Afro-textured Hair - History - The United States - Abolition of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Abolition of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

After the 1860s some African-Americans continued to straighten their hair in order to conform with white beauty ideals. In early Euro-American society, black women adopted the social behavior of their white counterparts in order to thrive, or merely to avoid mistreatment and legal and social discrimination. Some women, and a smaller number of men, lightened their hair with household bleach. A variety of caustic products that contained bleaches, including laundry bleach, designed to resolve afro-textured hair, became available following emancipation (between the late 1890s and the early 20th century). More prevalent became the use of creams and lotions, combined with hot irons, in order to straighten the hair.

The black hair care industry was initially dominated by white-owned businesses. Entrepreneurs Annie Turbo Malone, Madam C. J. Walker, Madam Gold S.M. Young, Sara Spencer Washington and Garrett Augustus Morgan revolutionized African American hair care by inventing and marketing chemical (and heat-based) applications to alter the natural tightly curled texture. In 1898, Anthony Overton founded a hair care company that offered saponified coconut shampoo and AIDA hair pomade. Men began using pomades, and other products, to achieved the standard aesthetic look.

During the 1930s, conking (vividly described in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X") became an innovative method in the U.S. for Black men to straighten kinky hair. Women at that time tended to either wear wigs, or to hot-comb their hair (rather than conk it) in order to temporarily mimic the same straight style without permanently altering the natural curl pattern. Popular until the 1960s, the conk hair style was achieved through the application of a painful lye, egg and potato mixture that was toxic and immediately burned the scalp.

Black-owned business in the hair industry secured jobs for thousands of African-Americans. These business owners gave back heavily to the African-American community. During this time hundreds of African-Americans began owning successful beauty salons and barber shops offering permanent and hair-straightening as well as cutting and styling services. Media images conditioned to perpetuate European beauty ideals, even among African-Americans represented. African-Americans began sponsoring their own beauty events, with the winners, wearing straight hair styles, adorned various black magazines and product advertisements. Portrayal of traditional African hair styles, such as braids and cornrows, in the media was associated with African-Americans who were poor and lived in rural areas.

  • African-American woman wearing styled textured hair. Photo taken ca 1850

  • African-American civil rights activist and suffragist Ida B. Wells in styled natural hair. Photo taken from 1870 to 1897

  • Madam C. J. Walker invented method that relaxed textured hair. Photo taken ca 1914

  • A young African-American woman wearing styled textured hair. Photo taken between 1885 and 1910

  • Photo of African-American children taken between 1885 and 1910

  • African-American children in Natchitoches, Louisiana,1940

  • Jazz musician Eddie South sporting a conk, or congolene, hairstyle, 1946

  • African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman with styled afro-textured hair

  • African American woman with 'Afro' hair dressing ca 1880

  • African American woman in New Orleans in 1860 with styled afro-textured hair

  • Fats Domino with natural afro-textured hair

It has been debated whether hair straightening practices arose out of a desire to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Supporters of the second process believe that the same prejudice that viewed lighter skin as preferable to darker, held that straight or wavy hair (i.e. "good" hair) was preferable to tightly curled hair, and that this prejudice originated not from African Diasporic peoples but from European slaveholders and colonizers as part of the rhetoric used to support slavery and racially-based social class stratifications. Some claim that the dominant prejudice for Eurocentric ideas of beauty pervades the western world. Further, the tendency to judge people, especially women, based upon their physical appearance speaks to the fact that this issue is especially poignant for African American females. In other words, it is a clear example of an inherent, interlocking conflict that Black women face with Western norms that involves both race (i.e. the fact that the natural afro-hair texture of sub-Saharan African descended peoples deviates starkly from the global 'norm'), and gender (i.e. the fact that the disproportionately strong need for women to be physically 'beautiful' is heavily marketed to all Westerners, and is thus reinforced by men (and women) of all races).

Read more about this topic:  Afro-textured Hair, History, The United States

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