- Edition 7, Chapter 1 -
Color, Curl and Culture
by Alexander Brebner
Salina has given her hair more thought than most people have. A black woman in her late 50s, she has witnessed shifting social attitudes over the decades and has had to adjust her own attitude accordingly. “To many black women, our hair is everything,” she says. “It’s just a part of us and our culture.”
But that culture presents a tangle of issues each person has to unravel for themselves. In Salina’s case, “It’s pressure from all sides; from your mate who wants you to have long hair because that’s their vision of beauty; from women competing with each other because women dress for women, not men; from working in a predominately white environment where you don’t want to stand out as radical.” So when Salina cut her hair short 20 years ago, “All I was doing was cutting my hair, but it was me worrying about my husband, me worrying about my son, me worrying about being viewed as radical at work, me worrying about looking more masculine… I said, ‘I’m doing it anyway, and I’m going to work through these issues,’ which I did, one by one.”
Those issues aren’t simply Salina’s personal demons of vanity, but genuine conflicts that reach generations deep. In fact, nobody has more political, emotional, economic or historical meaning attached to their hair than black women (and men to some degree), especially in the context of white culture. One can spend days on YouTube watching videos dissect the subject; bloggers have made careers out of advising black women on the fine points of caring for (and often battling) their hair in its infinite variety.
The hottest topic revolves around women “in transition” who are rejecting chemical straightening and joining the “natural hair movement.” Since 2007, relaxer sales have been on the decline as the reality of toxicity and the indignity of injury are no longer acceptable as the price of “good hair,” the title of Chris Rock’s 2007 documentary on black hair culture, which Salina describes as “spot on.”
Before the first Africans were brought to British North America in 1619, hair was worn to signify marital status, fertility, manhood, or degree of wealth, debt, social rank, or geographic origin. But aesthetics were just as important, and twisting, braiding, beading, and grooming were social rites that forged meaningful bonds. Hair also had spiritual significance and was thought to possess immense power; because hair is the most elevated part of the body, it was believed that communication from the gods and spirits passed through it to reach the soul. Hairdressers were often considered the most trustworthy members of society and performed grooming rituals that often lasted several hours, and sometimes several days.
So the first thing slave traders often did to their human cargo – if their captors hadn’t already – was to shear hair off to erase identity and culture, inflict humiliation, and make slaves presentable to buyers after journeys overseas. Black hair was referred to as “wool” by white people to liken it to an animal’s. In the 1780s, William Lynch (whose name may be the origin of the term ‘lynching’) hatched a plan to turn slaves against each other with the belief that “divided is powerless,” and used hair type as a wedge. In 1789, laws enacted in Louisiana required black women to wear fabrics to cover their hair in public, but what was intended to draw less attention garnered even more as wraps became increasingly elaborate and decorative.
By the time slavery came to an end, the goal of grooming black hair was to imitate white styles and European beauty ideals. Even more than skin color, hair was the essential indicator of blackness. Butter, bacon grease, duck fat, or even axle grease were used as preparations for crude styling implements like a heated butter knife, strings, or strips of cloth to wrap around hair to erase kink and elongate curl. Lye (mixed with potatoes to make it less caustic) was a common straightener that could also eat the skin right off a person’s head. In 1845, Madame C.J. Walker popularized the “press and curl” method of styling, and created a line of products to complement the hot combs recently invented in France. Not incidentally, Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, and a pioneer in an industry dominated by women.
Black society began to show its own racial divide between lighter skinned people with “good hair,” and dark skinned people with kinky hair. Churches hung fine-toothed combs from doorways and denied membership to those who couldn’t pass it easily through their hair. In 1909, the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company marketed the first chemical hair straightener, black hair oil dye, and a curved-tooth comb for straightening, and declared war on “bad hair.” However, in the 1920s, black nationalist Marcus Garvey – a Jamaican political leader who promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands – encouraged the acceptance of natural hair, saying, “Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair.”
Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair.
When bobbed haircuts gained popularity in the 1920s, black women with scorched hair welcomed it with relief, or began wearing wigs. By contrast, Haile Selassie was crowned the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, but was forced into exile in 1936 after leading the resistance against the Italian invasion. Sympathetic guerilla warriors vowed not to cut their hair until his release; it became long and matted, and because they were widely feared or dreaded, the term ‘dreadlocks’ was born.
In 1954, George E. Jensen brought a chemical straightener marketed to men to achieve a “winning look,” with hair “cultured the modern way.” A version for women soon followed. In protest, Malcolm X stopped straightening his own hair and maintained that black people would not break the chains of racism until they learned to love their own appearance.
In the 1960s, New York hairdresser Camello Casimir, known as Frenchie, helped introduce naturally textured hair to the mainstream. Cicely Tyson starred in television series East Side/West Side wearing cornrows and was harshly criticized by some in the black community who felt she was portraying a negative image of the black woman. Activist and author Angela Davis, a leader of the Black Power movement, coined the slogan “Black is Beautiful” and her afro became a symbol of radicalism, and to some aggression and negativity; as recently as 1971, journalist Melba Tolliver was fired from ABC’s New York affiliate for refusing to cover up her afro in order to cover the White House wedding of President Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia. In 1977, Jheri-Curl was invented by hairdresser Jheri Redding – one of the most accomplished product innovators ever – as a wash-and-wear alternative to relaxing that nonetheless relied on pungent chemicals.
With the popularity of the “Natural,” a less sculpted version of the rounded Afro, all kinds of styling opportunities – beads, braids, cornrows, and African-inspired headwraps – brought black women full circle with looks strikingly similar to tribal styles of 500 years ago. But a tortuous past still informs an uneasy present, continues to incite debate, and leaves women feeling radical simply for wearing their hair how it grows out of their heads and doing the fantastic things that only black hair can do.
We interviewed several black women at Hairstory Studio who took the somewhat unusual step of entrusting their hair to group of white hairdressers. Salina is a communications consultant and thus quite eloquent when describing her hair history and journey of self-acceptance. “I had to get to a point where I was okay with my god-given hair, and then I realized what a shame that was. I’m sitting here patting myself on the back for accepting who I really am, and that’s when you see what our culture has done,” she says.
I had to get to a point where I was okay with my god-given hair, and then I realized what a shame that was. I'm sitting here patting myself on the back for accepting who I really am, and that's when you see what our culture has done.
“I don’t necessarily want to speak for the race, but I do see black women wanting to be accepted by a predominantly white world, and when you think of white women you think of straight, flowy hair,” Salina continues. “I am one of four girls, stair-stepped in age, and we put relaxer in each other’s hair before I learned to do it myself. The process is ongoing; you have to relax your new growth; you’re damaging your hair, and you become obsessed with it. Then you have the ‘I want to go on vacation but I don’t want to worry about my hair,’ so you braid it.” Traditionally speaking, braids are less a style choice than a practical way to keep black hair tangle-free. “Without them, you can’t just go walking into the ocean. You can’t just go jumping in a pool. Imagine living like that.”
Salina’s challenges were related not only to texture but also to length, and were reflected in her relationships. “When I cut my hair, my own son had all these issues, and he had to learn to be okay with me having short hair. That’s a damn shame. My son is a black man and thinks like a lot of black men who do love women with long, flowy, beautiful hair. So when my husband [who is french and white] said, ‘Why don’t you just cut it?’ that was such a departure from the way I was raised to think about my hair, or the way a man – my man – would think about me.”
