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Black History Month – Reclaiming the Afro

Hair is something that is a big part of our identity. It also has huge importance in Black history.  

From Cornrows to Crochet braids, Black hair is so frequently seen in today’s mainstream world. But do we know much about it?

Me at Llandit Major beach in South Wales with natural blowdried hair

As a second-generation Black British Woman, I have always struggled to come to terms with my hair. When I was younger, I particularly remember despising the way it looks, feels, and what others might think. When I look back on this, I think that this mostly contributed to the fact I grew up in a small sleepy town where the demographic was mostly white – not to mention the Eurocentric beauty standards that I was constantly subjected to from the media. My hair journey, like a lot of Black people, has been somewhat tumultuous.

Our hair is so versatile and unique that it is deeply embedded into our culture. However, because of ideas rooted in Eurocentrism, for example, natural kinky hair has been seen as ‘unprofessional’ and so smooth, silky straight hair became desirable.” – Charlotte Mensah, Hair Stylist and Author of The Good Hair

So, what makes Black hair ‘Black’? What’s a protective style? What can others learn about Black hair? 

Me and my kinky, coily, Afro

Hair comes in all different colours, shapes and sizes. The words in the sub-heading above are some of the terms I like to use when addressing my own hair. A couple of my relatives refer to their hair differently, and someone else of Afro-Caribbean descent may refer to a different term.

Speaking of differences, hair texture is one of the many obvious physical differences that exist between ethnic groups. Did you know about the three ethno-hair profiles? These determine the characteristics of Asian, Caucasian and African hair and due to their differences, we must understand that hair does not grow in the same way or speed as those of different ethnic origins. Black – or should I say – Afro hair is often misunderstood and such misunderstandings can encourage stereotypes, which can be harmful.

In order to understand how to look after Afro hair, we must first understand a bit about genetics and that includes addressing those myths!

Myth 1: ‘African hair is wiry and very coarse’

The texture of tightly coiled hair is due to the spiral structure of the follicles which is common in people with Afro-Caribbean ancestry. That being said, hair patterns can be either, or a mixture, of crimps, coils, curls, twists, and kinks.

It is this shape that, when densely packed together, creates the fullness and thickness of Afro hair. The tighter the coil, the thicker it looks. Although, however full it appears to be, kinky hair tends to be very fine which contributes to its fragility. It is common for African hair to be coarse, but to label it as wiry is incorrect.

Myth 2: ‘Afro hair is dry’

You may have heard of sebum, the natural oil that your scalp produces which coats your hair fibre, maintaining your locks giving it that shiny appearance.

Due to the spiral structure of the hair strand, when Afro hair grows it curls back in on itself, which makes it difficult for the natural oils on the scalp to work its way down the shaft and penetrate the hair fibre. This makes Afro hair very brittle, giving it it’s dry appearance and texture if it isn’t maintained by other means, such as protective styles, and other hair care needs.

Myth 3: ‘Afro hair can’t be grown long’ 

Now let’s refer back to those three ethno-hair types and look at the rates they grow on average per month.  

Asian hair typically has the fastest growth rate at 1.4 centimetres approximately per month in comparison to Caucasian, which grows around 1.2 centimetres per month and African hair, which grows around 0.9 centimetres per month. The misconception that Afro hair can’t be grown long is a myth. In fact, it grows at a slower rate (than Asian and Caucasian hair) per month, but when properly cared for and maintained like any other hair type, long locks can definitely be achieved!  

The tight coils we see in afro hair can sometimes be so tight, that it gives the appearance of short or shorter hair, hence the idea that it isn’t ‘long’. As well as all shapes, colours and sizes, Afro hair comes in many different lengths too, each just as beautiful as the next.  

The oppression of Black Hair

From the obsession with Black hair, cultural appropriation to the Eurocentric beauty ideal, Black Hair has a vast history. Embedded in this lies a history of oppression, some of which is still present in today’s society.

Growing up from the age of 11 in a small sleepy town where a large majority of the population was white, I struggled to accept and embrace my natural hair, the coarseness, thickness, and frizz that came with it which I considered a huge burden. How could I not when my close friends had long golden, waves or straight sleek locks? I found it difficult to ‘tame’ my hair with a hairdryer or straighteners, often cursing at myself in the mirror or crying whenever it didn’t ‘sit’ the way I wanted it to. But that all came to a supposed end when I was 14. I decided to (with my Mother’s permission) relax it, that was great for a while, I didn’t have to worry about the long tedious hours maintaining it, having my mother braid it. I enjoyed having permanently straight hair so much, that is, until it started breaking off bit by bit…

As I briefly mentioned in the introduction, Eurocentric beauty standards had a huge impact on my self-worth and confidence, especially when it came to my hair. When I was younger, I remember being faced with comments about my hair, stating ‘wow your hair is cool, mine is boring…’ for me to say internally that I wish my hair was like theirs, or teachers remarking on how much hair I’d ‘cut off’ when really, I’d just taken my braids out. These statements could be a result of a lack of understanding or ignorance around Afro hair, its genetics, care and maintenance, but European beauty standard have caused many Black, Asian, and people of colour to accede to feelings of alienation and otherness, especially for those who grew up in majority-white environments.

