The history of natural hair starts pre-slavery, from the mid 1400s and back, and is continuously evolving and making its name to this day. But why is it called natural hair? Isn’t all hair natural? Your hair, no matter what you put into it or do to it, all comes naturally from your head. So, everyone’s hair is natural, right? Well, the term natural hair actually has less to do with the way it grows and more to do with the connotation behind the way your hair is. It is commonly accepted that natural hair refers to unprocessed hair. That’s what I was always taught and believed but it turns out that is not really the case.
Natural hair truly refers to hair that is un-oppressed.
Meaning hair that is not changed or altered to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty. Which then leads to the question, if I process my hair for myself and not to conform to others, is it still natural? I think that question is still up for debate. As the American English language has transformed over time so has the meaning or connotations of different words. Yet, one thing remains the same, natural hair solely refers to Black people. Many people of non color might have au natural hair that is unprocessed, but it is not the same in the evolution of the words natural hair.
The history of Black hair is deeply intertwined with the history of natural hair and why we call it natural to this day. The term natural or all-natural hair is a relatively new concept widely utilized and accepted across the country.
Where It Started
In the years before the 1400s, Africans would wear their hair and various elaborate hairstyles that relayed to others a person's cultural status, rank, marital status, tribe or clan, and much more. Before slavery, a person only needed to look at your hair to know everything about you. Europeans, though, were first entranced by these elaborate hairstyles but also noticed hair played a huge part of cultural identity for African natives. Threading wool and adding clay, mud, or animal fat was the secret to achieving many of the cultural hairstyles. The Europeans soon noticed that these men and women needed to be stripped of their identity to be proper slaves. So, when they came to trade slaves, they would first cut off the hair of the African people, taking away years of culture and identity for them. It was a tactic to prepare them for their new lives as slaves, in the Americas, where they would have nothing.
In the 1600s, as the slaves were first brought to Jamestown, matted hair became inevitable from months on a ship. (I’ll come back to matted hair later.) As their shaved hair grew back, they needed to find a way to upkeep it while working and with the minimum time constraints they had to themselves. Without the resources used in Africa to create their elaborate hairstyles, it became common to braid the women’s hair to protect it for the week of work ahead, in the 1800s. The slaves would braid their hair in a style that looked like rows of corn in the fields and today, we still call them cornrows. Although their hair could no longer represent their statuses, they were able to keep a part of the tradition or identity by eventually creating elaborate designs with their cornrows to relay roads to freedom. The rows of the cornrows would be fixed in a fashion that could tell other slaves what roads were safe to cross or which to avoid.
Upon an increase in freed slaves, women were finally able to wear their elaborate hairstyles again and incorporate it into the African American identity for years to come. They would fashion big, long, beautiful natural hair with feathers and jewels but, with these elaborate styles, white mainstream society would deem it too gaudy. They were extremely distracting for white men as they drew too much attention with their accessories and variations and would cause for white women to be jealous. This would actually cause for the Tignon Law to go into effect in the late 1700s, requiring all women in Louisiana to cover their hair with fabric while in public. This was used as a way to ensure the white men were no longer intrigued, attracted, or distracted from Black women’s hair. While this was another oppressive law, the African American women took the law and made it that their hair wraps and scarves were bright beautiful colors, fashioned in all different types of knots, fabrics, and jewelry. The Creole women managed to comply with the law and still be a distraction to the white men, making the law ineffective.
To Straighten or Not to Straighten
Going into the mid 1800s, straight hair became the best hairstyle of choice for Black women, in order to camouflage in white mainstream society. The hot comb was invented and available to the Americans. Madame C. J. Walker invented many haircare products for Black women and men and popularized ‘pressed’ hair. In the late 1800s, slaves were emancipated but the idea of “good hair” remained the same. “Good hair” referred only to straight, fine hair that resembled those of European descent. Processing Black, natural hair became a method to survive. Women needed to straighten their hair in order to get a job or a better paying job, go to certain schools, and to enter certain places to be taken more seriously in society, and overall to make white people feel more comfortable. The look and style of straight hair was directly associated with purity and to be pure meant to be white.
All over the country, women (and men) started to chemically alter, or process, their hair to get it to look straighter and finer as their white peers. Hair perms, dyes, and heat treatments became a staple for many Black women as the typical Black natural hair texture of wavy and kinky-coily hair was looked down upon. While this was happening in the 1920s, some tried to embrace their natural, unprocessed hair.
