The U.S. haircare market is enormous. In 2016 alone it was estimated to be worth just over $83 billion. Of that $83 billion, the African American hair care market made up over $2.5 billion. While that’s only a small piece of the hair care pie, it’s still incredibly significant especially when you consider the lengths African American hairstyles and hair care came to get here.
The history of African hair in the U.S. shows the hardships and norms those of African descent went through to conform to a European-based society. More recently, it has demonstrated a back-to-our-roots movement that has caused a new wave of natural hair care products to emerge.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of African and African American hairstyles in the U.S.
In African civilizations, the way someone styled his or her hair reflected many aspects of their tribe and heritage. Through a hairstyle, an onlooker could tell which family someone was a member of, tribal affiliations, and social status. Hairstyles could also show if someone were in mourning or if a woman was fertile. Popular hairstyles included dreadlocks, braids with beads, and hair weaved back into intricate shapes.
African Slavery Hairstyles
While we’ll never know the exact number of Africans who were enslaved by Europeans, we estimate that about 12.5 million Africans were sent to the New World. Upon being sold into slavery and landing in the New World, particularly America, African slaves were forced to give up their elaborate hairstyles in favor of “tamed” European hairstyles. “Wool,” as the Europeans put it, was not favorable.
It wasn’t only the pressure to conform to European styles that made these new slaves change their hairstyles. They also didn’t have the tools to groom their hair, namely wide tooth combs. African hair is much more fragile than European hair, but because it is also curlier, it requires a wide tooth comb to care for it.
Even after the abolition of slavery, newly freed slaves still felt the pressure to conform as they assimilated into white society. The “whiter” a black American looked, the easier it was to go about daily life.
One hair styling tool that helped was the pressing comb or a hot comb which was developed in France in 1845 and arrived in the U.S. in 1880. The hot comb was the predecessor to today’s straightening iron. The comb was heated over the stove and combed through the hair to temporarily straighten the hair. This made it easier to style into a European hairstyle.
Madame C.J. Walker was a notable figure in the African American hair care movement. In the early 1900’s, she created a line of hair care products specifically for African American hair. She also developed and perfected the press-and-curl style which involves straightening the hair then curling it into loose curls. While she didn’t have access to digital curling irons during that time, she certainly made the style work.
Garrett A. Morgan also created a revolutionary product for African-American hair care in the 1900s. His product was a chemical relaxer which acted as a permanent straightening agent for men and women. In his marketing, he promised hair that was straighter and like that of a Caucasian.
Civil Rights Hair
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, afros emerged in force. The afro was a symbol of African pride and empowerment. It was also a sign of rebellion and defiance against racial oppression and segregation.
While the afro certainly made a statement, it was incredibly high maintenance. To keep its volume and loft, anyone with an afro needed a long pick comb. The early long-pick combs featured a handle in the shape of the black power salute. As the Black Power movement gained momentum in the 70s, the afro became even more popular thanks to activists like Angela Davis and actress Pam Grier.
These days, you’ll find that African American hairstyles change at the drop of a hat. One way that African American women have found they’re able to change styles so quickly is with a weave. Weaves allow women to change hair color length, texture, and style quickly.
Another significant trend in African American hair is a return to natural hair. For most African Americans, this means no heat treatments, no coloring, and using highly moisturizing products to care for natural hair. This is not so much a harkening back to African Americans’ roots in Africa but more a desire to have a low-maintenance hair care routine. A low-maintenance routine is all any of us want.
These days, whether you go for a straightened and styled ponytail or want to rock your natural curls, pretty much anything goes. As beauty routines turn more to caring for the texture and upkeep of hair, we’ll likely see an even more prominent push towards natural hairstyles.