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Black Hair in Bondage: 1400–1899
The Story Starts in Africa
The story of Black people’s hair begins where everything began—in Africa. Not surprisingly, the birthplace of both astronomy and alchemy also gave rise to a people in perfect harmony with their environment. Indeed the dense, spiraling curls of African hair demonstrate evolutionary genius. Like natural air-conditioning, this frizzy, kinky hair insulates the head from the brutal intensity of the sun’s rays. Of course there is not one single type of African hair, just as there is not one single type of African. The variety of hair textures from western Africa alone ranges from the deep ebony, kinky curls of the Mandingos to the loosely curled, flowing locs of the Ashanti. The one constant Africans share when it comes to hair is the social and cultural significance intrinsic to each beautiful strand.
In the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. The citizens of these societies—including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba—were the people who filled the slave ships that sailed to the “New World.” Within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community. In some cultures a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle. The hairstyle also served as an indicator of a person’s geographic origins. The Kuramo people of Nigeria, for example, were recognized by their unique coiffure—a shaved head with a single tuft of hair left on top. In the Wolof culture of Senegal, young girls who were not of marrying age partially shaved their heads to emphasize their unavailability for courting. Likewise a recently widowed woman stopped attending to her hair for a specified mourning period because she was not meant to look beautiful to other men, and an unkempt coiffure in almost every West African culture was anathema to the opposite sex. Nigerian housewives living in a polygamous society created a hairstyle intended to taunt their husband’s other wives. The style was known as kohin-sorogun (“turn your back to the jealous rival wife”) and was meant to be seen from behind. In ancient times, if a Wolof man wore his hair in a particular braided hairdo it meant he was preparing to go to war and therefore prepared to die. Such a man would then tell his wife she should not comb her hair because in a matter of hours she could become a widow. Traditionally the leaders of a community—men and women—showcased the most ornate hairstyles, and only royalty or the equivalent would be expected to wear a hat or headpiece. “The common people go bareheaded,” wrote French anthropologist Marie Armand Pascal d’Avezac-Macaya when describing the Ijebu people living near the coast of Guinea. “As for the king, his headdress is raised up in the form of a tiara of great richness. It is made of coral beads mounted close together on a background of crimson leather; at the crest is a tuft or tassel of gold braid.”
While the social significance of the hair was weighty for African people, the aesthetic aspects were just as important. “West African communities admire a fine head of long, thick hair on a woman. A woman with long, thick hair demonstrates the life-force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a ’green thumb’ for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children,” wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone. According to Boone, “big hair, plenty of hair, much hair,” were the qualities every woman wanted. But there was more to being beautiful than simply having a lot of hair. It had to be clean, neat, and arranged in a specific style—usually a braided design—to conform to tradition. A particular style could be intended to attract someone of the opposite sex or signal a religious ritual. In Nigeria, if a woman left her hair undone, it was a signal that something was wrong. The woman was either bereaved, depressed, or “habitually dirty.” To the Mende, unkempt, “neglected,” or “messy” hair implied that a woman either had loose morals or was insane. Mohamed Mbodj, associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, says that Boone’s description of the Mende’s beauty ideal regarding hair also applied to the Senegalese: “[Wolof] women liked to have their hair shiny and long. And you didn’t cut it, you arranged it.” Mbodj also concurs that an unkempt or disheveled hairdo was often interpreted as a sign of dementia. Men, too, were always expected to keep their locs neat and tidy, whether they wore a short style or an elaborate creation.
The hair’s value and worth were heightened by its spiritual qualities. Both male and female devotees of certain Yoruba gods and goddesses were required to keep their hair braided in a specific style. “The hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine,” Mbodj explains as an indication of the power the hair holds. Because the hair is the closest thing to the heavens, communication from the gods and spirits was thought to pass through the hair to get to the soul. Mbodj also notes that spells could be cast or harm could be brought to another person by acquiring a single strand of their hair. Wolof tradition says that women had the power to make men crazy for them by calling on the power of the genies and spirits in the hair. The hair was thought to be so powerful that medicine men in Cameroon used human hair to adorn the vessels and containers in which they carried their healing potions as a means of protection and added potency.
