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Hair and Beauty Culture in the United States

Hair and Beauty Culture in the United States

African-American men and women have often used their hair and faces as sites of artistry and as a means of self-expression. Enslaved Africans brought diverse notions of beauty to North America. In America, African hair and beauty traditions underwent a complex process of cultural continuity, acculturation, and transformation. Although there was much diversity in black skin color and hair texture and curl structure, to whites, black hair typegenerally thick, tightly curled hairrivaled skin color as one of the most distinctive features of Africans. These physical characteristics were perceived as the very antithesis of beauty by many whites who conformed to a European standard of beauty that placed primacy upon white skin and straight hair. For many whites, blacks' social, economic, and political subordination as slaves was justified by physical appearance. The images, drawings, and depictions of slave men's and women's hair that remain in the historical record are often colored by these racist assumptions. Stereotypical caricatures about African Americans that relied on exaggerated depictions of thick black lips, unkempt black hair, and dark black skinmost notably in minstrel showspervaded white popular culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, often contained descriptions of black hair characterizing it as "bushy" or "woolly."

Slaves in close contact with whitesnorthern slaves, urban slaves, and house slaveswere constantly confronted with white beauty aesthetics and at times adopted white beauty practices. Evidence exists, for example, that urban male slaves in New York in the seventeenth century styled their hair to resemble the popular wigs worn at the time by white men. However, the vast majority of African Americans maintained their own conception of hairstyle and adornment. Forced into an unfamiliar environment, slave men and women became innovators, using natural substances such as berries and herbs for hairdressing and skin care. The hair of slave women was often covered and wrapped with rags and other pieces of cloth. Hair braiding, a strong tradition in West Africa, remained common for slave women.

Some slave men and women served as stylists and barbers for other blacks, as well as some whites, during slavery. Northern free black men and women, such as Pierre Dominique Toussaint and the sisters Cecilia, Caroline, and Maritcha Remond Putnam, pioneered in white hair care in the nineteenth century and continued in that role after Emancipation. Barbering, in particular, was an occupation that provided crucial economic support for many black men. In 1885 there were five hundred black barbersthree hundred of whom ran their own shopsin Philadelphia. About 150 or so were able to attract white customers. Barbering was also a preferred occupation for free blacks in the South. Many barbers, including William Johnson of Natchez, Mississippi, made barbering a stepping-stone to later entrepreneurial success. Others, such as Robert Delarge and Joseph Rainey, both Reconstruction congressmen from South Carolina, used barbering to further their political ambitions. The successful early twentieth-century insurance company founders John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon both received their start in business through the ownership of barbershops. These politicians made use of the political contacts they were able to make as barbers for whites to familiarize themselves with white elites.

The solidification of Jim Crow segregation by the turn of the twentieth century resulted in black beauty salons and barbershops losing their white client base. For example, Philadelphia's black population had doubled by the early twentieth century, but the number of barbershops had been reduced to 116. This factor, coupled with rising spending power among a growing black middle class, led to the genesis of a formalized black hair and beauty culture industry offering commercial beauty products and services to the growing market.

After slavery, many black men and womenwho equated grooming with respectability and freedomexperimented with a vast array of hairstyles and beauty techniques. Both black-owned and white-owned companies responded to the diverse hair and beauty needs of black consumers. Black entrepreneurs vigorously competed for dominance in the black hair and beauty culture industry. In the early twentieth century, the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company, founded in 1898 by entrepreneur Anthony Overton, became successful when it expanded into the cosmetics industry selling "High Brown" facial powder. Annie Turnbo Malone's Poro Company was one of the leading manufacturers of hair-care products for black women. In 1905 Madam C. J. Walker revolutionized the hair and beauty culture industry by creating a treatment for hair lossa common ailment that plagued black women as a result of poor diet, dandruff, scalp disease, and harsh hair-care treatments. She also pioneered a hair-straightening system for black women's hair called the Walker system, which used a heated metal comb to straighten black women's hair.

European aesthetics pervaded the black community in many waysfrom social hierarchies based on skin color to cultural expressions categorizing hair as "good" or "bad" based on its textureand shaped the context in which African Americans made their hair and beauty choices. There was much debate about hair and beauty within the black community. Black men also had a crucial stake in these debates. Although skin lighteners and hair straighteners found their greatest market among black women, some black men chemically processed their hair to relax the curl structure. Skin care was relatively simple for black men. However, razor-shaving facial hair was often a painful process for black men. The tight curl pattern of their hair resulted in ingrown hairs, informally known as "razor bumps," on the face and neck. This condition was irritated each time the shaving process was repeated. To avoid this, many black men turned to harsh chemical depilatories or chose to wear a beard.

