A fight for follicles
Continuing the centuries-long movement to
root out Black hair discrimination
By Brittany Bracy
Matthew Cherry was a football player. He spent three years playing wide receiver for the University of Akron before pursuing his NFL dreams. He never played a snap in the NFL. But he was in training camp or on the practice squad for four teams before eventually hanging up the cleats.
He is now an Oscar winner. Why, you ask? Because his animated short film told the story of a struggle that has been long overlooked. Not only did it win for Best Animated Short at the 2020 Academy Awards, but it will also soon be an animated series on HBO Max.
Cherry raised more than $300,000 through crowdfunding, then a record on Kickstarter for funds raised for a short film, because the message behind the film he wanted to direct touched so many people. His film is seven minutes of adorable. Its infectious warmth touches on fatherhood, family, self-esteem and identity.
But at the root of it all is hair. Specifically, Black hair. It’s called “Hair Love.”
“Hopefully we are able to just normalize our hair,” Cherry explained in an interview with CBS This Morning in January 2020. “It shouldn’t be a conversation. We should be able to wear it how it grows out of our head just like anybody else.”
It’s just hair, right? Not for Black people. Not for many people of color whose texture and cultural styles are met retribution.
Hair discrimination is one of the more underrated manifestations of systemic racism in America. Martin Luther King Jr. famously dreamed of a day when people would be judged for the content of their character and not the color of the skin. But many have also been judged by their hair. It impacts women the most.
It’s gotten to a point where hair has needed and is getting legal protection.
In July 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the CROWN Act into law, making California the first state to legally prevent the enforcement of grooming policies that negatively and disproportionately impact people of color.
Fittingly, Newsom signed it the day before Independence Day — because are you really free if you can’t control your own hair?
New York followed 12 days later, then New Jersey, then Maryland, then Virginia, then Colorado, then Washington State. Then, in September of 2020, the House of Representatives passed a federal version of the CROWN Act. It was still sitting in the Senate when Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president.
While it waits on its fate in the Senate, 43 states are still allowed to discriminate based on hair.
The relevance of this movement gained even more steam during the racial reckoning America experienced in the summer of 2020 which is still continuing.
It became all the rage for companies, celebrity figures and agencies to acknowledge the Black experience was one of oppression and discrimination in America, a revelation underscored by the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. This was followed by pledges to be part of ending such practices against Blacks and people of color.
One way, a relatively simple one, is to begin undoing these deep-seated systems of oppression and address hair discrimination. Such is the plea of the CROWN Coalition, which sparked the fight to end hair discrimination with the support of Dove, the National Urban League and the Western Center of Law and Poverty.
The CROWN Research Study by Dove found that African American women face the highest instances of hair discrimination with a higher likelihood to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. They founded the CROWN Act — CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair — turned the movement up a notch.
Now it’s a, well, mane issue.
To be sure, this is not a new thing. Black hair has been in the crosshairs of bigotry and prejudice for centuries.
“Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons,” Ayana Bird and Lori Tharps wrote in their 2001 book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” “But the effect was much more insidious. The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slave’s culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair. Separating individuals from family and community on the slave ships during the middle passage furthered their alienation from everything they had ever known. Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.”
Thus began the discriminatory precedents set up against natural Black hair.
African people commonly used protective hairstyles such as box braids and bantu knots; Black hair is celebrated throughout the African diaspora. It is a unique characteristic of Black people and used as a form of communication and self-expression. There is also practicality to many popular cultural styles.
Bantu knots, a protective style in which the hair is sectioned off, knotted and twisted, were created by the Zulu people in South Africa. Another popular protective hairstyle, cornrows, got its name from its resemblance to cornfields. Senegalese people used them, and twists, to keep their hair healthy, moisturized and manageable. These practices came to America with Black people.
“Slaves wore cornrows not only as an homage to where they had come from,” as stated in the article “A Visual History of Iconic Black Hairstyles” on history.com. “But also as a practical way to wear one’s hair during long labored hours.”
In West African societies, braids were symbolic of rank, marital status, age and religion.
