From the birth of ‘good hair vs. bad hair’ in the 1700s through to Michelle Obama wearing her hair natural, here are eight standout moments in Black hair history to remember.
There’s a reason why hair is such an integral part of Black history and heritage. Though complex, the evolution of afro hair and its impact on society through time tells a story within itself, a story that speaks volumes about the Black experience and identity.
Established in the early years of African civilisation, many famous styles like braids, twists and dreadlocks were used to symbolise a person’s tribe, social status and family background. Though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of creation, they were celebrated and worn with pride on both men and women for centuries, becoming the ultimate way to identify someone upon first glance.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in the 15th century – which stripped the continent of its valuables, its rich cultures and enslaved its people – that afro hair, from kinks and coils to curly textures, as well as Black features and the Black body were ridiculed, dehumanized and ‘othered’ in comparison to European beauty standards. Much like many other aspects of the Black experience, the impact of the violent white gaze was significant to the Black hair journey. However, much has been done by Black communities around the world to not only reclaim and champion traditional afro hair styles and create many new ones along the way, but also influence the world with the power of Black hair styles whilst at it.
Here are just a few of the many historic moments within the journey of Black hair in all its beautiful forms…
1770s: The birth of ‘Good Hair’ vs. ‘Bad Hair’
As the slave trade began and millions of African slaves were sold to help colonise America, Black hair was dehumanised and described as ‘wool’ by white people. According to several readings, this is when the term ‘good hair’ was first established, creating a damaging narrative that would shape the way Black hair was viewed for centuries to come. ‘Good hair’ was associated with caucasian textures: softer, smoother, lighter, longer. Meanwhile Black hair textures were considered ‘bad’.
1800s: The ‘Hot Comb’ was created
Despite slavery ‘officially’ coming to an end in the United States in 1865 following the birth of the 13th Amendment in America, stigmas surrounding Black people and their hair continued to grow. So much so that the first ‘hot comb’, or electric straightening comb as we’d call it today, was invented by French hair stylist Francois Marcel Grateau in 1872.
At the time, it was simply a heated metal comb that was designed to straighten and smooth kinky and coarse afro hair textures, starting from the roots upwards. While many women, including white women, used hot combs to straighten their hair for various reasons, the tool gave Black women the chance to have the so-called ‘good hair’ they were taught they didn’t have. Straight hair was not only deemed more attractive, but it elevated a woman’s personal, social and economic status and could even result in more opportunities for success.
1900s: The Annie Malone and Madame CJ Walker era
Madam CJ Walker is not only a historic figure for her contribution to Black hair care, but for being the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. However, as anyone who has watched Netflix’s TV adaptation of her life, starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer will know, Walker’s road to success was controversial.
She started off working for a fellow African American woman named Annie Turnbo Malone, who was the original pioneer of the hair product Walker would go on to receive fame and fortune from. Malone, who was born and raised in Metropolis, Illinois, spent years witnessing the detrimental impact of slave labour, weather conditions and the lack of hair care products for afro textures had on Black women in the south. Many suffered with scalp conditions such as heavy dandruff and alopecia, among other diseases as a result, which inspired Malone to create an afro hair care range to help Black women improve their grooming habits to achieve healthier hair. Malone launched a successful hair care range after experimenting with different chemicals and ultimately created a formula for her most famous product, the ‘Hair Grower’, a product that was designed to improve scalp health and promote hair growth.
In the 1902s, Malone moved from Illinois to Missouri where she founded the Poro College – a cosmetics school that became a training hub for nurturing and styling Black hair. Malone hired a group of women across the US as her ‘Poro agents’ who were all taught to not only sell her products, but let in on her special methods for nourishing the scalp. Madam CJ Walker was one of the first Poro agents, and after Malone’s business went into decline, she decided to launch her own hair care range in 1905. According to Walker’s biography, On Her Own: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, she came up with the formula for her own hair grower through a dream. In 1908, she moved from Denver, Colorado (where she had relocated from St. Louis a few years prior) to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she opened a factory and hair school named Leila College. Her beauty empire grew rapidly, revolutionising the press and curl hairstyle and in 1910, she was recognised as American’s first female self-made millionaire in The Guinness Book of World Records.
1909: Garret A. Morgan creates the relaxer
While Madam CJ Walker revolutionised Black hair care with many of her products, Garrett A. Morgan, an African American sewing machine repairman from Kentucky, is credited for creating the first chemical relaxer – a hair treatment that permanently straightens afro hair. His invention came in 1909, inspired by a method used to reduce needle friction on wool. It was then developed further by George E. Johnson in 1956, who aimed the product at men before creating a version for women. It was a huge success, with the relaxer constantly in demand.