Because a person’s spirit supposedly nestled in the hair, the hairdresser always held a special place in community life. The hairdresser was often considered the most trustworthy individual in society. The complicated and time-consuming task of hair grooming included washing, combing, oiling, braiding, twisting, and/or decorating the hair with any number of adornments including cloth, beads, and shells. The process could last several hours, sometimes several days. Often the only tools the hairdresser used were a hand-carved wooden comb (specifically designed with long teeth and rounded tips to remove tangles and knots without causing excessive pain), palm oil, and years of creative know-how. In some cultures the hair was groomed by a family member because only a relative could be trusted with such an important task. In the Yoruba tradition, all women were taught how to braid, but any young girl who showed talent in the art of hairdressing was encouraged to become a “master,” assuming responsibility for the entire community’s coiffures. Before a “master” died, she would pass on her box of hairdressing tools to a successor within the family during a sacred ceremony. For the Mende, offering to braid someone else’s hair was a way of asking them to be your friend. Boone writes, “Hair-braiding sessions are a time of shared confidences and laughter; the circle of women who do each other’s hair are friends bound together in a fellowship.” In communities in both Ghana and Senegal, women were not allowed to groom men’s hair and vice versa because of the social taboo that restricted interactions between the sexes. In addition, the only people allowed to work on hair, Mbodj says, were the griots and the ironworkers. “Anybody who is working at creating life with dead material, like melting iron and making it into something new,” Mbodj explains, “those are the people who have the exclusive right to work on people’s hair.” When Wolof children were born they would inherit a hairdresser, based on familial relationships, who would remain in their service for life.
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Clearly hair has never been a purely cosmetic attribute for the West African people. Its social, aesthetic, and spiritual significance has been intrinsic to their sense of self for thousands of years. It is a testament to the strength of these African cultures that the same rituals and beliefs regarding the hair remain in traditional societies today. Although Africans were neither the first nor the only people who elevated the significance of hair in their cultural milieu, when Europeans first came in contact with the African natives in the fifteenth century they were astounded by the complexity of style, texture, and adornment of Black hair.
The Slave Trade
When the first Europeans began exploring the western coast of Africa around 1444, they were chasing fantasies of unclaimed riches. Instead of finding virgin territory flush with golden treasure, however, the European travelers discovered thriving African nations and new trading partners. For almost a hundred years thereafter, the Europeans enjoyed a cordial trading relationship with the Africans, exchanging weapons, textiles, liquor, and shiny baubles for gold, ivory, and sometimes even a small number of human slaves, who would be taken to the European continent and sold. This was a productive time for European exploration of the West African coast, and many men wrote about the majestic Africans they met along the way. Not only were these White men dazzled by the fantastic agricultural products the Africans were growing, such as corn, peanuts, and tobacco, and the vibrant indigo dyes used to color clothing and materials, they were also duly impressed by the extraordinary African hairstyles. “The Senegal blacks [have] their hair either curled or long and lank, and piled up on their head in the shape of a pointed hat,” wrote French explorer Jean Barbot. The Qua-qua, on the other hand, “wear long locs of hair, plaited and twisted, which they daub with palm oil and red earth. This hair is the hair of their wives, which they cut off and tie it this way, end to end, and fix it on their heads; some let it hang down, others turn it up!” Even though some of the Africans with whom the Europeans came in contact wore very little in the way of clothing—sometimes only a well-placed loincloth—the hairstyles were often elaborate works of art, showcasing braids, plaits, patterns shaved into the scalp, and any combination of shells, flowers, beads, or strips of material woven into the hair. “The king in Sierra Lionna [sic],” recalled Barbot, had “on his head a sort of cap made of straw in the shape of a mitre, decorated with goats [sic] horns, small porcupine tails and other trifles … his hair was tied up one on each side in such a way that from a distance the points could have been taken for the horns of some animal.” One Dutch explorer, while in the country of Benin, noted sixteen different hairstyles, each one indicating a combination of gender and status within the community. Unstyled and unkempt hair was largely unseen, as were scarves or headwraps. Clearly nothing was meant to cover the African people’s crowning glory.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, British, and French had begun conquering new territories in North America, South America, and the islands of the Caribbean. These enthusiastic conquistadors found themselves in the unprofitable position of occupying entire islands and countries, unable to work the verdant lands to capacity. Realizing the need for an imported labor force, the Europeans reassessed their West African trading partners. Since the Africans themselves were willing to trade in human cargo, the Europeans sought to exploit the situation. It was at this point that the African slave trade began in earnest. No longer content to take a few slaves back to Europe for a meager profit, the newly dubbed slave traders made several voyages a year to the area they baptized the Slave Coast (formerly known as the Gold Coast). There they acquired anywhere from one hundred to three hundred bodies at a time, which were then sold for a handsome profit to eager colonists in their new homelands. To keep up with the demand and to take advantage of the Europeans’ seemingly inexhaustible wealth, the stronger West African city-states increased their raids on the smaller inland nations seeking slaves to sell. Family members began to sell their own relatives, and debtors, social outcasts, and prisoners of war became unfortunate pawns in the slave trade.
