African-American hair

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Black hair and Black hairstyles are the diverse ways that Black men and women style their hair. Because many black people have hair with tighter and smaller curls than people of other races, unique hair styles have developed. In addition to this, many black hairstyles have historical connections to African cultures.

African origins[edit]

Since the beginning of African civilizations, hairstyles have been used to convey messages to greater society. As early as the 15th century, different styles could "indicate a person's marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community."[1]

Hair maintenance in traditional Africa was aimed at creating a sense of beauty. "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", wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone.[2]

In Yoruba culture in West Africa, people braided their hair to send messages to the gods. The hair is the most elevated part of the body and was therefore considered a portal for spirits to pass through to the soul. Because of the cultural and spiritual importance of hair for Africans, the practice of having their heads involuntarily shaved before being sold as slaves was in itself a dehumanizing act. "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." [2]


Black hairstyles have transformed over time, but their origins are rooted in purpose and livelihood. Before there were boundaries dividing Africa into states and countries through colonization, the continent was divided into kingdoms.[3] Ancient African custom was for those who inhabited the kingdoms were a part of complex system of tribe and clan affiliations that were unique to their identity and personhood. During the 15th century, the way in which clan members wore their hair has a multitude of means. It was used as messaging system to communicate within and outside of their clan to convey their associations.[4] Hair was biography tell a person’s age, martial status, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, surname, health status and geographic origin.[5] One example is dreadlocks.

Dreadlocks from the Himba tribe of Northwestern Namibia indicates one’s age, life stage, and marital status. The tribe lives in the northwestern region of Namibia. A combination of ground ochre, goat hair, and butter are used as well as hair extensions when weaving to styling their dreadlocks.[4] This hairstyle has several meanings that communicate information women of the tribe specifically. Dreadlocks worn down in their front of the face represent girls going through puberty while dreadlocks tied back are worn by women looking to marry, in order to show their face. Erembe headdresses are a symbol of status worn by new mothers and married women.[4]

Hair was a marker of what clan someone belonged to and the styling was only entrusted to relatives for fear of enemies bring ill-will to the person. Hair was considered divine because was it at the top if the head so for someone to touch it they must be loyal to you.[4] Members of the Wolof, Mende, Mandinka, Yoruba, Funlani, Igbo, and Ashanti all had different hairstyles that communicated who they were that connected them to their people, culture, history, and heritage.[6] Those same tribes were dismantled and dispersed when the Middle Atlantic Slave Trade began.

When Europeans infiltrate Africa and Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas in the early 1600s, slave captures and sellers shaved the heads of all African women, men, and children.[5] The claimed purpose for this action was for sanitary reasons, to avoid inevitable carry and spread of germs and inspects that could cause sickness and death. Nonetheless shaving their heads stripped them of a lifeline to their home and a connection to their people who arrived before them. Their language was taken away and they were unable to identify with others from their tribe.[7]

Once their hair began to grow back, plaits, braids, and cornrows were the most convenient hairstyle for slaves to do that would have their hair neat and maintained for a week. On Sundays, some masters allowed their slaves to have some time to themselves to prepare for the week of labor coming.[7] They would braid each other’s hair using grease or oil they had available, like kerosene. Cornrows were given its name by slaves who thought the style resembled rows of corn in the field.[7] Other slaves, in Central and Southern America and the Caribbean call them cane rows because they resembled sugarcane fields.[8] This hairstyle was useful for the livelihood of slaves. Braid patterned became symbols for freedom. Different styles and patterns were used as guide to plantations, resembling roads and paths to travel or avoid.[8]

After slavery[edit]

"Hair straighteners 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" (Rooks 1998: 177). At the time, wig manufacturers were the only companies that advertised an African-American standard of beauty.[9]

In Winold Reiss's "Brown Madonna", the Virgin Mother is shown with straight hair. Painted toward the beginning of the New Negro movement in 1925, the work showcased the sense of racial pride popular during the 1920s and 1930s. This classically White symbol of purity and virtue was created with dark skin, asserting the value and respectability of the Black race.[10]

This was a time when Blacks were creating their own successes in society and staking out a niche in the northern cities such as Chicago and Harlem in New York. Part of their personal success at this time, however, was their perceived ability to assimilate, which is portrayed by Reiss's mother's unnaturally straight hair. Painted lines seem to radiate from the mother's body, giving her an ethereal and heavenly affect. This type of figure — one with straight hair — was revered by Blacks of the time and suggested an example to follow.[11]

Throughout history, blacks have been pressured to subject themselves to Eurocentric beauty standards. Media portrayed white women with straight hair as the beauty ideal, which pressured other women to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards such as straightening hair and bleaching skin.[12]

Civil Rights era[edit]

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.[13]

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).[14]

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.[15]

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"[13] 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.[16][17]


A man with cornrows

Hip Hop culture in the 1980s created a slew of new trends, one being the "fade" for men. The fade is a hairstyle worn predominantly by black men in which the hair starts off short at the bottom and lengthens as it reaches the top. This style afforded the wearer an opportunity for individuality, as people often cut designs into the back and sides or added different colors to the top [2]

Hip Hop also had an influence on young black women, who now could look to the popular musical artists on TV and album covers for inspiration. Asymmetric cuts like wedges, stacks or finger curls were popular during this time. All of these styles required some form of hair straightening. After the 1970s, men and women tended to turn away from the all-natural looks and began creating their own variety of individualized looks.[2]