Late 1960s: The impact of the Black Power Movement
The Civil Rights movements sparked a new lease of hope and unity among African Americans as they fought for social justice in America from the mid-1950s to the 1960s. However, after a decade of protesting and demanding equal rights under the law, many young Black men and women grew frustrated with the lack of results by the late 1960s, with many believing that the protests failed to address not only the poverty, but also the powerlessness that generations of systemic discrimination and racism had imposed on African Americans.
As an alternative, they launched the Black Power Movement. Inspired by the teachings of Malcom X, whose ideals grew even more popular following his assassination in 1965, the Black Power Movement was rooted in racial pride, autonomy and self-determination. It brought a new era in the fight for social justice as it encouraged Black people to reclaim their erased heritage and celebrate their identity and beauty whilst focusing on building their own Black economy, social and political power. Many members of movement wore their natural hair out in an afro, embracing their natural textures for the first time. The hairstyle quickly became known as a symbol of Black power and defiance with activists like Angela Davis, Nina Simone, and Nikki Giovanni at the forefront, wearing it as a radical statement of pride.
1970s: Black hair is celebrated in mainstream media for the first time
In 1972, Black model and Actress Cicely Tyson (who some of us will know recognise as Annalise’s mother in Viola Davis’ hit ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder) wore cornrows on a magazine cover, as well on US TV series East Side/West Side. It was a huge cultural moment as it marked the start of celebrating Black beauty and traditional African hairstyles in the mainstream. This was emphasised on a wider scale two years later when model Beverly Johnson became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue in 1974.
The late ‘70s also brought about a new Black hair trend, the jheri curl – a style promoting curly hair with defined ringlets rather than kinks. It created a new way for both Black men and women to style their hair, making a huge mark on pop culture with many celebrities and prominent figures making the jheri curl their signature look. Its popularity continued well into the ‘80s with Michael Jackson sporting jheri curls on the cover of his album Thriller and Eddie Murphy wearing the style in cult movie, Coming to America.
1990s: The rise of Black pop culture influences beauty standards
The 90s were a golden era for Black culture with the launch of many iconic sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, Moesha and Sister Sister to name a few. The shows made waves in not only the representation of Black people, but created positive narratives around Black families, whilst celebrating their beauty both internally and externally. Black women on the shows would confidently wear a variety of hairstyles, from cornrows, braids and twists, to perms and wigs. They made Black hair ‘cool’ to their mainstream audience whilst inspiring young Black women to wear their hair with pride.
Long box braids became the trendiest hairstyle after Janet Jackson wore them in her 1993 movie, Poetic Justice. Meanwhile, the music industry was another force for change thanks to the growing Hip Hop scene. In the late 90s, Lauryn Hill graced the cover of Time magazine in dreadlocks and was voted one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 1999.
2010s: Michelle Obama and the revival of embracing natural hair
After two decades of Black women sporting a multitude of hairstyles and the growth of wigs, weaves, keratin treatments and other chemical hair procedures, a new natural hair movement is revived in 2017 with Michelle Obama at the helm. The former First Lady wore her hair straight for the eight years she was in office, but a few months after leaving the White House in January 2017, Michelle was spotted wearing her natural hair out in public for the first time. The moment sparked a wider conversation about the ongoing stigmas around Black hair not only in the US but the UK, and reaffirmed previous comments by author Chimamanda Ngzoi Adichie, who had explained to Channel 4 News in 2014, that the First lady wearing her natural hair during her husband Barack Obama’s election would have cost him the presidency.
Many were inspired by Michelle, expressing the importance of seeing a high profile Black figure wearing their hair naturally. Soon after, a worldwide #naturalhair journey trend started on social media with many women making the decision to embrace their natural hair textures and make a habit of wearing their hair in its natural state, unapologetically. Black British influencers like Laila Amakye Mensah (known as @neffyfrofro), who documented her natural hair journey whilst providing advice and product recommendation for Afro hair textures on YouTube and Instagram, paved the way for many more to come.
Late 2010s - The launch of World Afro Day in the UK
As celebrities and Black influencers in both the US and the UK continued to champion natural hair, Black Brit Michelle De Leon created World Afro Day in 2017 - an annual celebration of afro hair. Described as a “global day of change, celebration and education of afro hair,” the initiative was endorsed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights with many mainstream outlets supporting the annual day.
This new era also welcomed a whole host of Black hair products designed to nourish, nurture and style afro hair textures, with hair care brands like Cantu and Shea Moisture finally being stocked in major retailers like Boots and Superdrug. Plenty of other independent and sustainable Black hair care brands then launched including Afrocenchix, Charlotte Mensah, BOUCLÈME and Dizziak among others.