Ethno-hair types

Whilst we refer to the 3 ethno-hair types that are common with these 3 ethnicities. Within that, there are 4 levelled subtypes, Straight hair (1a, 1b, 1c), wavy hair (2a, 2b, 2c), curly hair (3a, 3b, 3c) and kinky (4a, 4b, 4c). It may seem complex and baffling at first, but it can be a useful guide to start with when determining how best to care for your hair. It is also important to note that although it is common for ‘Black hair’ to be kinky and carry similar genetic composition, Black people’s hair can range from straight to kinky and everything in-between!

When I had my hair relaxed I was fortunate enough to be going to a hairdresser where the stylists there knew how to look after Afro hair. A couple of years later, I wanted my hair to return to its natural state. I wanted natural curls and volume, though I still craved long hair. I tried everything I could to get there. I tried taking hair vitamins, using less heat, drinking more water, and spent a lot of money on hair oils with special capabilities designed to moisturise and boost hair growth. This was my hair goal for years to come, up until this day…

In saying this, with afro hair being so versatile I can have all 3 of those hair types in less than a day, (the last without even trying!). Unfortunately, this versatility also has its negative aspects.

Hair styles and dating

In this article, Dahaba Ali Hussen shares her experiences of dating as a Black woman which is something I resonate with all too well. She writes about her dating experiences and how some of the men she came across were presumptuous about their comments on her hair.

“‘Is that your real hair?’… Lots of women wear extensions – yet when I do it I’m battling some internal conflict about how I don’t really like my hair”

Dahaba finishes the article about how she no longer chooses not to engage with any problematic one-sided debates about Black women’s hair.

Personally, it’s dependent on a number of factors, for example, if it’s a genuine question about how I braid my hair or whether the braid is human hair or synthetic, I see that as an opportunity to learn, but if it’s feeding back into those misconceptions and stereotypes (which can sometimes feel like an interrogation) as I mentioned earlier, then I will also not engage. I was always taught to ask about something I’m unsure of, but if the question is about something personal (and hair is very personal!) ask and think about how to phrase your question in order to not cause offence.

When I started dating, I was adamant (somewhere within my subconscious) that I had to find ‘the one’, whatever that means, and when I became interested romantically in people, a big part of how I looked was dependant on whether I would attract a potential boyfriend or girlfriend. That included focusing on the way my hair was styled and the way it looked. And heaven forbid allowing myself to sleep next to a significant other and wearing a silk headscarf to protect my hair ends every night – the sheer embarrassment! Everyone wanted a girlfriend with effortless smooth shiny hair right? Wrong, I soon learned that loving yourself was the first step to finding love, no matter how cheesy that sounds! My hair is a huge part of my identity and I can either choose to accept it and move on or embrace it wholeheartedly, I chose the latter…

Celebrating Black Hair

Me wearing my natural hair.

One of the things I love about my hair is its versatility. Depending on my mood, one day, it’ll be blonde (thanks to the human hair wig I treated myself to) and the next (4-6 weeks later) it’s braided and 24 inches long!

The following are hairstyles I enjoy wearing and have worn at some point in time. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, it’s an insight into how I like to express myself with my hair, with a little bit of history included! 

The Afro

Activist, Angela Davis

A hairstyle produced by naturally growing out kinky hair, created by combing the hair away from the scalp, separating the curls from each other. For this, it is best to use an Afro comb, this is a large comb or pick with big, wide teeth that can get into tightly curled hair and lift it up and out from the head without destroying the curl. An afro can be styled in many different ways (remembering that it is still just one hairstyle!) For example, the full Afro, trimming it to create a round halo, parting it to the side or centre, bleaching or dying it, and using different techniques to create different curl patterns. The list is endless…

When it comes to history:

After decades of Black people subjecting themselves to European beauty standards, we decided to take back our hair. It was widely known as the Black is Beautiful movement, a derivative of the Black Power movement. Black political activists such as Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis were seen fighting oppression whilst proudly wearing their Afros, the hairstyle emerged as a symbol for Black beauty, liberation and pride. Some of which has been revived today, without the politically combatant social undercurrents of the 1960s and 70s.