In 1786 during slavery, Louisiana women were ordered to cover their hair. Then Gov. Esteban Rodriguez Miro of Louisiana and Florida passed the Tignon law that required Creole women — often a reference in the region to those of mixed-race with African and French or Spanish heritage — to cover their hair with a knotted headdress.
They were prohibited from wearing embellishments that garner more attention or make them more attractive. This visually enforced classicism and helped the push at the time by anti-abolitionists to prevent interracial marriage. When a woman of slave class wore a headdress, it was clear that she was not to be eyed or touched by white males.
It’s not difficult to imagine the lack of access to proper hair care products or styling tools. They washed and conditioned with butter, kerosene and even bacon grease. They then brushed it with the carding combs used for the sheep. With limited homemade hair care ingredients and no products on the market suited for Black hair texture, Blacks struggled to take care of and style their natural hair — which was an inherent part of the African culture from which they came.
Madam C.J. Walker is regarded as America’s first female self-made millionaire, per the Guinness Book of World Records, by creating and marketing a line of cosmetic and hair care products for Black women: Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company or The Walker Company.
The Louisiana native is an entrepreneurial icon, activist and philanthropist celebrated today all because she chose to do something about the dandruff, baldness and scalp disorders she and other Black women were experiencing. In 1908 she opened a beauty parlor in Pittsburgh. By 1910, she’d headquartered her business in Indianapolis, which is now a designated historical landmark. By 1913, her mother had a shop in Harlem. By 1917, her company had trained and employed some 20,000 women.
She died at age 51 in 1919 and her company grew after her death, expanding to places like Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti.
A major part of Walker’s legacy was the hot comb she created, which used heat to relax hair. As explained by celebrity hairstylist Nai’vasha Johnson, a relaxer is designed to straighten or loosen your natural hair, and a permanent, or perm, is designed to create curl, waves and textures that are not natural.
In 1909, Garrett Morgan, a tailor, stumbled on a cream that straightened out hair while looking for a solution to reduce needle friction with wool. It was called a relaxer because it loosened the tight curls of Black hair. He then started his own company and sold the cream to Blacks.
George Johnson, in 1954, started the Johnson Products Company and created a permanent relaxer for men. Three years later, he had one for women. It was the foundation of his cosmetic empire that produced Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen.
The early to mid-1900s saw a lot of Black women starting to straighten their hair to achieve what was being dubbed “good hair” by society. “Good hair” is essentially, long and straight hair, similar to the predominant white culture. Black models, musicians and celebrities also wore straight hairstyles during this time period.
“Good hair” became a class signifier as upper and middle-class Blacks, who tended to be mulatto with lighter skinned, had straighter hair. Some churches had a practice of what was called the comb test: if your hair was smooth enough to be combed through without getting stuck, you gained entry or were allowed into special areas. Those who didn’t have “good hair,” went and got it.
“In 1968, Diahann Carroll breaks ground with her role in Julia, becoming the first Black woman to star in her own series on episodic television,” Kristin Booker wrote in the 2014 “History of Black Hair” slideshow article on Refinery29. “In 1974, another landmark magazine cover drops: Beverly Johnson becomes the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue, sporting long, smoother textured hair.”
Many Black people, including men, who were public figures tended to aim for a straighter, more voluminous look that they achieved with the help of chemical relaxers and wigs. James Brown and other giant celebrities in the Black community popularized the look.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in South Africa, following the start of apartheid in 1948, the regime began conducting “pencil tests.” It involved a person putting a pencil in their hair and shaking their head. If the pencil remained in place, because their thick hair held it, they were considered Black. If the pencil fell out because their hair couldn’t hold it, they were deemed white. Each classification came with its own privileges and punishments. The test is reportedly still being used in some South African schools today as a way to assimilate Black students to white beauty ideals.
Writer Panashe Chigumadzi described it in her New York Times op-ed article, “White Schools vs. Black Hair in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” “The way hair regulations are generally written — the pupil will have ‘hair that falls’ and ‘hair that is neat’ — assumes that the student is a white child. Hair that does not naturally comply with these directives must be made to do so.”
