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Black Hair Is NOT “Just Hair”

A look into the ugly past (and present) of curls and kinks.

Hair is just hair right? Just something that grows on your head and you can color and style it any way you want to. Well, that simply isn’t true for a lot of folks. For many people in the Black community, hair is as culturally significant as music, dance, language and food.

Let’s get straight to the point—Black hair, as in the race, not the color, is the type of hair that has gone through generations of societal, generational, and cultural negativity. Curls were cute, but not if they were “kinky” curls. Afro-textured hair had been and still is bullied, criticized, and discriminated against so much that that negativity oozed into the Black community itself. From times of American slavery and onward, Black people, especially Black women, were groomed into believing that “good” hair, only came in forms of bouncy curls or straighter; anything beyond that cloud of acceptance was rejected.

To be or appear “white” (as in the race) was the apex of social status hundreds of years ago, and it can still be seen today—from how things like “success,” and  “class,” tend to be affiliated with how much they can mirror what white people have it terms of it. When this was noticed by white citizens, many did what they could to destroy any appearance that Black citizens could be on the same level as they were, from the Tulsa Race Riots which destroyed Black Wall Street in 1921 to Tignon laws in the late eighteenth century.

In Louisiana, Tignon Laws were created to lessen Black women’s class distinctions. White female Louisianans felt threatened by Black female citizens’ growing social statuses and attention of white, French, and Spanish-creole male suitors, so the Governor at the time, Esteban Rodriguez Miro, ordered that Black women, free or not, must cover their hair and heads with knotted headdresses, which had formally been adorned in jewelry, beads, and other accents. Historian Virginia M. Gould notes that Miró hoped the law would control women “who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who, in reality, competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.”

Post-slavery, and after the invention of the “relaxer” by Madame C.J. Walker, a chemical cream that loosens kinky and curly hair to make it straight, Black women (and men) began to use it in order to appeal to the white masses. If they appeared similar to them, at least in one way, they would garner some of their respect. If they did not appear as slaves did, white citizens would not view them as lowly. Of course, looking back now, that did little to alter racist ideologies but did do a lot of damage within the Black community itself. Little Black children (especially girls because female societal acceptance was heavily based on beauty-standards) grew up hearing that their coily hair was ugly, “bad” hair, were likened to animals, especially the extremely racist caricature of monkeys, and grew up passing along to their own children that one of the only ways to be seen as attractive was to alter their hair from its originality.

Despite the overt casual prejudice and racism that we see today, from Zendaya being told she looked like she smelled of weed and patchouli oil for wearing faux dreadlocks, Vanessa Van Dyke being teased by classmates for not having straight hair and almost facing expulsion for wearing her naturally-textured hair at school, the firing of news anchor Rhonda Lee who defended her and Black people’s natural hair after she was thrown racially insensitive comments, a Kenyan blogger named Nancy Roxanne, who boldly claimed that natural hair (on Black women) was ugly, to the word “nappy” being synonymous to words that people use when disgusted, Black women all around the world continue to show that natural hair is culturally relevant and beautiful despite the often bashing it receives.

Not that the embracement of natural hair is something new (remember the 70’s and all the beautiful Afros?), but in recent years, there has been an international outcry of and for Black women to retain to the history, dignity, strength, power, and elegance of our crowns. Protective styles vary from cultural stylings of braids, Bantu knots, twists, dreadlocks, cornrows, Afros, etc., and speak to how Black women have always been able to turn sour lemons into sweet lemonade. The latter statement was so appealing to non-Black people, that many of them began taking those styles and wearing them. If that was not angering, it was plainly annoying when considering all the hate natural hair got that suddenly, it was profitable and for everybody, even though everybody was not tormented, discriminated against, and ridiculed for having those styles and hair texture. (So if you see a Black person angry at a non-Black person for taking Black cultural hairstyles, that’s one of the reasons why. Also because Black people are literally denied things like jobs and schooling because of them, but that’s another think piece for another day.)

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again—Black hair is not “just hair.” To say it is is almost insulting.

Something cannot go through a long line of disturbing, hateful, and discriminative history (and present) to only be equated to something else that had never gone through the same thing.

What do you think?

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Written by Daneia Russell

Hi! I am a nineteen-year-old African-American (cishet) woman. If I’m not using my time writing, with friends, family, or school, I work to push the education of various social issues, ranging from womanism, LGBTQ rights, race-relations, etc.

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