For nearly four hundred years, an estimated twenty million men, women, and children were forcibly removed from their homes and dragged in chains to the slave markets on that infamous coast that stretched for three thousand miles from Senegal to Angola. The captives were then sold to European and Arabian slave traders. Most of the slaves were between the ages of ten and twenty-four, and the majority of them hailed from Western and West Central Africa. The citizens of countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria were highly sought after because of their specialized skills in agriculture, pottery, jewelry making, cotton weaving, and woodworking. One of the first things the slave traders did to their new cargo was shave their heads if they had not already been shorn by their captors. The “highest indignity,” wrote Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a member of a prominent West African family who was kidnapped and forced into slavery, was when his Mandingo assailants shaved his head and beard to make him appear as if he were a prisoner taken in war.
Given the importance of the hair to an African, having the head shaved was an unspeakable crime. Indeed, offers Frank Herreman, director of exhibitions at New York’s Museum for African Art and specialist in African hairstyles, “a shaved head can be interpreted as taking away someone’s identity.” Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons, 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.
The first African slaves, a group of only twenty, were brought to British North America in 1619 (long after the first slaves arrived in the Caribbean). They arrived in Jamestown at the same time the first White women set foot in the new colony. As the British had neither social nor political experience in dealing with slaves, the first African captives were contracted to work under the same terms as the White indentured servants arriving mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland. After working a specified number of years, the Africans were allowed to buy their freedom and become contributing members of society. In addition, owing to the scant number of White females, some European men sought Native American and Black women for companionship and eventually had children with them. “These laboring [European] people themselves had been aliens at home, they were aliens in America and they were not so steeped in the color code,” historian Joel Williamson wrote about cross-cultural coupling in the early days of the British colonies. Because English law at the time declared that children inherited the status of their fathers, any mixed child with a European father was considered free at birth. Most mixed-race individuals, asserts Williamson, were the offspring of White “servants” and Black people. The result was an early North America infused with a medley of skin colors, hair textures, and interracial identities.
As the years passed, however, indentured servitude for Blacks evolved into a race-based institution called slavery. One by one, laws were put into effect that systematically took away the rights of Black people, as the British embraced the economic advantage of slavery. In 1641 Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery. In 1662 Virginia courts reversed the status-of-the-father clause so that children inherited the status of their mother. Now children born to slaves were also condemned to slavery. And finally in 1670 Virginia declared that baptism did not alter a person’s condition as regards to the state of bondage or freedom. In other words, even Africans who converted to Christianity were not saved from the chains of eternal servitude. The tide had turned and the deck was stacked against Black people, but still Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans continued to procreate (often by force) and populate the land with mixed-race individuals who often fell between the lines of the law. There were a few mulattoes during this ambiguous colonial period, in fact, who were able to prosper and even owned slaves themselves. By the early 1700s, however, any person with proven African ancestry—even a single relative from one hundred years back—was considered Black and therefore eligible to be enslaved. The thirty or so years when Black Africans had been realistically able to work for freedom quickly faded from memory, and Black people arriving on the shores of a hostile land faced a life without hope for a future.
Black Hair in Bondage
The primary need for slaves in British North America was to work on the massive plantations in the mid-Atlantic and southern states. While some slaves were purchased by farmers and tradesmen living in the North, the vast majority of Black Africans arrived to find themselves sold to southern plantation owners trying their hand at growing cotton, tobacco, and/or rice. Slave owners were very interested in the Africans’ agricultural expertise, specifically at growing rice, but for the most part showed no inclination to respect the Africans’ humanity or culture. Slave owners wanted maximum output from each slave, often choosing to work them to death in a matter of years rather than show them a bit of compassion. The slaves were expected to work in the fields under a grueling sun for twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. The single meal of the day might consist of dry cornbread smeared with pork grease and some type of overcooked vegetable. Punishments for insolence, slowing down, or rebellion included whippings with a cat-o’-nine-tails, sadistic torture, and amputations of digits and limbs.
