Posted on October 31, 2011
In this blog, Harriet Deacon continues the series on hair and heritage by reviewing the US literature on African-American experiences with hair and racism.

'I want to know my hair again, the way I knew it before I knew that my hair is me, before I lost the right to me, before I knew that the burden of beauty - or lack of it - for an entire race of people could be tied up with my hair and me.'
Paulette Caldwell, 'A Hair Piece' (1991: 365)

In my second piece on the issue of hair and heritage, I explore how natural black hair came to be regarded in a negative light in the USA under slavery, and how this played out in the politics of protest and accommodation of the 20th century in the US. Hair matters, because appearance matters. A study of appearance discrimination in the US (see Beauty Pays by Daniel Hamermesh) calculated that appearance discrimination alone can account for an earning disparity of about USD 140,000 over a lifetime. And, as we saw in my previous post, ideals of beauty in the west are gendered and racialised.

One of the ways of challenging this is to talk about it. There has been a growing commentary on black hair in the USA, including academic articles and books (such as Hair Matters by Ingrid Banks), a documentary about '˜nappy hair' by Regina Kimbell, the Good Hair movie by Chris Rock and the art of Michael D. Harris. Oprah weighed in on the discussion, (including also an examination of how white women dye, straighten, thicken and otherwise change their hair).

In this series of blogs, we'd also like to suggest that the African experience could and should contribute to the debate on this issue. To start off, however, let me summarise what has been written about African American hair.

Black hair: expression, assimilation and rebellion

Women's heads in Benyn and Men's heads in Benyn - Soldiers; Captains; the Viador). Plate taken from Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea by Pieter de Marees. (originally published, 1602. From White & White 1995).
The Europeans who began to visit western Africa in the late fifteenth century were impressed by the myriad hairstyles of locals: braids, plaits (with shells, beads, or strips of material woven in), shaved areas, and areas cut to different lengths to make patterns.

Once Africans were enslaved and exported to the west, positive views of natural African hair were very rare in European commentary. In the American South, white slave owners pejoratively called their African slaves' hair 'woolly'. Slave women with straighter hair and lighter skins were employed in the house, and those with kinkier hair and darker skin worked in the fields (Patton 2006).

In fact, various authors (e.g. Morrow 1973) suggest that hair type or texture became a more potent marker of enslavement in the US than skin colour.

White and White (1995) explain that, ''¦ in the years before the Civil War, when the vast majority of African Americans were enslaved, the styling of hair '¦ was one of the few areas in which whites allowed blacks a relatively unhindered scope for cultural expression '¦ Ahead lay a racial climate so oppressive that, at least in the South, any sign of ostentation would have been perilous: an era of hair-straightening in which the potential of African American hair for stylistic innovation was largely denied. It would not be until the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s that the hair of African Americans would again become a primary visual medium for exuberant display.'

Since the civil rights movement, however, bell hooks says that 'assimilation' has become the main route to success for African Americans, their freedom of expression undermined by adaptation to white aesthetic standards or to the need for a well-paying job (bell hooks 1994).

Making nice

Today, Ingrid Banks (2000) says that the distinction between 'good' hair and 'bad [nappy] hair' is 'probably the most indelible construction of hair that occupies the psyche of African Americans'. The first question on the birth of an African American baby is usually about the gender of the child (is it a boy?); the second is about their hair (Lester 2000). Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon illustrated the dilemmas faced by African American women whose Black partners would prefer them to have 'good' hair '“ or who wish it for themselves (Ashe 1995).

One of the informants in Bank's book reports that at school the black children with 'nappy hair' were sidelined in school, while those with 'good hair' were favoured. Unstyled kinky hair, also known as 'nappy' hair, is associated with 'wild Africa': see this video response to racism suffered by Artaska Perry (a young black author in the US who writes on racism in the education system). There are a number of cases in which people have been fired from their jobs for wearing cornrows or dreadlocks to work in the US (Patton 2006). Black women have been forced by their employers to wear straightened hair and '“ almost unbelievably - prohibited from dyeing their hair blonde (Greene 2011).

Black women comment on the camaraderie of the salon, and the fun of a new hairstyle, but those who choose to make a political statement by 'going natural' are often harshly criticized. Preferring African styles over European ones '“ or even 'natural' styles like the Afro or the dreadlock - is still an overtly political statement in middle class America. As one young MBA graduate said, 'I'm in corporate America, so I can't just cut off my hair. Or, I can't just go natural just right now' (Rubin 2003).

This has given rise to a huge industry in hair-straightening, permanents, hair weaves, braid extensions, Jheri curls, as well as skin lightening treatments. African American women spend more than three times more money than white American women on hair care (Wilson and Russell 1996, 92). The capacity to achieve a certain kind of grooming is itself a sign of middle class status.

End piece

Solange Knowles, who decided to 'go natural', criticized the 'bondage' of conformity to a certain hair ideal for black women in particular, whose hair care choices are so highly limited and politicized.

Personally, I don't have any objection to hair extensions or grooming, or the wearing of false eyelashes and wigs. Everyone should have fun experimenting with their hair. But the situation for black women strikes me as decidedly racist in the most personal way. Of course, there are many avenues for resistance against such discrimination, but the bottom line is that whether one buys in or makes a statement, it costs time, money, often affects opportunities and in some cases, it affects self-esteem. I think that speaking out about prejudice around ideals of beauty enables young women to make more informed choices about what avenues they wish to take, and perhaps it also makes people think about the source of their own prejudices around hair.

In this series we hope to raise the issue in an inter-continental debate, beyond the confines of the USA. In South Africa, remembering the pencil test for whiteness under Apartheid we have our own particular trajectory around hair, discussed in novels like that of June Bam. Zimitri Erasmus (1997) has written one of the few South African academic pieces on hair that I could find. In the UK, there is also little public debate (although Belinda Otas has been starting some discussion on the issue).


Ashe, B.D. 1995. "Why don't he Like My Hair?": Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God. African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 579-592.

Banks, I. 2000. Hair matters: beauty, power, and Black women's consciousness. New York University Press.

Caldwell, P. 1991. 'A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender', Duke Law Journal, vol. 1991, no. 2, Apr., 1991.

Erasmus, Z. 1997. '! My Hare Gaan Huistoe': Hair-Styling as Black Cultural Practice', Agenda, no. 32.

Greene, D. W., 2011. 'Black Women Can't Have Blonde Hair . . . in the Workplace', Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 14, No. 2.

hooks, b. 1994 Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.

Lester, N. A., 2000. 'Nappy Edges and Goldy Locks: African American Daughters
and the Politics of Hair'. The Lion and the Unicorn, vol.24, no.2, pp.201-224.

Morrow, W. 1973. 400 Years Without a Comb. San Diego.

Patton, T.O. 2006. Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair. Feminist Formations, vol.18, no. 2, pp. 24-51.

Rubin, L. Fitts, M.L. and Becker, A.E. ,2003. ''Whatever feels good in my soul': body ethics and aesthetics among African American and Latina women'. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 27, pp. 49'“75.

Wilson, M., and Russell, K. 1996. Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap between Black Women and White Women. New York: Anchor Books.

White, S. and White, G. 1995. 'Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries' The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 45-76.

Harriet Deacon is the UK correspondent for the Archival Platform