A world away in Ethiopia, in the 1930s, a new emperor was crowned. He was exiled while leading a resistance against the Italians that were evading them. Warriors of Ethiopia refused to cut their hair until their emperor was released. This caused their hair to get matted (once again) and fashioned themselves in a type of lock. The Ethiopian men with these long locks in their hair were feared (or dreaded) by others and the hairstyle was referred to as dreadlocks. Today, many people remove the word dread from the original and refer to the hairstyle as locks or locs to avoid the negative connotations associated with them in the American culture.
Fun Fact: Dreadlocks were originally called Natty Dreadlocks. With ‘natty’ meaning clean, nice, or neat.
During the 1940s, women continued with the trend of pressing or straightening their hair and adding curls to style it. This then led to the introduction of a permanent hair straightener product commonly referred to as a perm (or “creamy crack”). But, approaching the 1960s, Black women and men would stop processing their hair in the name of the Black is Beautiful movement. Many would wear their natural hair in cornrows or afros that required less damage to maintain length and strength. At first these hairstyles weren’t considered proper or professional enough to be worn outside the house but with the help of Cecily Tyson and Angela Davis, that notion started to fade.
The Turning Point
Afros rapidly raised to be a symbol for Black power and was embraced by women and men. Black Americans were forcing white society to accept our natural hair. While many Black people tried to embrace their natural hair, straight hair was still deemed the appropriate hairstyle to camouflage in the majority white society. This movement for natural, unprocessed hair would only last for so long before processing Black hair was the acceptable way to go, again.
The late 1970s brought along the Jheri Curl as the go-to style of the Black community. (It’s okay if you have some embarrassing photos of yourself with the trendy style from back in the day. We know it was the style of a lifetime in the 80s.) It worked as a “curly perm” and the style was embraced by Black artists, actors, and more. People rocked the Jheri Curl all throughout the 1980s until a new hairstyle became popular. The evolution of hair for Black women started to see more and more people wearing weaves and wigs. This would also be a little controversial in the Black community because many women were also going back to their natural hair (and permed hair was still the most popular style among Black women).
While weaves could be considered a protective hairstyle, most weaves, again, resembled the likeness of white hair. These weaves were made of fine hair and typically straight hair that could easily be deemed professional enough for society. More variations of hairstyles and haircuts would reach mainstream audiences and Black hair for men and women would be about individuality instead of conformity. High tops and fades were popular among the men while women stayed with the variety of natural (unprocessed hair), braids, and perms. All of this led to the 2000s were the hair industry to comprise 80% of the market but only 3% of Blacks actually owned it.
In the 2010s, a Natural Hair movement started, and many women began to transition to unprocessed hair. The natural and unprocessed hair was happily embraced and encouraged as it turned away from the cultural norm of white, straight hair and embraced the natural beauty of Black, natural, kinky-coil hair patterns and hairstyles. The Black community started realizing that “good hair” did NOT mean white hair. Good hair is healthy hair styled however you desire. If your natural hair isn’t for you that is completely fine! Process your hair how YOU see fit. As long as you maintain your hair and keep it clean, happy, and healthy, that’s really all that matters.
As for the debate of “natural” hair, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Whether that’s how your hair is processed but un-styled because you just prefer perms to easily maintain your hair or if you like for you to grow out without the need to add in chemicals to alter its appearance. Natural hair is sacred to the Black community as hair that is un-oppressed. If you find yourself changing your hair appearance to please others, or find a job, take a step back and see if that is truly what YOU want for YOUR hair.
As for maintaining your hair (natural or not) always be sure to hydrate and moisturize. You can always use any and all products from our Full Hydrating AvoKiwi Collection to help with maintaining your hair. Try using all-natural ingredients to keep your hair healthy and growing. Be sure to deep condition your hair on a regular schedule and if you are in the process of transitioning you’ll want to use our Ice Cream™ Treatment Deep Conditioner Bundle once to twice a week to help protect your vulnerable ends and strengthen your natural hair. They will also help with making your natural hair softer and easier to comb because, let’s face it, natural hair can be very stubborn when combing. Keep up to date about how to maintain and care for your hair by checking out vlogs and blogs from us and others. Help out Black women and men by exploring products made by Black people for Black people, like NaturAll Club. We can dominate the industry that we predominantly make up. Our natural hair, in whichever way you wear it, is amazing and beautiful and never let anyone tell you differently!