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Prominent Ghanaian economist and author George Ayittey with natural afro-textured hair.
Sub-Saharan African ethnic San woman of Botswana with natural afro-textured hair.

Afro-textured hair or Black hair, are terms used to refer to the typical texture of Black African hair that has not been altered by hot combs, flat irons, or chemicals (by perming, relaxing, or straightening). Each strand of this hair type grows in a tiny spring-like, corkscrew shape. The overall effect is such that, despite relatively fewer actual hair shafts compared to straight hair,[1] this texture appears (and feels) denser than its straight counterparts. Due to this, it is often referred to as 'thick', 'bushy', or 'woolly'. For several reasons, possibly including its relatively flat cross section (among other factors[2]), this hair type also conveys a dry or matte appearance.[3][4] It is also very coarse,[3] and its unique shape also renders it very prone to breakage when combed or brushed.[4] Adjectives such as "firm",[5] "kinky", "nappy" or "spiralled" are often used to describe natural afro-textured hair in Western societies.



There are differences across ethnicity in the structure, density, and growth rate of hair. With regards to structure, all human hair has the same basic chemical composition in terms of keratin protein content.[6] However, Franbourg et al. have found that Black hair may differ in the distribution of lipids throughout the hair shaft.[6] Afro-textured hair was not as densely concentrated as other phenotypes.[1] Specifically, the average density of Afro-textured hair was found to be approximately 190 hairs per square centimeter. This was significantly lower than that of Caucasian hair, which, on average, produces approximately 227 hairs per square centimeter.[1] Further, Loussourarn found that Afro-textured hair grows at an average rate of approximately 256 micrometers per day, while that of Caucasians grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day.[1][7] In addition, due to a phenomenon called 'shrinkage', Afro-textured hair that is a given length when stretched straight can appear much shorter when allowed to naturally coil upon itself.[8] Shrinkage is most evident when Afro-hair is (or has recently been) wet.[8]


History in the United States

African-American woman wearing styled textured hair. Photo taken ca 1850.
A young African-American woman wearing styled textured hair. Photo taken between 1885 and 1910.

Diasporic Black Africans in the Americas have been experimenting with ways to style their hair since their arrival in the Western Hemisphere well before the nineteenth century. In the U.S. following emancipation (between the late 1890s and the early 1900s), Annie Malone, Madam C. J. Walker and Garrett Augustus Morgan revolutionized African American hair care by inventing and marketing chemical (and heat-based) applications to alter the natural tightly curled texture. During the 1930s, conking (vividly described in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X") became an innovative method in the U.S. for Black men to straighten kinky hair; whereas, women at that time tended to either wear wigs, or to hot-comb their hair (rather than conk it) in order to temporarily mimic the same straight style without permanently altering the natural curl pattern.

It has been debated whether hair straightening practices arose out of a desire to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Supporters of the second process believe that the same prejudice that viewed lighter skin as preferable to darker, held that straight or wavy hair (i.e. "good" hair) was preferable to tightly curled hair, and that this prejudice originated not from Black African Diasporic peoples but from European slaveholders and colonizers as part of the rhetoric used to support slavery and racially-based social class stratifications. Some claim that the dominant prejudice for Eurocentric ideas of beauty pervades the western world.[9]. Further, the tendency to judge people, especially women, based upon their physical appearance speaks to the fact that this issue is especially poignant for African American females. In other words, it is a clear example of an inherent, interlocking conflict that Black women face with Western norms that involves both race (i.e. the fact that the natural afro-hair texture of sub-Saharan African descended peoples deviates starkly from the global 'norm'), and gender (i.e. the fact that the disproportionately strong need for women to be physically 'beautiful' is heavily marketed to all Westerners, and is thus reinforced by men (and women) of all races).

Madam C. J. Walker invented method that relaxed textured hair. Photo taken ca 1914.
Civil rights activist Angela Davis wearing an afro in 1973.

