“Ehhh why she walking around looking like a slave?” Historicizing fros in the US

On a rainy day, I entered a Supermarket looking for tomatoes and who knows what I usually end up picking up on the way. While examining what tomatoes I would put in the plastic bag next, I overheard these two black girls walking past me saying “ehh why she walking around looking like a slave?” Now you may ask, “How do you know they were talking about you?” The answer is I don’t know if the comment were made about my African features or the natural state of my hair evoking slavery. This then for me raises the question of why I thought their comment was directed at my kinky tresses. I, like many other black people in Africa and the Diaspora had unknowingly internalized this idea of our natural state representing inferiority.

For the purpose of this presentation and paper, I will focus on black women and men in the US. Most African Americans are descendants from slaves from West Africa. In this post I will focus on the history of black hair in North America and the next post will be about the theory I will apply to it.

Before slavery, there were many beautiful hairstyles, tools/combs and oil used by black men and women to beautify their hair. During slavery, they were over worked and most did not have much time for their hair and most of them would usually cover it with a rag. Some used braids to help with the upkeep of their hair. After slave ships stopped arriving in 1800s, the lives of slaves were worth more so some of the women were given time off on Sunday. This gave them the opportunity to do their hair on Sundays. There was still a lack of hair products and the internalization of the idea of “good hair” being straight and “bad hair” being kinky. Also, house slaves and free blacks usually looked white and had “good hair.” After the civil war, although slaves were freed, the chains of their enslaved past expressed as the idea of good hair as they saw those with said hair in the upper echelon of the black society. (Source: http://abagond.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/black-womens-hair-a-brief-history-1400-1900/)

In addition, the commercial establishments like barbershops and salons that sprung up to provided hair care needs to black men and women. It was preceded by the kitchen beauty shops (where black women provided hair service in their homes/kitchen). These businesses have served great socio-economic function in the black community. The hair care market also exploded due to the way black people were wearing their hair. Madame C.J. Walker who was a beauty mogul in the 1900s was a pioneer in black hair care and created many products for black hair care. She is important in the history of black hair care because it represents a time when a black woman was in charge of the production of hair care products for black hair care. Now, most producers of black hair care are not black but big companies in the US or China. In the 1960’s the “Afro” became popular with the black is beautiful movement/concept. This movement continues in the ‘80s with the resurgence of West African braiding styles. Although relaxers were created in 1913, they gained popularity at the end of the twentieth century. The relaxer business is huge and there are varieties, the milder kinds are usually reserved for children. (Sources: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-hair-care-and-culture-story and http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-hair-care-and-culture-story )

In the present, with the natural hair movement many black women have embraced their natural tresses (from kinky to curly) but others still relax and straighten their hair.

Here is an interesting short movie and  music video and I found on YouTube on natural hair.

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My next post will be on the theoretical aspect of my case study.

Asana Hamidu


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