of the social scene.
Then came the slave trade. The Trans-Atlantic trade brought Africans by the hundreds to the American shores. The African brought what bits and pieces of their culture they could with them. As slaves their resources and time were limited. Hair care and styling could no longer be such an integral part of their day to day life. They were forced to use scraps and waste to care for their hair. Yet, their creativity did not die. Many slaves would include maps to freedom or safety in their hair styling, and/or seeds in the braids to be used for survival at later times.
During slavery white owners started to inflict negative perceptions of black hair on black people. As apart of the dehumanizing process black hair was called “Wool”, and locs were referred to as a “dreaded” style. Along with natural hair being attacked with hate, so was the darker skin. Slave owners would rape the slaves and then pin their offspring against their darker peers by making judgments on the differences in hair texture and skin color. The bi-racial slaves were given more preference because of their proximity to white beauty standards. The lighter skin slaves with smoother hair were sold for higher amounts, given less harsh jobs, and given jobs that oversaw the darker slaves. This was the beginning of color-ism.
Post slavery black people had a very hard time. While technically they were free, nothing in this society was conducive to them living a comfortable or successful life. They were literally grappling at any chance to fulfill their basic needs and be seen as human. One way to be accepted more readily was to change their hair to styles that were less offensive to white people. If white people were not offended, the black person may have a chance to earn a little money to take care of their family. The women started to use metal combs heated in fires on the stove, and harsh chemicals to smooth and straighten their hair. In 1954 Johnson Products Company even came out with a product to permanently straighten black men’s hair called the Ultra Wave Hair Culture.
The pressure to look white and be accepted by whites was so heavy that some of our nation's first black millionaires earned their money in the black hair care industry. By the end of World War 1 Annie Malone, the creator of Poro College and Poro hair products was one of the first black millionaires, and one of the most successful black women of her time. Later came the well known Madam C.J. Walker, with her line. Millionaires in the black hair care industry during that time recycled their money back into their communities by investing in education opportunities for black people, homes for black children children, employing their peers, providing funding for community centers and overall improving the plight of their people.
By the 1960’s a natural hair movement began. The afro was a popular way of black people showing their own acceptance of wearing their natural hair and not using harsh, damaging chemicals anymore. The civil rights movement was in full force and adhering to eurocentric beauty standards was not looked at as confirming the message of black power and equal rights.
Although black people have continued the push for acceptance in this society, we are still met with equally powerful resistance. How black hair naturally grows out of the scalp is still deemed as unprofessional, unfit, neglected and the likes. The healthiest and most appropriate styles for our texture, like braids, are banned in certain places. Our hair continues to be treated as a barrier to our success and at the same time it is coveted and stolen to be worn as a trend by people of other ethnicities. In the 1980's, the Hyatt hotel chain terminated black female employees who wore cornrows. In the 1990's FedEx couriers were fired if they had dreadlocks. Today it is legal in some states to not hire a person who has locs. At schools, black children are being told their natural hair is a dress code violation, a distraction in the classroom, and a valid reason to not be admitted. The military did not become more inclusive to black hairstyles until 2014. But there was Bo Derrek in 1979, and there is Kim K. currently and consistently wearing styles created and intended for black hair care.
So with so much turmoil, and strife comes great needs and an opportunity for great profits. Black people not only need to take care of their hair because it is the healthy thing to do, and it adds to self confidence, they need to take care of their hair to be seen and treated as a human. Hair care opens doors to opportunities that would otherwise be intangible. Being able to straighten your hair can mean you get the job that pays enough to feed and house your family. Having braids could mean that you have the time and flexibility to work the two lower paying jobs that is needed to make ends meet for you. Having a ‘fro or twist out could mean you have the luxury of living in an area that is accepting and supportive of the black community. Here we are hundreds of years later and our hair is still such a huge part of our nonverbal communication.
Although our hair may not denote which tribe our family is from, or our marital status, it is still sending messages out into the world about who we see ourselves as, how we live, and our heritage. It is still a source of wealth, both monetarily and in intangible ways. And everybody is cashing in on it!
That billion dollar industry at its core was created by hate and greed and is still fed to this day by much of the same qualities, but it is also built upon creativity, resilience, love, and perseverance. Slowly, black Americans are reclaiming our space in the financial side of the black hair care culture. One by one black people are collecting the capital to start our own hair care lines again, and our own beauty supply stores in our communities. We are starting to take hair care money and reinvest it in opportunities for our peers in our communities again. Little black girls are seeing more positive images of black girls and women with hair like their own in pop culture. They are seeing doctors, news anchors, lawyers, and politicians showing up as their true self that god created. At a snail's pace the culture of black hair is also reshaping the culture of America, but every little step matters, right?