The civil rights movement and black power and pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. created an impetus for African Americans to express their political commitments and self-love by the wearing of fairly long, natural hair. This contributed to the emergence of the Afro hairstyle into American mainstream culture, as an affirmation of Black African heritage, that "black is beautiful," and a rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty. It has been used in songs, as a symbol of Black African heritage, notably in I Wish by Stevie Wonder. By the 1970s natural hair had evolved into a popular hairstyle.

Over the years, the popularity of natural hair has waxed and waned. Today, a significant percentage of African American women elect to straighten their hair with relaxers of some kind (either heat or chemically based). This is done despite the fact that prolonged application of such chemicals (or heat) can result in overprocessing, breakage and thinning of the hair. Nonetheless, over the past decade or so, natural hair has once again increased in popularity with the emergence of styles such as cornrows, locks, braiding, twists and short, cropped hair, most of which originated in Ancient Africa. With the emergence of hip-hop culture and Caribbean influences like reggae music, more non-blacks have begun to wear these hairstyles as well. There has been a boom in marketing hair products such as "Out of Africa" shampoo to African American consumers. Slogans that promote a pan-Black African appreciation of Afro-textured hair include "Happy to be nappy," "Don't worry, be nappy," as well as "Love, peace and nappiness."[citation needed]

However, most Black women in the West continue to relax their hair.[9] For, despite the rise in the popularity of these natural hair styles, people (particularly women) are subtly (or overtly) discouraged from wearing their hair in a natural style in the workplace and/or by their families, friends, or significant others (see the section below for examples). Notably, the Western standards of appearance are growing in strength throughout the world as a whole. Hence, the American marketing strategies that have inspired Black women throughout the African diaspora to straighten their hair are now being directed at Black Africans themselves. For this reason, in many urban areas of the African continent, and increasingly in some rural areas, straightened hair (and all of the mentioned complications associated with it) is common among adult females, and traditional hair care methods are being increasingly discarded and forgotten.[citation needed]

Controversy over natural Afro-textured hair in the United States

Although there has been a reemergence of natural Afro-textured hair, there is still the fact that straightened hair is considered to be a more acceptable or professional hairstyle. This is evidenced by the fact that high-profile black women in professions such as journalism and politics still wear straight hair.

In 1971 Melba Tolliver, a WABC-TV correspondent, made national headlines when she wore an afro while covering the wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of President Richard Nixon. The station threatened to take Tolliver off of the air until the story caught national attention.[10]

In 1981 Dorothy Reed, a reporter for KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, was suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows with beads on the ends. KGO called her hairstyle "inappropriate and distracting." After two weeks of a public dispute, an NAACP demonstration outside of the station, and negotiations, Reed and the station reached an agreement. The company paid her lost salary and she removed the colored beads. She returned to the air, still braided, but beadless.[11]

A 1998 incident became national news when Ruth Ann Sherman, a teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn, introduced her students to the book Nappy Hair by African American author Carolivia Herron. Sherman, who is white, was criticized by parents of black children, who thought that the book presented a negative stereotype.[12]

On Wednesday, April 4, 2007 radio talk-show host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team playing in the Women's NCAA Championship game as a group of "nappy-headed hos" during his Imus in the Morning show. Bernard McGuirk then compared the game to "the jigaboos versus the wannabes," alluding to Spike Lee's film School Daze. Imus apologized two days later, after receiving criticism. CBS Radio canceled Don Imus' morning show on Thursday, April 12, 2007.

During August 2007, American Lawyer Magazine reported that an unnamed junior Glamour Magazine staffer did a presentation on the "Dos and Don'ts of Corporate Fashion" for Cleary Gottlieb, a New York City law firm. There was a slide show where the woman made negative remarks about black women's natural hairstyles in the workplace, calling them "shocking," "inappropriate," and "political." Both the law firm and Glamour Magazine issued apologies to the staff.[13][14] However, natural afro hair texture continues to be an issue in US workplaces.[15]

When asked by his daughter, "How come I don't have good hair?" Chris Rock spent two years making a documentary entitled Good Hair where he explored some of the aspects of African American hair, a $9 billion dollar a year industry. The film debuted October 9, 2009.