Given these inhumane and unhealthy conditions, the Africans had neither the time nor the inclination to care much about their appearance, including their hair. Moreover, treasured African combs were nowhere to be found in the New World, so the once long, thick, and healthy tresses of both women and men became tangled and matted. Out of desperation for a tool to replace the African combs, the slaves began using a sheep fleece carding tool to untangle their hair. Interestingly, there appears to be no record of slaves making new combs specifically designed for their kinky hair. “We carded our hair cuz we never had no combs, but the cards they worked better,” recalled former slave Jane Morgan in an interview with a government worker from the Work Projects Administration (WPA). “We used the cards to card wool with also, and we just wet our hair and then card it. The cards had wooden handles and strong steel wire teeth,” Morgan recalled. Scalp diseases like ringworm became pervasive among the slave population, as did lice infestations. When an outbreak of ringworm occurred, slaves commonly tied a rag around their heads to cover the unsightly scabs left by the affliction, and a worse infection would then ensue, creating a vicious cycle of hair problems, breakage, and patchy baldness. Whereas in Africa, women could spend hours a day grooming their hair and arranging it in traditional styles, on the plantations they used scarves or kerchiefs fashioned from coarse fabric scraps provided by stingy masters to keep their hair well hidden. Partly as protection from the scorching sun and hovering flies and partly out of shame for the now unsightly hair, the head rag became ubiquitous in slave culture.
A crucial determinant of how slaves wore their hair was their work assignment. For the slaves who toiled in the fields and lived in separate slave quarters, the women wore head rags and the men took to shaving their heads, wearing straw hats, or using animal shears to cut their hair short. On the other hand, the slaves who experienced a closer relationship with the White population—laundresses, barbers, cooks, nursemaids, housekeepers, chauffeurs, valets—often styled their hair in an imitation of their White owners. For example, in the eighteenth century it was fashionable for White men of the upper class to wear wigs. As a result, some Black slaves took to wearing wigs as well; others shaped and styled their own hair to look like a wig. The slaves who worked inside the plantation houses were required to present a neat and tidy appearance or risk the wrath of the master, so men and women often wore tight braids, plaits, and cornrows (made by sectioning the hair and braiding it flat to the scalp). The braid patterns were commonly based on African tradition and styles. Other styles Blacks wore proved to be an amalgam of traditional African styles, European trends, and even Native American practices. One runaway slave was described as having “the Top of his head Shaved, and he combs it back like a woman.” It was not uncommon to see Black men with long ponytails (called “queues”) and partially shaved heads and Black women with their hair parted down the middle and brushed into a version of a European style.
In this new land dominated by pale skin and straight hair, African hair was deemed wholly unattractive and inferior by the Europeans. Many White people went so far as to insist that Blacks did not have real hair, preferring to classify it in a derogatory manner as “wool.” Descriptions of Black hair in the early 1700s—in runaway slave advertisements, slave auction posters, and even the daily newspapers—use this classification, almost as if by likening the hair to an animal’s, Whites would be validated in their inhumane treatment of Blacks. “Before you can subjugate or oppress people you must relabel them as subhuman,” declares Joy DeGruy Leary, a mental health therapist and Ph.D. studying the transgenerational trauma African-Americans suffered because of slavery. Once the feminine beauty ideal was characterized as requiring “long straight hair, with fine features,” says DeGruy Leary, White slave owners sought to pathologize African features like dark skin and kinky hair to further demoralize the slaves, especially the women. Aided by the scientific community, which had officially relegated dark-skinned, “woolly”-haired people to the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, the slave owners’ brainwashing took root. “Black women began to perceive themselves as ugly and inferior,” DeGruy Leary says. “And if you believe you’re inferior, then you’re much easier to control.” On the part of the slave owners, she adds, this brainwashing was not accidental, but deliberate. When the slave women internalized the slave owner’s racist rhetoric, which was almost inevitable, it wasn’t long before they passed the pathology on to their sons, daughters, and future generations.
