Since I’ve been natural for 2 years, I’ve never really thought about the history of natural hair. I was simply enjoying my kinky* roots since I became natural.
But for a while now, I realized that there is a root to all things natural and I have been wondering: how did the natural hair movement begin? What exactly happened that made black women really embrace and feel confident in wearing their curls, coils, and kinks?
Sure we are running around now talking about “team natural” but if you really think about it, the natural hair movement wasn’t started in this generation. In fact it has always existed to some degree, even back when our ancestors were enslaved. Think about it, in some tribes on the continent of Africa, our hair is a big deal; since it is used to indicate one’s status in the society. Different styles differentiated the royals from the common people, while some signified those who were married or those who belonged to a particular bloodline or clan. It was linked to our identity, it told us where we belonged (and now that I think of it, it’s no wonder we all seem to always want variety when it comes to our hair).
It is for this reason that back in the days of slavery there were laws specifically for our hair care. We were not allowed to wear elaborate styles, hence the popularity of the scarves to tie our hair away and keep it hidden. We were not allowed to practice ancestral braiding. To this day this law still creates problems for us, remember the story of Isis Brantley? Our style, our flair was so unique that it was viewed a danger, for our spirits had to be broken and everything that told us who we were, everything that would help us identify as kings, queens, nobles, had to be stripped from us and the practices broken so the next generation would forget.
But if we should pinpoint a time when we started to defy the laws and break free of the limitations set on us then the period between 1964 and the 1970s would be it. At that time civil rights wranglings had given rise to the Black Power movement.
According to Ingrid Banks, Associate Professor of Black Studies at University of California Santa Barbara states, it was around that time that:
the pressing comb and chemical relaxers became oppressive because they were tools that symbolized the shame associated with black hair in its natural state.” (Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness)
Back then Kathleen Cleaver who was a member of the Black Panther Party had loads to say about our hair. Here’s a snippet of what she said:
The reason for it, you might say, is a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance, their physical appearance, is beautiful. It is pleasing to them … For so many, many years we were told only white people were beautiful. Only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful, and so black women would try everything they could to straighten their hair and lighten their skin to look as much like white women … But this has changed because black people are aware, … and white people are aware of it too because [they] now want natural wigs* … They want wigs* like this [points to her natural hair].”