Cassie DaCosta – a senior at Yale University studying comparative literature and film – recounts a similar hair story. Raised in London and the US by her Gambian father and Zambian mother, she started getting her hair relaxed when she was only 12. “Being the youngest you always get things when your sisters are getting things, even if it might be too early,” she offers as an excuse. “The process wasn't always painful, but sometimes burned. The worst part was, she says, “the breakage and the general idea that if my hair wasn't straightened it wouldn't be "manageable" and would be ‘messy.’ Relaxer took away all my volume and texture, and required me to be at the salon every six weeks for touch-ups. On top of that, I never retained growth because the chemicals were so harsh.”
During Cassie’s junior year of college, she studied in Paris for 9 months. “I knew it would be hard to find a salon I trusted to get my hair relaxed there, so I decided to stop using chemicals or heat and began the transition back to my natural texture.” Easier said than done, however, as “relaxed hair just breaks off, and constant trimming is necessary.” But since cutting off the last of it, “I have felt free and untethered by expectations of respectability and the rules that police black female beauty.”
When discussing the politics attached to black hair, Cassie cites white women wearing black hairstyles as a point of contention. “Black woman can be judged for wearing braids or an afro, whereas it is immediately celebrated on white women who never had to struggle for that acceptance.” She recalls Victoria’s Secret model Maria Borges who “wore her natural hair for the first time and everyone was like, ‘OOH!’ They planned it for months in advance. I think the more that people wear natural hair the more people have to realize that it’s a reality.” Cassie was “surprised by the fact that I was surprised” to see actress Viola Davis on the cover of Elle magazine. “It was just her small afro, no frills. I thought, ‘There’s a woman with hair just like mine.’ I hadn’t realized how you never, ever see that on almost any cover; even black magazines have natural hair that’s coiffed in a certain way.”
But Cassie can appreciate both sides. “I think that women who still relax their hair feel attacked by the natural hair movement because people are assuming they must hate themselves. But I think it’s a lot more complicated than that because they feel more comfortable that way. There’s a whole discourse that you’re taught when you’re growing up. You’ve been told that your hair isn’t manageable and you’ve gotten used to getting a single process and not having to think about x, y, and z. So I don’t think it’s fair to judge people who are still relaxing their hair.”
Who sets the standard of beauty? If you're a 14-year-old girl reading Nylon and seventeen, Teen Vogue, what are you seeing on the pages?
Professional model Marti Ragan doesn’t go on a job without her grandmother’s voice in her head: “White people’s hair products just don’t work in our hair, so don’t put it in there or you’re gonna be upset; it’s going to break your hair off.’” In fact, black hair products represent an estimated $3 billion market with the lion’s share going to giants L’Oreal and the Alberto-Culver Company. When Marti started modeling, the first agency she signed with said, “You have to wear your hair straight at all times; no one is going to hire you with your hair like that.” On one of her first shoots she was told, “Come as you are, and we’ll work around it,” but when she got there, “I had my hair natural and the stylist took two looks at it and said, ‘What do we do with this?’ He was touching my hair like it was some kind of foreign object so I ended up doing it myself.”
So Marti started to wear wigs on days when it wasn’t straight, “looser curls, more defined, what my hair was supposed to look like, or so I believed. Then my mom who has been natural and has worn dreads since I was 8 or 9 said, ‘Why are you straightening your hair? Why are you wearing these wigs? You are denying a part of who you are and you need to understand that.’ And I said, ‘Nah, you’re just trippin’; it’s not that deep.’ It’s totally that deep.”
When Marti moved to LA, “I just started wearing the afro because I was going to the beach all the time, swimming a lot, with nobody to straighten my hair. One day an older gentleman was riding his bicycle down the street and he stopped, looked at me and said, ‘Sister, you are so beautiful. Your hair is so beautiful; love and cherish that; it’s special.’ As he says that, a woman behind me says, ‘That’s how they single themselves out. She’s as beautiful as anybody else, but just because she wears her hair like that it doesn’t make her a queen.’ Whoa. So crazy.”
