The History of Black Women’s Natural Hairstyles: It Is More Than Just a Hairstyle12.01.2022
You’ll see more Black women having natural hair, whether you’re on the streets or browsing online. Some have very short hair that grows out of the scalp. Some have hair that is years long and has dark, curly curls that swing around their faces like the sun. There are many natural hair care Instagram accounts. Hair products are also being created in large numbers. It may seem like a new trend or extension of self-care. For those who really care, natural hair acceptance has been a trend since the 1960s.
Cicely Tyson, actress, is credited with inventing the natural hair trend. Tyson had her hair shaved to give her character more authenticity for the role she played in The Blacks, an off-Broadway musical from 1961. Tyson spoke out about her experience with beauticians after she was asked to keep her hair natural in an interview for Oprah’s Master Class. She said that she received letters from all across the country stating that her clients were cutting their hair and that it was affecting her business.
Tyson’s braids in 1972’s Sounder and Bernadette Stanis braids on the sitcom Good Times were both mainstream portrayals for cornrows.
The 1960s saw civil rights activists, including members of the Black Panther Party, politicize the Afro. In a 1968 interview, Kathleen Cleaver talked about the power and beauty of the Afro. She said, “The reason we wear our natural hair” is similar to a new awareness among Blacks that their natural appearance -physical appearance -is beautiful and pleasing.” Women were more inclined to give up products and practices that affected their natural hair. The ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement and this dissimilation led to widespread acceptance of natural hair.
Nina Simone, activist and musician, celebrated her natural hair. She often wore it in small afros or traditional African styles. Angela Davis, activist and scholar, is well-known for her Afro. In 1994, she wrote “Afro Images. Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia”. She discussed the dangers and how images of the hairstyle were used in political warfare.
Davis wrote that she recalls her 1972 trial and that “The photographs identified vast quantities of my Black female contemporaries, who wore naturals, whether light- or dark-skinned, as targets of repression.” This hidden historical content is what lies behind the continuing assosciation of the afro.
Black women’s hair can be both political and personal.
Braids became popular in the 1980s due to the acceptance of cornrows. Famous Black artists, like Patrice Rushen, the jazz pianist, are known for their talents and intricate hairstyles. Rushen wore long braids with colorful feathers, shells, and beads. EBONY published a 1979 issue that stated that cornrows and braids were “unfortunately dismissed as hairstyles suitable for children and ‘country folk.'” However, this anti-Black stereotype has disintegrated and cornrows can now be worn by current trendsetters such as Rihanna and Arnell Armon.
Grace Jones, a Jamaican-American singer, wore her hair naturally. She wore her hair natural for decades. Jones talked about shaving her hair every year during a press conference for Conan the Destroyer (1984). It’s almost a sacred ritual. Jones stated that it is something one never does and therefore, when you do it, it makes you feel like a nun. Jones subverted gendered beauty concepts with her flattop.
In the 1990s, a range of natural Black hair products were introduced such as Carol’s Daughter and Shea Moisture. Richelieu Dennis founded Shea Moisture in 1991. It was inspired by Dennis’ grandmother’s recipes that she sold at a Sierra Leone village market. Despite the popularity of relaxers at the time, Shea Moisture encouraged women learn how to maintain their natural hair long before the popularity of the 2000s. Natural styles were championed by Venus Williams, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill in the late 1990s.
Venus and Serena were both young tennis prodigies hailing from Compton, California. Their braids became a phenomenon. We were not afraid of wearing braids. We were not afraid to wear braids in tennis. “And that was different,” Serena stated in an interview with Allure.
Venus was penalized for her style in 1999. After some of her beads broke mid-match, Venus was punished and lost the Australian Open. During the press conference, Williams’ hairstyle was discussed and unraveled. This disrespected the legacy and beauty of braids and beads. Lindsay Davenport, her opponent, stated that “Well, you see [the beads] and you can hear a bit…I’m certainly not going to say it was distracting, but it was annoying.” This helped Kelela, who often has her hair adorned with crystals.
The exclusion of Type 4 hair in the latest wave of natural hair movements has been widely criticized. Arah Iloabugichukwu wrote in a 2018 Madame Noire essay, “Why Natural Hair Movement Has Been a Gift and a Curse to Black Women”, about how natural hair brands chose to use lighter-skinned models sporting loose curl patterns as the faces of their campaigns.
She wrote that “But the industry quickly demonstrated why all natural hair was not created equal.” “It was the packaging that told this story. Campaigns full of racially mixed women with ringlets falling down their backs took the center stage.”
The modern movement has been long criticized for being a megaphone for dark-skinned Black women who have silky curls and light skin. Unfortunately, this is not the only problem that this iteration has had to face.
White media outlets blasted Solange Knowles’ 2009 shaved head. One write-up stated that Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s little sister, shaved her hair as if she was a desperate cry for attention.
Knowles responded with a tweet saying “i. have. done. this. twice. in. my. life. I was 16. I don’t care about your opinion. then. dont. care. now… i. just. wanted. to. be. free. from. the. bondage. that. black. women sometimes. put. on. themselves. with. five years later, the same outlets called her a “curly hair[ed]” icon.
Women like Lena Waithe and Ari Lennox gracefully glide down red carpets, their natural hair in full view. It is a reminder of the hardships and triumphs that Black women have experienced, all because they dare to challenge European beauty standards.
Natural hair history is full of beauty, politics, ingenuity and genius. This is something we should all be proud of.