Don’t Touch My Hair Pt. I: The Historical and Cultural Significance Behind Black Natural Hair

Leah is a 4th year English Law and French Law student at King’s College London, currently studying in Paris. She loves language: currently studying Arabic and Spanish, she hopes to immerse herself in a range of cultures through literature and music. She hopes to explore feminism through an intersectional perspective, especially in law and human rights, as even though equality is a fundamental legal principle, it is rarely reflected in practice.

[Featured Image: The profile of a woman with braided hair, wearing traditional orange, yellow, and white jewellery].

Just about everything about a person’s identity can be learned by looking at their hair” – Lori Tharps. 

This 3-part blog series explores the history of natural black hair, changing social conceptions around its beauty, and the current development of the beauty industry in reaction to this progression.

Historical Conceptions

Afro hair comes in different colours, lengths and textures. It can be kinky or curly; black, brown or ginger; hang down past the ankles or be shaved short. For many communities across Africa and the Caribbean, its malleability and styling potential has lead its wearers to use it as a medium to express identity, culture, and status. In tribal culture; headdresses, beads, feathers, and even coins are entwined into the hair in varying styles to represent different stages of life: birth, marriage, and celebration; war, death, and mourning. Styling can also bear religious significance; such as for Rastafarians who twist it into dreadlocks as a way to preserve strength, health and spirituality.

Yet, as African slavery became a part of Western society, natural hair was viewed with suspicion – as an element of resistance against enslavement. Very early on, it became was clear to slave owners that such designs and styles carried personal and cultural significance to enslaved people, so it was shaved off, as an act of dehumanisation and total dominance. Yet, across slave plantations, enslaved people began to use cornrows as maps of plantations – as a way to plan and communicate escape routes. Later on, as enslaved people were liberated, Europeans held a double conception towards their hair: an awe, of its elaborate and intricate styling – so they put freed slaves into human zoos to display it; but also a repugnance, of its gravity-defying nature and enchanting effect on men – so they outlawed its display in public. 

Modern Western Conceptions

In the last century, black hair has made appearances and disappearances in style and popular culture. 

Perhaps the symbol of the 60s and 70s funk era, the round afros of the Jackson 5, Angela Davis, and Jimi Hendrix were an element of the Black is Beautiful movement – as an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. In this way, individuals were able to connect to a larger, political purpose, through embracing and expressing identity through their natural hair. However, the natural Afro soon began to lose its political significance, and was reduced to a fashion trend – destined to fade out of popularity as early as the 80s. Of course, some people still wore their natural hair, but it was no longer viewed as a component of a Western-wide political movement.

Soon after, without the same political significance as it once carried, natural hair became the subject and target of discrimination in all areas of society. In schools, at work, even in the armed forces, natural hair is viewed as ‘unprofessional’, ‘messy’, and is often expressly banned. More recently, stories have spread through the media of students being sent home from school, prospective employees denied job opportunities, or soldiers being fired from the army due to natural hairstyles such as Afros or cornrows.

Through the global reach of social media, campaigning has reached international proportions. Perhaps the biggest story, kick-starting the movement, was of Zulaikha Patel: a 13-year-old student at Pretoria Girl’s High, South Africa; at the forefront of a campaign against the school’s policy that banned a variety of Afro hair styles. This movement spread across the globe, with US states such as New York and California officially prohibiting discrimination over natural hair in employment; and in the UK, where a London student, with support of the ECHR, won a £8,500 lawsuit for racial discrimination against her school, having repeatedly sent her home for wearing her natural hair.

These developments, rooted from tribal culture and spread across the modern world, show that Afro hair is more than a cosmetic accessory: it is art, it is history, it is identity. The following parts of this series will address the rise in the natural hair movement: how black people across the globe are coming to embrace their natural hair, and the effect this development is having on the beauty industry as a whole.  

Images (from left to right)

1: Africa Adorned!

2: Africans Used To Hide Escape Maps From Slavery In Their Hairstyles

3: South African students protest against school’s alleged racist hair policy

Works Cited:

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