Natural black hair styling

Woman wearing long Afro-textured hair styled in twists.
Woman with micro-mini braids.
Woman wearing loose textured afro.

Because of the highly politicized nature of natural black hair in the Western world and the intersectional pressures faced by black women in particular, the care and styling of natural black hair has become an enormous industry. Throughout the United States, there are a number of salons and beauty supply stores that cater solely to clients with natural afro-textured hair. Online forums, social networking groups and web-logs have also become enormously popular resources for Blacks in the exchange of styling ideas, techniques, and hair-care procedures.

Woman wearing long Afro-textured hair styled in dreadlocks.

There are a number of specific hair-styles that are commonplace in the canon of styles for natural Black hair, many the result of the experimentation of African slaves in the Western colonies. The afro is a large, often spherical growth of afro-textured hair popular in the Black power movement. The afro has a number of variants including the "afro-puff" and a variant in which the afro is treated with a blow dryer to become a flowing mane. The high-top fade was common among African-American men in the 1980s and has since been replaced in popularity by the Caesar hair cut. Other styles include plaits or braids, the two-strand twist and basic twists all of which can form into manicured dreadlocks if the hair is allowed to knit together in the style-pattern. Basic twists include finger-coils and comb-coil twists. Dreadlocks, also called "dreads," "locks" or "locs," can also be formed by allowing the hairs to weave together on their own from an afro. Salon, or fashion, locks, alone have a large variety of styling options that involve strategic parting, sectioning and patterning of the dreads.

Natural hair can also be styled into bantu knots, which involves sectioning the hair with square or triangular parts and fastening it into tight knots on the head. Bantu knots can be made from both loose natural hair as well as dreadlocks. When braided flat against the scalp, natural hair can be worn as basic cornrows or form a countless variety of artistic patterns. Other styles include the "natural" and "microcoils" for close-cropped hair, the twist-out, "brother-locks" and "sister-locks," the fade and any combination of styles such as cornrows and afro-puff.

It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of Black hair styles involve parting the natural into individual sections before styling.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Loussouarn G (August 2001). "African hair growth parameters". Br. J. Dermatol. 145 (2): 294–7. PMID 11531795. 
  2. ^ Franbourg et al. "Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction" In Ethnic Skin and Hair E. Berardesca, J. Leveque, and H. Maibach (Eds.). page 101. Informa Healthcare. 2007
  3. ^ a b Nick Arrojo, Jenny Acheson, Great Hair: Secrets to Looking Fabulous and Feeling Beautiful Every Day, (St. Martin's Press: 2008), p.184
  4. ^ a b Dale H. Johnson, Hair and hair care, (CRC Press: 1997), p.237
  5. ^ Walker, Adre. Andre Talks Hair. (1997) SIMON & SCHUSTER
  6. ^ a b Franbourg et al. (2007). "Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction". in Enzo Berardesca, Jean-Luc Lévêque and Howard I. Maibach. Ethnic skin and hair. New York: Informa Healthcare. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-8493-3088-9. OCLC 70218017. 
  7. ^ Khumalo NP, Gumedze F (September 2007). "African hair length in a school population: a clue to disease pathogenesis?". Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 6 (3): 144–51. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2007.00326.x. PMID 17760690. 
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ a b Byrd, Ayana D.; Tharps, Lori L. (2001). Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-28322-9. 
  10. ^ Douglas, William (Oct 9, 2009). "For Many Black Women, Hair Tells the Story of Their Roots". Retrieved Dec 29, 2009. 
  11. ^ "1981:Television reporter Dorothy Reed is suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows". Retrieved Dec 29, 2009. 
  12. ^ Leyden, Liz (1998-12-03). "N.Y. Teacher Runs Into a Racial Divide". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  13. ^ Moe (2007-08-14). "'Glamour' Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate "Don't"". Jezebel. Gawker Media. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  14. ^ Kym Platt (2007-09-07). "Glamour Apologizes". Ask This Black Woman. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  15. ^ Having ethnic hair in corporate America


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