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The Crown We Never Take Off: A History of Black Hair Through the Ages

Black hair history

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Black hair is beautiful. Resilient. An extension of identity and expression of who we are. Solange said it best in her song Don’t Touch My Hair with the phrase, “It’s the feelings I wear”.

Growing up, I have both fond and cringe-worthy memories regarding my hair. Spending hours in the salon, learning about womanhood while simultaneously avoiding nape burns from pressing combs, and squeezing my eyes shut as my stylist would say just a few more minutes as lye relaxer would set my scalp ablaze—all in the name of achieving bone-straight sleek hair.

It wasn’t until college when my worn-out strands forced me to go undergo a big chop—which entailed cutting off all of my damaged and over-processed hair—that catapulted me in learning more about the roots of my natural hair.

One of the earliest expressions of Black hair would undoubtedly be cornrows. Commonly cited as far back as 3000 B.C., cornrows symbolized status, ethnicity, wealth, and rank amongst other socioeconomic spheres in Africa.

Conversely, hairstyles such as locs and bantu knots also have deeply rooted origins. As early as 2500 B.C., Hindu scripture depicted the god Shiva wearing twisted locks of hair known as “jataa” while bantu knots, notably worn by individuals of the Zulu tribe, stemmed from the term of identifying subgroups within South Africa.

Madame C.J. Walker, who revolutionized modern day entrepreneurship for Black women, created black hair products in the early 1900’s and is acknowledged as one of first Black woman millionaires. Annie Malone, though lesser known, was another Black self-made entrepreneur in the early 1900’s who created the hair products centered around Black hair.

Hairstyles at that time, however, were inherently influenced by Eurocentric standards of beauty: sleek tresses, pompadours, and smooth waves achieved through pressing combs and relaxers.

The Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s sparked the return of wearing Black hair in its naturally textured state. Black women such as actress Pam Grier and activist Angela Davis wore iconic afros that helped to shape positive representation of Black hair both in popular culture and as a symbol of liberation and pride.

stocksy
Brettmann/Getty

These natural hairstyles have re-emerged in present day and provided positive Black hair representation in popular culture—but not without issue. Cultural appropriation often leeches through the very seams that Black people have fought so hard to break free from.

The birth of hip-hop gave way to more creative expressions of hairstyling: Janet Jackson in box braids, the gender bending high top fade of Grace Jones that boldly defied Eurocentric norms of beauty and acceptability.  

grace jones
Bob King/Getty 

Presently, the line between appropriation and appreciation still lingers. From Bantu knots being coined “mini-buns” by the fashion industry, to baby hairs being credited to white celebrities, to locs being deemed as “pushing the boundaries” when worn by a white woman, yet “smells like patchouli oil” when worn by a Black woman, it is important to acknowledge how colonialism has made it so that dominant cultures profit from the trends of Black culture even to this day.

solange
Jon Kopaloff

The journey and liberation of Black hair is far from over. It wasn’t until 2019 that The Crown Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Word for Natural hair,” was passed in California, which then became the first state to ban natural hair discrimination. Presently,only seven states have enacted this into law.

The future of Black hair is, quite frankly, whatever we want it to be. As celebrity hair stylist Yene Damtew states, “Black hair is beauty and versatility.” Black hair tells the history of our heritage, it dictates the trends of today, and speaks to our resilience as Black people as we move towards the future. Black hair will continue to be a symbol of strength, illuminating our identities—however we choose to wear our crown.

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