Many in the beauty culture industry argued that the standards of beauty they promotedlighter skin and straighter hairwere linked to personal success and racial progress and could therefore counter negative stereotypes about black people. Some blacks agreed, arguing that altering the natural state of their hair and skin was a way to challenge the correlation between black hair and unkemptness, poor grooming, or a lack of professionalism in an employment situation. Others saw a direct link between hair straightening and skin-lightening creams and cosmeticsoften with names such as "Black-No-More" and "No Kink"and the acceptance of white standards of beauty and a lack of black self-esteem. Pointing out the often painful and damaging effects of chemicals on black hair, scalp, and skin, these blacks argued that leaving hair in its unprocessed state was a way to embrace their African heritage and challenge white domination by reversing notions of beauty. In the 1920s Marcus Garvey, black activist and advocate of Pan-Africanism, refused to accept advertisements for hair straighteners and skin lighteners in his publication Negro World.

Hair straightening, however, cannot simply be equated with the adoption of a European aesthetic and the rejection of African cultural heritage. Many Africans conceptualized their hair as a headdress to be adorned and manipulated as a site of artistic and cultural construction. Through the styling of their straightened hair, African Americans struggled to define a space for themselves within the framework of the dominant aesthetic that could challenge, oppose, and undermine it while reaffirming black cultural values. Although some middle-class blacks wore their straightened hair in styles similar to those popular among middle-class whites, others combined their straightened heads of hair with pomades and hairdressing creams to explore bold, innovative, and creative styling options.

Often, the straightening of hair was a statement of rebellion. Finger waves and pin curls (waves and circular curls sculpted on hair slicked close to the scalp), popular among black women and some men, were emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance period. The processa style called the "conk," achieved by using a lye-based chemical to straighten black men's hairwas integral to the subculture that formed among many young, black urban males during the 1940s. Although conks were popular among the black middle class, working-class blacks styled their conks with heavy pomade, a center part, and a ducktail, often pairing them with flamboyant zoot suits to articulate an oppositional political and cultural identity that challenged both white and black middle-class sensibilities.

Beauty parlors and barbershops were important within the internal African-American service economy of the middle decades of the twentieth century. In the 1940s black women owned 96.7 percent of black-held beauty shops and 88 percent of related business schools. Black beauticians criticized the racist assumption in the beauty-culture industry that black beauticians could style and care for only black hair and agitated against segregated beauty schools. They fought for equality in training and licensing for black and white beauticians and argued that black beauticians should be held to the same standards as white ones. Beauty trade associations often took public positions on civil rights matters. The National Beauty Culturalists League, founded in 1919, for example, adopted the slogan "Every Beautician a Registered Voter" in the 1950s.

Beauty parlors and barbershops were sites of debates and information sharing, where black people created networks of mutual support that could be used in social fraternization or political organizing. Black politicians, for example, often targeted beauty parlors and barbershops as key community institutions on the campaign trail. Poorer black men and women often opened unlicensed beauty parlors and barbershops in their homes as a vehicle toward economic self-sufficiency. Unable to afford professional beauty schools, these men and women passed on skills of hairstyling and haircutting through apprenticeships. These unlicensed shops were criticized as unprofessional and unqualified by many middle-class shop owners who resented the competition they believed was unfair. Despite these challenges, however, unlicensed shops continued to survive alongside licensed shops as community institutions.

In the 1960s hairstyle took on additional meaning for both blacks and whites who defined hair not only as a badge of self-identity but as an indicator of political consciousness. During the period of militant pride and cultural awareness that characterized the Black Power movement of the mid-1960s, many African Americans began to style their hair in an unprocessed state to symbolize the connection to their African past and challenge white beauty standards. In 1966 Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael militantly asserted, "We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, a thick lip and nappy hair is us, and we are going to call that beautiful we are not going to fry our hair anymore." Guided by the slogan "Black is Beautiful," many black men and women abandoned hairstyles that required chemical processing.

The Afrounprocessed black hair arranged in a circular symmetry around the headwas one of the most popular hairstyles of the mid to late 1960s for both men and women. Afrosalso called "naturals"varied with black hair texture and ranged in height from low, scalp-hugging cuts to styles elaborately shaped and coiffed several inches away from the scalp. Political activist Angela Davis's large Afro was a political statement that symbolized her militancy and her rejection of the conventional cultural practices of mainstream America.