Even though slave masters did their best to break the spirit of the Black people, the hair refused to relinquish its unique character, and some slaves consciously chose not to hide it. Runaway slave notices posted in the 1700s, for example, make mention of flamboyant hairstyles that belie any sense of shame or inferiority. The following hair descriptions of runaways were used in an East Coast newspaper at the time: “strong bearded and hair longer than Negroes commonly have,” “a very good head of hair,” “a short chubby fellow with extraordinary bushy hair,” “A Negro man his hair on the top with a tupee foretop,” “his hair is cut short on his crown but curls around his neck,” “his hair grows down his forehead and is bare on the temple.” Meanwhile a female runaway, Kate, from South Carolina, had “bushy hair, which she is apt to keep uncombed.” Even though unkempt hair went against the African aesthetic, some historians suggest that such unconventional styles were a way for Black people to assert their individuality and humanity in the repressive slave culture. “Hair that was worn long and bushy,” argue Shane and Graham White, authors of Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, “emphasized and even flaunted its distinctive texture [and] may have been an affirmation of difference and even of defiance, an attempt to revalorize a biological characteristic that White racism had sought to devalue.” With a steady stream of Africans entering the slave population, the meaning and significance of traditional hairstyles was not easily forgotten. It has even been suggested that in the first century of North American slavery, some of the more unique styles worn by men, like the combination ponytail and shaved head hairdos, were used in place of ritual scarification or for rite-of-passage ceremonies. White and White suggest that “the elaborate and distinctive styling of male hair may well have served as a form of substitute bodily decoration that still marked these young men off but seemed rather more attuned to their new circumstances as American slaves.”
By the time the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in North America in 1808, a distinct Black American culture had developed. As described by authors Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith in Africans in America, “This new culture became an intriguing mixture of African traditions and those developed in the Americas as a means for survival. Blacks from different parts of Africa combined their beliefs, their music, and their languages while borrowing from the European culture to create a commonality.” Though slaves could still be bought and sold, they were no longer being imported from Africa. With this peculiar institution of domestic slavery firmly entrenched in American society, a plantation owner was often judged not just by the quantity of his slaves but the quality as well. Sickly and unsightly slaves were both a bad reflection on the slave owner and a difficult commodity to sell. So while life did not suddenly become pleasant and amicable for the slaves, they were allocated some time for personal grooming. It was around this time that many slave owners began to allow their slaves to “rest” on Sundays in order to attend church and observe the Sabbath.
Because this was the only day when there was time to devote to oneself, Sundays became the designated day for doing hair. “The only time the slaves had to comb their hair was on Sunday,” former slave James Williams told a WPA interviewer. “They would comb and roll each other’s hair and the men cut each other’s hair. That all the time they got.” Another former slave, Charlie Hudson, had similar memories. “Sundays the old folks stayed home and looked one another’s heads over for nits and lice. Then, the womans wrapped each other’s hair so it would stay fixed till the next Sunday.” In Natchez, Mississippi, a White New England traveler described the following Sunday morning church preparations in the slave quarters. “In every cabin the men are shaving and dressing—the women, arrayed in their gay muslins, are arranging their frizzy hair, in which they take no little pride.” All week the hair might be hidden under a scarf, but for church on Sundays the hair would be combed out and styled. “In them days all the darky wommens wore they hair in string ’cept when they tended church or a wedding,” recalled former slave Gus Fester. Amos Lincoln added, “All week they wear they hair all roll with cotton that they unfold off the cotton ball. Sunday come they comb out they hair fine. They want it nice and natural curly.” Besides serving as the spiritual renewal for the week, church also became the place for the slaves to exchange hair remedies and secrets.
HOMEMADE HAIR CARE
After two centuries in bondage, a unique homegrown system of Black hair care had developed. Over the years, the goal of grooming the hair had morphed from the elaborate and symbolic designs of Africa into an imitation of White styles adapted to Black kinks and curls. Both women and men were interested in straightening their hair because straight European hair was held up as the beauty ideal. There existed neither a public nor a private forum where Black hair was celebrated in America. And without the influx of Africans to the slave population, it was difficult for Blacks born and raised in captivity to take pride in their kinky locs.