Chigumadzi continued, “More than 60 years after that legislation schools in South Africa are still using a de facto form of the pencil test to classify natural black hair as untidy or exotic, and thereby exclude noncompliant black children from academic opportunities.”
The movement against hair discrimination and biases were popularized during the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A natural hair movement coincided with the push for equal rights and the emphasis on Black pride. Black Americans celebrated their culture while flaunting natural hairstyles like afros, braids and dreadlocks.
Actors, actresses and activists were suddenly wearing natural hairstyles — even on screen. Activist Angela Davis, the Black Panther Party, actresses like Pam Grier and Isaac Hayes of the Blaxploitation film genre helped popularize the afro. Blacks embraced the symbolic meaning and ethnic ties that came with it.
However, the push for Black equality was met with strong resistance. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton and many others were killed. Others became political prisoners. Even the Black Panther Party was forced into hiding underground and its top members were wanted by the FBI. The afro became a stigma that made Blacks a target.
The demonization of natural hair was again government-sponsored and mainstream.
In one specific instance in 1988, natural hairstyles were discriminated against in the workplace as a Hyatt Hotel in Washington prohibited two Black female employees from wearing cornrows, firing one and ordering the other to wear a wig.
“As many as 1,000 women may have been victims of the ban on cornrows,” Eric Steele, attorney for the women, said at the time.
In 2017, the U.S. Army lifted its ban on twisted locks. The locks, a protective hairstyle stemming from Hindu culture and later Rastafarianism, have been policed by American school and military officials for many years. The “dread” added to the name infers something about the hairstyle that prompts dread. So even the term dreadlocks is born of hair discrimination.
In January 2020, administrators at Barbers Hill High School in Texas threatened Kaden Bradford and De’Andre Arnold, two Black students, with punishment if they did not cut their dreadlocks. They would be suspended and not allowed to walk the stage for their graduation. A federal court sided with the students, temporarily overturning the district’s grooming policy.
The referendum on Black hair is dehumanizing. It can be overt, exercised in actual policies. It can be unofficial, discouraged and ridiculed out of existence. Or it can be subliminally, hidden in preferential treatment and micro behaviors. Corporations and government agencies tend to justify the discrimination by deeming natural Black hair “unprofessional,” a modern version of the “sanitary issue” as it was formerly stigmatized in slavery and Jim Crow eras.
These damages go beyond forced assimilation and social ostracism. Blacks looking for jobs, housing and education have for decades been rejected because of their hair or pressured to change it for acceptance.
The result is often assimilation. The invention of the Jheri curl in the 1980s, along with the advancement and the prominence of the perm, made Black hair transformation possible from home. Many were unaware of, or disregarded, the long-term harmful effects of chemically processing one’s hair. The relaxers damage hair follicles and make it hard to grow hair back and perms alter the texture. But societal acceptance is often the priority.
Hair weaves and wigs have become staples of modern hair care. There was a time when the best weaves and wigs were designed to convince people it was natural. But now hair has become a fashion accessory and acceptable to be non-natural. Again, societal acceptance is often the priority.
“For so long we have been taught that we have nappy hair when really it’s just extremely curly,” said Sharon Davis, a natural hair care specialist for Vizions Salon in Hayward. “For so long we have used extreme heat to straighten our hair or we have to result to harmful chemicals for us to tame our locks — when really with a proper regime and moisture, we can achieve lengths, body and fullness.”
Many Black people have stories of growing up and the emphasis on using their hair as a means of accommodating society norms. Many parents, hoping to give their children, especially their daughters, an opportunity and being embraced by society have permed their children’s hair. Naps were undesirable.
But previous generations didn’t have the same knowledge or the same progressive society available now. The push for Black lives to matter is, at its core, for Black people to exist as Black people without ramification. While cosmetic in nature, the freedom to be authentic and expressive with hair is symbolic of how society views Black people. Protecting natural hairstyles is being aware of the history behind Black hairstyles, appreciative of the culture and embracing of the Black experience.
Throughout the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonizers tried to strip African slaves of their ancestral and cultural ties in attempts to dehumanize and subordinate Blacks. This process began with the shaving of Black hair when slaves stepped off of the ship.
The essence of that practice continues today.