The beauty industry created new products aimed at the maintenance of natural hairstyles and marketed them alongside its more traditional products. In the late 1960s, for example, Johnson Products, the leading black-owned company in the beauty culture industry, introduced a nolye relaxer (thought to be less damaging to the scalp) to straighten hair, as well as the popular Afro-Sheen line of products aimed at the maintenance of Afros. Advertisements in black magazines such as Ebony and Jet began to feature darker-skinned models with unprocessed hair and slogans such as "Rows. Fros. Anything Goes." Corn-rowsa hairstyle traditionally worn by black girls in which hair is braided in rows along the scalp and often weaved into elaborate designs and decorated with ornaments ranging from beads to cowrie shells to tinfoilbecame popular among many black women and some black men. In the early 1970s, for example, Stevie Wonder was one of many musicians who donned intricately styled and adorned braided hairstyles. White actress Bo Derek's cornrows in the 1979 movie 10 caused outrage among many in the black community, who believed that she had appropriated the style devoid of its cultural meaning.

Facial hair was integral to black men's self-presentation in the early 1970s. For some black men, moustaches were more than an aesthetic choice but instead a symbol of virility. Black actor Richard Roundtree's character Shaftpopularized in the blaxploitation film genre of the 1970ssported a thick moustache that was as integral to his depiction of black male power as his leather jacket and streetwise attitude. Isaac Hayes, who achieved considerable renown as the composer and performer of the Academy Awardwinning title song from Shaft (1971), helped pioneer another popular black male style of the 1970s, the shaved head. Jheri Curls, a chemical process that loosened and lengthened the curl pattern in the hair and required that the hair be constantly saturated by a curl-activating lotion, was popular for both men and women in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, the Afroespecially in its lower-cut formachieved a more mainstream acceptance.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a rising cultural-consciousness movement created space for a diversity of natural hairstyles for blacks. Although this movement continued in the tradition of the "Black is Beautiful" movements of the mid-1960s, the popularity and limited mainstream acceptance of unprocessed hairstyles made the former link between hairstyle and political consciousness a hotly debated issue in the black community. There was a rise in popularity and cultural acceptance of dreadlocksa style common among Jamaican Rastafarians, in which unprocessed hair is sectioned off and long braids of it are allowed to grow together unhampered. These sections "lock" because of black hair's tight curl pattern. Folksinger Tracy Chapman and author Alice Walker are two prominent black women who have embraced this hairstyle.

Hair braiding was increasingly accepted as a skilled art form as braids grew in popularity, diversity of style, and form in the 1980s and 1990s. The use of human or synthetic hair extensions for braiding to augment the length or the width of the individual braids increased in the 1980s. Hair weaves (extensions of synthetic or human hair either sewn or glued on the scalp) were used by some black women to achieve straight-textured, long hair. Others used extensions to add flexibility in the creation of elaborately braided Afrocentric hairstyles and boldly sported styles called "Senegalese twists" or "African goddess braids." Other women chose to wear their hair closely cropped and low to the scalp, unprocessed or slightly relaxed in a process called "texturization."

Hair braiding for African-American men had increased visibility as well. Hip-hop culture of the 1980s and 1990s popularized daring haircuts for young African-American men that ranged from shaved headsa style long embraced by many older black men as an alternative to thinning hairto a texturized version of the Afro called the "blow out." Also popular was the fade haircut, in which the sides and back of the hair are cut lower than the top, and the back of the head is used as a palette for everything from intricate designs to commercial symbols or even the wearer's initials. A new generation of stylists specializing in the maintenance of unprocessed black hair and the creation of bold new cuts for men developed alongside traditional salons as the hair and beauty culture industry created new products to meet the needs of these consumers.

These products were increasingly supplied by white-owned companies such as Revlon and Alberto Culver. These white companiesoften better financed than their black counterparts and therefore able to offer lower pricesadopted aggressive Afrocentric marketing strategies to attract black consumers. By 1993 fourteen of the nineteen cosmetics companies in the lucrative black hair-care market were white-owned.

Hair and beauty culture remained a creative area for black men and women in the 1990s. Acutely aware that physical appearance has an impact on almost every arena, from social life to employment opportunities, black people have always had to grapple with the broader implications of their hair and beauty culture. In the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing number of black men and women took to the courts to register complaints about discrimination in employment due to hairstyle. Issues of politics, economics, and aestheticsalong with age, regional location, and classcontinue to guide the choices black men and women make for their hair and beauty needs. By 2000, a wide range of natural hairstyleslocs, two-strand twists, and Afrosgained increased acceptance by the black mainstream. Pop culture icons, such as singers Lauryn Hill, India Arie, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, and others, showcased the versatility of black hair's natural textures. Black companies forayed into the natural hair-care market to offer products and services to meet this rising need.

See also Representations of Blackness in the United States


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robyn spencer (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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