Without the combs, herbal ointments, and palm oil used in Africa for hairdressing, the slaves were forced to use common Western household products and equipment to achieve certain styles. Instead of palm oil, the slaves took to using oil-based products like bacon grease and butter to condition and soften the hair, prepare it for straightening, and make it shine. Cornmeal and kerosene were used as scalp cleaners, and coffee became a natural dye for women. Several methods of straightening the hair were concocted by ingenious Blacks who were short on commercial products. Men would slick axle grease meant for wagon wheels over their hair for a combination dye job and straightener. Women would slather the hair with butter, bacon fat, or goose grease and then use a butter knife heated in a can over a fire as a crude curling iron. Sometimes a piece of cloth warmed over a flame would be pulled across the head and worn for a short while to stretch the curls out. Women also wrapped their hair in strings, strips of nylon, cotton, or eel skin to decrease the kink and leave looser curls. Some slave mothers took to wrapping their children’s hair to start “training” it to go straight as early as infancy. The most mordant device used to straighten the hair was lye, mixed with potatoes to decrease its caustic nature. This creamy concoction was smeared on the hair and the lye would straighten the curls. Unfortunately, it could also eat the skin right off a person’s head.
“GOOD” AND “BAD” HAIR
The quest for straight hair was often a torturous obsession for the slaves, but it was not just about conforming to the prevailing fashions of the day. Straight hair translated to economic opportunity and social advantage. Because many of the more than one hundred thousand free Blacks in nineteenth-century America were the mulatto offspring of the first African arrivals and their European companions, lighter skin and loosely curled hair would often signify free status. In fact, many light-complected slaves tried to pass themselves off as free, hoping their European features would be enough to convince bounty hunters that they belonged to that privileged class. “A mulatto wench is very well featured all but her nose and lips which are thick and flat,” read an announcement for a runaway in the New York Gazette. “Has long black curld [sic] hair, may pass for a free person.” Curiously, the hair was considered the most telling feature of Negro status, more than the color of the skin. Even though some slaves (many of them products of interracial coupling between slave and master) had skin as light as many Whites, the rule of thumb was that if the hair showed just a little bit of kinkiness, a person would be unable to pass as White. Essentially, the hair acted as the true test of Blackness, which is why some male slaves opted to shave their heads to try to get rid of the genetic evidence of their ancestry when attempting to escape to freedom. Consider this description of a runaway posted in the New York Weekly Journal: “A mulatto man, aged 23, pretty fair with his head commonly shaved in order to make himself pass for a white man.”
Straight hair was not only about freedom for a slave. Those slaves living on plantations soon realized that lighter-skinned Blacks with straighter hair worked inside the plantation houses performing less backbreaking labor than the slaves relegated to the fields. The slaves who worked in the house also had access to hand-me-down clothes, better food, education, and sometimes even the promise of freedom upon the master’s death. The reason the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired slaves were chosen for domestic service has a lot to do with the fact that many of these mixed-race slaves were the offspring of the master or his son. Noted American slave historian Kenneth M. Stamp confirmed that “unmarried slaveholders and the young males who grew up in slave holding families, some bearing the South’s most distinguished names, played a major role in [miscegenation]. Indeed, given their easy access to female slaves, it seems probable that miscegenation was more common among them than among any other group.” Slaves with light skin and straight hair also might have been favored because it was easier for the White masters and mistresses to have people with familiar physical features waiting on them in their own home. And, of course, the “exotic”-looking mulatto female slaves were often chosen to work in the master’s house because he had every intention of making her his sex slave. “Slaves selected for their grace, beauty and light skins were shipped to the fancy-girl markets of New Orleans and other cities. Some ended up in bordellos, but the majority became the mistresses of wealthy planters, gamblers, or businessmen,” wrote historian Dorothy Sterling in We Are Your Sisters. Coincidentally, as these female slaves with long, loosely curled hair entered the plantation houses, the plantation wives instituted a new form of punishment for them. The jealous mistress of the manor often shaved off the lustrous mane of hair, indicating that White women too understood the significance of long, kink-free hair.