Marti feels a responsibility to the next generation and asks, “Who sets the standard of beauty? If you’re a 14-year-old girl reading Nylon and Seventeen, Teen Vogue, what are you seeing on the pages? If you’re a little black girl in South Central, if you’re a Latina girl in Washington Heights, if you’re an Asian girl living on the Upper West Side, who are you relating to? Young girls need girls that look like them, and people in the entertainment or fashion industries say, ‘It’s not my job to be a role model.’ But when you choose to do something that millions of people are going to see, you become a role model; you don’t have a choice.”
“Wearing an afro is a part of my roots, a part of who I am,” continues Marti. “If my mom didn’t have ’locks she’d have an afro; my grandmother had an afro, and I’m pretty sure my great-great-great grandmother had an afro when she was out in the fields, and I have to embrace that. We all have shit we don’t want, but you have to make the best of it because what are you going to do?”
But “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Black women are still led to believe that it isn’t possible without exhaustive, trial-and-error regimens that involve an unnatural number of products. One model listed shampoo, leave-in conditioner, styling creme, oil, and gel in a process that occupied entire Saturdays. Cassie developed a regimen of “preconditioning my hair, and then washing it and conditioning again, and doing twists, and all these things.” She blames blog culture, where many people go for advice and read that certain dense textures can’t be wash-and-go. “But when I came to Hairstory,” she says, “they just washed my hair and let it dry and it looked great. And I thought, ‘Oh. I can do this.’”
It’s nice having fewer products; now I don’t use a conditioner and I don’t feel like I need to prescribe to all those treatments. I don’t have time for any of it. You have to live your life.
Salina complains: “When I wash with shampoo I can’t comb my hair, even this short; it gets gnarled and starts breaking. Once you dry it you can’t put a comb through it.” Her regimen was typically “shampoo, conditioner, and then some kind of detangling spray after I rinsed out the conditioner. It’s a lot, right?” Salina is now a New Wash convert. “I can wash it every day if I want to without it becoming brittle, which is always a concern, especially since I started coloring it again. I saw a difference immediately, but a week later I noticed how it was detangling. And now, I come out of the shower, and I can comb my hair! That alone sold me.”
Cassie is also impressed. “New Wash has made my hair so much easier to detangle and deal with. It’s the one product that I found that I can just wash my hair with, put a little Hair Balm in and be done. It’s nice having fewer products; now I don’t use a conditioner and I don’t feel like I need to prescribe to all those treatments. I don’t have time for any of it. You have to live your life.”
Is it a stretch to say that Hairstory is a bridge over the the racial divide, or at least the beginning of the end to segregation of hair salons? Cassie looks forward to the day when “black women can go anywhere and find someone who knows how to cut their hair, or not have to buy a specific product in a certain kind of store. Hairstory is the only place that cut my hair the way I like the first time around.”
“My mom is different from me, and you’re different from me, and Cody next door is different from me, and we’re all different, and we’re all the same, and different doesn’t mean bad, it’s just… I don’t know, it’s just different!”
Marti concurs, saying, “I’m fine with black salons, they’ve always been revenue for the black community. But in entertainment, in music, fashion, movies, if you’re going to be a hair stylist, you need to know how to do every single type of hair. Because if not, you’re lazy. Not only is it disrespectful to me but also to your craft because it says you don’t care enough to take the time to know.”
If we convince black women that there is both an easier and better way to care for their amazing hair, haven’t we made a small contribution to equality? If we’ve proved that the increasing segmentation of hair products is absurd, haven’t we done us all a favor? Marti thinks so. “I can use New Wash; my cousin who is also black and white but has a completely different hair texture can use New Wash, and my best friend whose hair texture is also completely different from mine can. It feels nice to be included.” She believes that the more we talk about race, the better, and quotes her three year-old niece who is black, white and Japanese: “My mom is different from me, and you’re different from me, and Cody next door is different from me, and we’re all different, and we’re all the same, and different doesn’t mean bad, it’s just… I don’t know, it’s just different!”