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Black Hair Care and Culture

This date is Hairstylist Appreciation Day and The Registry looks briefly at African-American hair.

The history of “Black Hair and Beauty Culture” mirrors the intricacy of both African and American cultures. Over the years, African American hair has been associated with the ideology of white visual conception. Some people say that blacks have embraced hairstyles and beauty methods that reflect popular European standards of beauty. However, Blacks have used their West African roots and their own artistry to create styles and standards that reflect a unique black culture.

Around 1441 when African slaves were brought west to the “New World,” they were confronted with their first loss of identity. It was then that the one and only identity they had, was stripped from them. The standards of beauty that they encountered were the privilege of fair skin, straight hair, and thin features, in contrast to “African” dark skin, curly hair, and wider noses and mouths. Some slaves had to get accustomed to the European beauty styles to survive (literally). Often times they would serve as barbers and/or beauticians for their white owners. Other slaves attempted to stay with their traditional African hair customs like braiding hair using African patterns and using natural herbs from trees for their hair and skin care.

Officially, the root of a hair fiber sticks into something like a bag in the skin. The fiber is pushed out of this bag about 0.35mm per day growing about 1cm, or half of an inch, per month. The growth rate relates to the individual, his/her age, diet etc. Healthy hair has an average lifetime of 2-6 years. Though there are exceptions, the hair of blacks is usually coarser in texture, tighter in curl pattern, more naturally delicate, and more vulnerable to damage from chemical treatments. Because of our multicultural heritage there really isn’t any one typical “type” of African-American hair. Its texture can vary from fine to medium to coarse; its curl pattern from straight to softly wavy to excessively tight; its colors from blonde to red, to all sorts of browns, to black.

There is no chemical difference in the makeup of African-American hair in comparison with any other hair type. It has a cuticle (the outer layer), a cortex (the middle layer, composed primarily of keratin and moisture, plus melanin, which gives our hair its color), and a medulla (the center of the hair shaft). All these parts are identical to those of Caucasian hair. What is different is our wave, curl or kink and bonding pattern. (Bonding speaks to the structure of hair: the tighter the bond, the curlier the hair.) Our hair color can vary from a very light, sandy blonde to dark black. Universally ethnic women do tend to have rich-brown complexions and deep-brown hair.

There are many different tonal qualities to African-American hair, from medium browns and reddish mahogany to darkest blue-black. When slavery ended, there was an overabundance of blacks who were knowledgeable in European hair care. The need for blacks that were knowledgeable in black hair care began to grow. It was then that the kitchen beauty shops began. There was a growing number in black beauty shops everywhere. As the number of commercial establishments grew, barber shops and beauty parlors became increasingly important in the economic and social structure of black communities.

Beauty salons and barber shops became places not only to get your hair done but locations where blacks could talk about their community. In the barber shops you could usually find a couple of men playing a game of chess, cards, or dominoes while talking about what is going on in the black community. In the beauty salons you usually could jump into a conversation about the town gossip. Many film adaptations of African American themes use these businesses to show black culture in the United States. Coming to America, 1988, Malcolm X, 1992, and Barber Shop, 2002 are examples. Over the years, beauty salons and barber shops have come to provide a unique social function.

Regarding the structure of “Black Hair,” the reason why kinky hair breaks so easily is that every twist in African American hair represents a potential stress point, which means the curlier your hair, the more prone it is to breakage. Cornrows left in too long can cause traction that may result in breakage. Our kinky hair is also prone to catching onto one another, which causes fragmentation. What makes the color of hair different? Whether it be black, blond, and brown, the answer lies in melanophore. The hair roots contain pigment cells called melanin, which creates a black pigment. Melanophore is a chromatophore that sends pigment to new hair. The greater the amount of pigment sent to the hair, the darker the hair becomes. On the contrary, as the amount of pigment sent is reduced, the hair color turns brown and then blond.

Some people believe that differences in hair color are caused by the differences in the intensity of ultraviolet rays contained in the sunlight, to which the hair is exposed. A baby’s hair begins to grow around the third month after conception. Trichocysts are first hairs formed. They develop into hair follicles as the fetus grows, then they become downy hairs several centimeters long when the baby is born. The total number of hairs is determined before the baby is born. After that, the number of hairs never increases, they only decrease. There are about four hundred and fifty thousand of them to be found above the neck. These hairs include about one hundred thousand hairs on the head and about thirty thousand hairs taken up by mustaches, beards, or facial hair. Hair grows at a faster rate in the spring and summer than in autumn and winter.

On a normal scalp there are about 100 to 150 thousand hair fibers. A blond head of hair has usually much more fibers than red or dark haired heads. Hair consists mainly of keratin, which is also responsible for the elasticity of fingernails. A single hair has a thickness of 0.02-0.04mm, so that 20 to 50 hair fibers next to each other make one millimeter. Hair is strong as a wire of iron. It rips after applying a force equivalent to 60kg, after it is stretched to 70%. Regarding hairstyles and how general American culture affects black hairstyles, there are a number of opinions.

Many blacks argue that imitating European standards of beauty and grooming was necessary for blacks to be accepted by white culture, especially by potential white masters and employers. For generations hairstyles have reflected the history of American race relations and the way blacks wore their hair reflected the dominant white culture. African-American hair was straightened, combed, or parted to mimic Western coiffures. In response to the propaganda in black communities to accept the European standards of beauty, the black hair care market expanded.

Madam C.J. Walker is one of the pioneers in the black hair care market with her Walker System. However over the years African Americans have thrown away the European standards of beauty. During the 1960’s the “Afro” debuted and with it the concept of Black is Beautiful. During the 80’s and the 90’s West African traditional hairstyles began to resurface in the black community. Many people were getting braids with the traditional West African patterns. There are many beauty shops that are designed to create only West African traditional hairstyles.

Near the end of the twentieth century, relaxed hair became popular again in a wide range of short and long styles, while the new jheri curl used a different chemical to create loose, wet curls for both men and women. Women and men chose dreadlocks, twist, corkscrews, fades, and other styles that used the benefits of black hair’s natural texture. Despite the economic depression in many black neighborhoods, hair salons remain among the most successful Black business in urban communities, and even African Americans who move to predominantly white suburbs often return to black urban neighborhoods to get their hair done.

Still, blacks are losing control over the black hair care market. Business by business, mergers and acquisitions are taking apart black-owned hair care endeavours. A moment of truth came when L’Oreal acquired Carson. The result was the top two-black owned hair care companies (Johnson Products and Soft Sheen) were joined under L’Oreal’s ownership. Many white business people know what kind of money black people put into their hair care and want a part of that market.

The popularity of natural African American hairstyles has also developed an Internet following. There are many websites with information, products, and tips for African American hair care. Websites devoted to natural styles, braids and dreadlocks are growing too. Black Hair Media is one of the more comprehensive sites online. Nappy Hair is another online resource for anyone who needs guidance managing natural hair. Offline, many books have been published on the topic. Among the most recent is the 2003-released, “Hair Rules: The Ultimate Hair-Care Guide for Women with Kinky, Curly, or Wavy Hair,” by New York City stylist, Anthony Dickey.

Further Reference:

REPRINTED FROM African American Registry