As the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired slaves—men and women—continued to curry favor with the Whites in power, a skin-shade, hair-texture hierarchy developed within the social structure of the slave community. There were the light-skinned house slaves and the dark-skinned field slaves. The light-skinned slaves were said to have “good hair,” and the dark-skinned slaves to have “bad hair.” Good hair was thought of as long and lacking in kink, tight curls, and frizz. And the straighter the better. Bad hair was the antithesis, namely African hair in its purest form. White slave masters reinforced the “good-hair,” light-skin power structure in two ways. By selecting the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired slaves for the best positions within his household, he showed they were more desirable. At slave auctions he would pay almost five times more for a house slave than for a field slave, showing they were also more valuable (a field hand could be bought for sixteen hundred dollars, while the going rate for a “fancy girl” was five thousand dollars). Black people themselves internalized the concept and within their own ranks propagated the notion that darker-skinned Blacks with kinkier hair were less attractive, less intelligent, and worth less than their lighterhued brothers and sisters. “We despise, we almost hate ourselves, and all that favors us,” lamented one William J. Wilson in an article written in 1853 in Frederick Douglass’ Paper. “Well may we scoff at black skins and woolly heads, since every model set before us for admiration, has a pallid face and flaxen head.” By 1850 in the South, free mulattoes outnumbered slave mulattoes by two to one.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a relatively small population of free Black Americans—clustered in urban centers in the North—were engaging in debates over the effects of light-skin, “good-hair” politics on Black identity. Already the practice of hair straightening was being questioned as the only option for mainstream society’s acceptance. Martin H. Freeman voiced his doubts in the Anglo-African magazine:
The child is taught directly or indirectly that he or she is pretty, just in proportion as the features approximate the Anglo-Saxon standard. Hence flat noses must be pinched up. Kinky hair must be subjected to a straightening process—oiled, and pulled, twisted up, tied down, sleeked over and pressed under, or cut off so short that it can’t curl, sometimes the natural hair is shaved off and its place supplied by a straight wig.… Now all this is very foolish, perhaps wicked, but under the circumstances it is very natural.
Ironically, keeping the hair straight and in a close approximation of the mainstream styles of the day did very little to gain the acceptance or respect of White Americans. In fact, it often had the opposite effect. The free Black populations sprinkled about in cities like Boston and Philadelphia were wont to wear the same fashions and hairstyles as their White contemporaries only to find themselves ridiculed and satirized in the press, in the theaters, and on the streets. Blacks were actually accused of being pretentious in their adherence to White fashion standards. The culmination of this White derision was in the introduction of the minstrel show in the 1830s. White actors made up in blackface criticized and poked fun at the clothing, hairstyles, and physical behavior of well-dressed Black men and women—contemptuously termed dandies. Invented blackface characters like Zip Coon and Jim Crow became universal symbols of Black buffoonery across the country.
At the same time, those free Blacks with extremely light skin and straight hair, known as the “mulatto elite,” still enjoyed a sense of freedom and riches unknown by Blacks with darker skin. Historian Joel Williamson writes that these “affluent” and “cultivated” Blacks “enjoyed a status markedly elevated above numbers of the free black mass.” To maintain their precarious privilege, they were adept at segregating themselves in tight-knit communities. From New York to Louisiana, this Black elite protected its position in society by marrying only other Blacks with similar light coloring and straight hair, living in certain neighborhoods, and associating professionally and socially with similarly hued people. As far back as 1790, organizations were founded—like the Brown Fellowship Society in Charleston, South Carolina—whose criteria for entry were at least partially based on physical characteristics. A business networking group for Negro men, the Brown Fellowship was created by a group of free Black men, but membership was restricted to light-skinned Blacks. In response, those darker-hued men snubbed by the group formed the Society of Free Dark Men. By the time slavery was officially abolished in 1865, “good” hair and light skin had become the official keys to membership in the Negro elite.
Free at Last
Emancipation meant many things to the Black slaves of North America. With the promises of restitution and the opportunities offered through Reconstruction, the average Black person seemed to have the world at his or her feet. Of course this proved to be very far from the truth. Many Blacks actually felt they fared better under slavery than in the first years of freedom. “Most all the slaves had [a] place to live, clothes to wear, and plenty to eats [sic], and that is more than we has now,” former slave Calvin Moye told a WPA interviewer. Sharecropping and menial labor were often the only options for the Black population in the rural South. Black people who were able to prosper still had to tread lightly around Whites so as not to provoke their jealousy or anger. And of course nobody wanted to attract the attention of the Ku Klux Klan. It was considered best for Blacks, especially men, to keep a low profile. Anything that a Black person had or did in excess was subject to the White majority’s intense scrutiny. This was even true with regard to hair. In post–Civil War society, it was the fashion for White men to wear longer hair and beards, but when Black men allowed their hair to grow and stopped shaving off their facial hair (think Frederick Douglass), they were considered uppity and wild. On the other hand, Black women who attempted to style their hair in the long, prim, and proper styles of their White counterparts were considered well-adjusted by White society.