Hair styling in African-American culture is greatly varied. African-American hair is typically composed of tightly coiled curls. The predominant styles for women involve the straightening of the hair through the application of heat or chemical processes.[18] In many cases today, the overuse of heat and chemicals has left some African-American women with fairly short and damaged hair.[19] These treatments form the base for the most common socially acceptable hairstyles in the United States. Alternatively, the predominant and most socially acceptable practice for men is to leave one's hair natural.[20]

Often, as men age and begin to lose their hair, the hair is either closely cropped, or the head is shaved completely free of hair. However, since the 1960s, natural hairstyles, such as the afro, cornrows, and dreadlocks, have been growing in popularity. Despite their association with civil rights-oriented political movements, the styles have attained considerable, but certainly limited, social acceptance.[21] Another style, waves, is closely associated with the do-rag, a cloth used to maintain the ripple-like pattern of compressed curls. It has gained popularity on social media and was referenced in the television show Atlanta.[22]

African-American women may learn to adapt to Caucasian standards of beauty, which includes straight hair. Many African-American women have chemically processed or heat processed their hair to straighten it.[23]

Celebrities such as Justin Bieber have been accused of cultural appropriation for wearing African-American hairstyles.[24] Other celebrities accused for copying black hairstyles is Kylie Jenner and Katy Perry.[25][26]

Military bans[edit]

In 2014, there was a new ban in the United States Army of mostly Black hairstyles.[27] This 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 into a neat pony tail.[27]

Facial hair[edit]

Maintaining facial hair is more prevalent among African-American men than in other male populations in the U.S.[28] In fact, the soul patch is so named because African-American men, particularly jazz musicians, popularized the style.[29] 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.[30]

Popular culture[edit]

The Afro-American culture is increasingly embracing natural hair, contributing much to society and media. Such as in art, music, poetry, and other forms of media. From textile artist Sonya Clark, singer Solange Knowles, poet Maya Angelou, and actress Lupita Nyong'o.[31] Also on social media there is an uprising of natural YouTube channels, and blogs. The natural hair community has grown so much they even have their own vocabulary and acronyms. Including in all these different forms of media they are embraced their natural hair, skin, and being. The Natural hair movement is different from the black pride movement. The Natural hair phenomena have grown greatly. Black women are striving to be healthier, in putting less chemical process product in their hair and through consumption, which is providing nutrients to the hair .[32] In the documentary Good Hair, Chris Rock, an American comedian, 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."[33]


Filmmaker Bayer Mack looks at the history of African-American hair care in his 2019 documentary, No Lye: An American Beauty Story, which chronicles the rise and decline of the black-owned ethnic beauty industry.[34]


  1. ^ Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin's, 2001, p. 2.
  2. ^ a b c d Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
  3. ^ "Western Africa - The fall of the African kingdoms". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  4. ^ a b c d Matshego, Lebo (2020-01-25). "A History Of African Women's Hairstyles". Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  5. ^ a b "A Brief History Of Black Hair Braiding And Why Our Hair Will Never Be A Pop Culture Trend". Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  6. ^ Rodriguez, Cheryl (July 2003). "Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America:Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America". Transforming Anthropology. 11 (2): 64–65. doi:10.1525/tran.2003.11.2.64. ISSN 1051-0559.
  7. ^ a b c "Respect Our Roots: A Brief History Of Our Braids". Essence. Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  8. ^ a b "How cornrows were used as an escape map from slavery across South America". Face2Face Africa. 2018-06-05. Retrieved 2020-04-29.
  9. ^ Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Pres, 1998. Print.
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  13. ^ a b Sieber, Roy, and Frank Herreman, eds. Hair in African Art and Culture. New York: Museum for African Art and Prestel, 2000. Print.
  14. ^ Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin's, 2001. Print.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Williams, April (2018). "My Hair Is Professional Too: A Case Study and Overview of Laws Pertaining to Workplace Grooming Standards and Hairstyles Akin to African Culture". Southern Journal of Policy and Justice. 12: 141.
  17. ^ Reidy, Steven; Kanigiri, Meher (2016-10-01). "How are Ethnic Hairstyles Really Viewed in the Workplace?". Student Works.
  18. ^ Byrd, Ayana; Tharps, Lori (January 12, 2002). Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-312-28322-9. Retrieved 2007-10-14.
  19. ^ Khan, Amina (12 April 2011). "Girl, think twice before getting a weave!". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 25 October 2017.
  20. ^ "Tips for African American Women Regarding Hair Loss". Retrieved 2014-12-03.
  21. ^ "African American Hairstyles". Dickinson College. Archived from the original on 2008-07-31. Retrieved 2007-10-14.
  22. ^ Garcia, Sandra E. (2018-05-14). "The Durag, Explained". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-05-30.
  23. ^ Patton, Tracey. "Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2014-05-07. Retrieved 2014-05-07.
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ a b Cooper, Helene. "Army's Ban on Some Popular Hairstyles Raises Ire of Black Female Soldiers". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-07.
  28. ^ Lacy, D. Aaron.The Most Endangered Title VII Plaintiff?: African-American Males and Intersectional Claims." Nebraska Law Review, Vol. 86, No. 3, 2008, pp. 14–15. Retrieved 11-08-2007.
  29. ^ Green, Penelope."Ranting; Stubble trouble", The New York Times, November 8, 2007. Retrieved 11-08-2007.
  30. ^ Lacy, op. cit.
  31. ^ Andrews, Jessica. "How natural is too natural ?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-07.
  32. ^ Patton, Tracey (Summer 2006). "Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair". NWSA Journal. 18 (2): 24–51. doi:10.2979/nws.2006.18.2.24.[permanent dead link]
  33. ^ Good Hair. Dir. Jeff Stilson. Perf. Chris Rock. HBO Films, 2009, film.