While White Americans took their time adapting to all Black people being “free,” those tawny-hued Blacks who had been free for generations scrambled to solidify their position as an elite group. They immediately defined themselves as “bona fide” free Blacks, whereas the newly manumitted were termed “sot free.” Needless to say, the “bona fides” did not mix with the “sot frees” and continued to establish schools, social organizations, and business networks where light skin and “good” hair were routinely the first criteria for entry. Even houses of worship were divided. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at this time “bona fide” churches sprang up where congregants had to pass a series of tests for membership. In some churches a fine-toothed comb was hung from the front door. All persons wanting to join the church had to be able to pass the comb smoothly through their hair. If their hair was too kinky, membership was denied. This was known as the comb test. There was also the brown-bag test, by which the skin was measured for lightness against a paper bag. During this time, historically Black colleges and universities like Howard (established in 1867), Hampton (1868), and Spelman (1881) were founded to educate the Black elite, but there too, judging from photographs of the early graduates, it seems as if one of the unspoken requirements for admission was a skin tone or hair texture that showcased a Caucasian ancestor.
The motivation for this intraracial discrimination stemmed from an unfortunately painful truth. White society, to some extent, was more accepting of lighter-skinned Blacks. It didn’t help, however, that Black people, both light- and dark-skinned, helped perpetuate this truth by maintaining the straight-hair, light-skin hierarchy within their own ranks. Jobs, marriage partners, even education were typically predicated on the texture of the hair and the shade of the skin. Therefore, life after slavery for many Blacks meant a continued obsession with straightening the hair and lightening the skin. Now free to devote more time to their hair, Black men and women eagerly lavished attention on their locs and sought out the few commercial products now being manufactured exclusively for Black hair. Most Black people were desperate, in this time of potential prosperity, just to fit in with the crowd and make a decent life for themselves, firmly believing that a superficial cosmetic change could make a startling difference in the quality of their lives.
Advertisers—both White and Black—took advantage of the idea to sell hair straighteners and skin lighteners that promised not just to enhance one’s beauty but to improve one’s station in life. “You owe it to yourself, as well as to others who are interested in you, to make yourself as attractive as possible. Attractiveness will contribute much to your success—both socially and commercially,” read a late-nineteenth-century advertisement for Curl-I-Cure hair preparations. In her book Hair Raising, Noliwe M. Rooks, a hair historian and visiting professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, writes that in the late nineteenth century “advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straighteners marketed by White companies suggest to Blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within African-American communities and social acceptance by the dominant culture.” The products being sold, like arsenic wafers for lightening the skin and lye for straightening the hair, were often dangerous chemical concoctions that not only failed to perform miracles but could prove deadly.
In the rural South, where an estimated 90 percent of the Black population continued to dwell after the Civil War, hair traditions continued as they had in slavery. Since many Blacks were still slaves to the land—employed as sharecroppers—a laborious, unhealthy antebellum lifestyle prevailed. The concept of personal time was still largely unknown. Women kept their braided hairstyles covered with a head rag, only to feel the light of day on Sundays and special occasions. Meanwhile in the northern cities, the Black men and women who had more access to professional hair salons and the few hair-care products on the market began to incorporate hairstyling into their daily routine. It was still a chore, but for the first time since the journey from Africa, Black hair could be celebrated outside the bonds of slavery.
A Helping of Good Old-Fashioned Black Hair Superstitions
1. Always burn the hair in your brush or someone could use it to put a hex on you.
2. Never comb, brush, or cut your hair outside because if a bird comes and collects a stray loc for its nest, you will:
• Feel it pecking at your head
• Get headaches
• Lose your mind
• Suffer the same fate as the bird’s babies
3. Always wear your hair covered when menstruating.
4. If you allow more than one person to work on your hair at a time:
• Your hair will fall out
• The youngest worker/helper will die
5. Don’t let a pregnant woman do your hair or you’ll become pregnant too.
6. After someone finishes working on your hair, it’s bad luck to say thank you. Instead, say “More hair.”
7. Never cut a boy child’s hair before age one or:
• It won’t grow
• It will be kinky and nappy
8. After you cut your hair, if you place a loc in the Bible it will grow back faster.
9. It’s bad luck for a woman to cut a man’s hair, especially if she’s menstruating.
10. If you want your hair to grow back, only cut it when there is a full moon.
11. If you get gray hair when you’re young, it means you were a good baby.
Copyright © 2001, 2014, by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps
Foreword copyright © 2014 by Melissa Harris-Perry