“In the early 1970s, the’fro was perceived as a major political statement that would’ve never appeared in the pages of a mainstream publication… With braided styles such as cornrows starting to take center stage the Afro’s appeal waned in the mid-1970s… until the late 1990s when the Natural Hair movement as we know it today was getting underway. Black women started trading in their relaxers and weaves for their God-given kinks, coils, curls and waves.”

Princess Gabbara, The History of the Afro, Ebony, 2017

I view the style as a symbol of my Black heritage, and also of a time when everybody was wearing Disco pants and platform shoes! 

Box Braids

This is a type of ‘protective style’ (this is a style that can be worn for a long period of time to let the hair grow and protect the ends of the hair) using braiding hair (synthetic or human hair that comes in packets for the purpose of braiding with). The natural hair is generally braided with synthetic hair to add thickness and to support the natural hair that is being braided. The term ‘box’ deriving from the box or square-shaped hair divisions when parting the hair for braiding and can be connected back to the Eembuvi braids of the Mbalantu women in Namibia. This style is not attached to the scalp and thus can be braided in various ways. They are easy to maintain, though the installation process can be lengthy (up to 8 hours or more!) and they can last for 6-8 weeks depending on the thickness of the braid. My all-time favourite style!

Cornrows

Source: Joanita Hafermalz

“Cornrows were named for their visual similarity to cornfields. Africans wore these tight braids laid along the scalp as a representation of agriculture, order and a civilized way of life.” Madison Horne, A Visual History of Iconic Black Hairstyles

Cornrows (also known as canerows) are a traditional style of braiding the hair very close to the scalp. You do this by using an underhand motion to make a continuous raised row. Cornrows are often done in simple, straight rows but they can also be elaborate, using hairpieces, and transformed into an elegant masterpiece, not to mention the number of geometric and curved rows you can do if you’re wanting a change from the simple and straight look. A timeless classic.

“Hair also played a role in the way enslaved workers were treated; if the texture and kink of one’s hair more closely resembled European hair, they would receive better treatment.”

Enslaved people used to wear their hair in braids, paying homage to where they had come from, but also for practicality during long hours of labour. Maps were also created by braiding the hair for others to read directions in order to free themselves and others. Seeds and other foods were braided into the hair so they could be eaten or planted out to grow crops once they escaped.

Dreadlocks

Musician, Bob Marley

The roots of dreadlocks can be trailed to the Rastafarians of Jamaica, and further, to Indian sages and yogis. But where did it originate from? The term ‘dreadlock’ actually originates from Ethiopia. During the Invasion of Ethiopia and the exile of Emperor Ras Tafari, the guerrilla warriors had sworn not to cut their hair until the Emperor was reinstated. This was seen as a threat to Christianity by the white Europeans. The ‘dread’ part comes from Rastafarians locs being feared, dreaded and seen as dirty or disgusting. Nowadays, many people are beginning to refer to the style simply as ‘locs’, removing the negative connotation and stigma that has long been attached to the hairstyle.

“Dreadlocks can be traced to just about every civilization in history,” – Chimere Faulk, owner of Dr. Locs

The oldest historical record of people wearing ‘dreadlocks’ were priests of the Ethiopian Coptic religion and other African ethnic tribes such as the Keyan Maasi warriors who were wearing the style as early as 500 BCE. Dreadlocks have been around for thousands of years in many different societies all over the world including European countries.

Although the ones I wore were faux, there’s so much history and significance behind locs that for the short time I did wear them, I felt very empowered to wear something that has such a rich and fascinating history.

Wigs and Weaves

“I bought it and therefore it is mine”

Lots of people wear extensions, and a weave is a type of hair extension method (just like gluing, bonding or clip-in extensions are). A weave is sewn onto natural hair by incorporating synthetic or natural hair to add length and fullness to natural hair. You can opt for a full sew-in weave, where no natural hair is left ‘out’, or part sew-ins where some or a majority of your natural hair is left out.

Youtuber u b hair (Unbeweaveable hair) explains the history of weaves.

I like wearing weaves sometimes because it is a quicker process to install than it is to put in some styles, such as box braids. I can also buy hair in an array of colours and styles (straight, curly, and even kinky) without having to manipulate my own hair!

Did you know: Wigs were invented by Africans, for Africans, symbolising one’s rank; they were also used to protect the scalp from the hot sun and were essential to royal and wealthy Egyptians, male and female alike.

In the 1960s, they were often worn to conform to the rules and expectations in white western businesses when the hair wouldn’t do what was demanded of it. However, they’ve also been worn as forms of expression, such as by Black Doo-wop girl singing groups and have become an essential feature in some forms of televised entertainment.

New York, 2018: Latrice Royale from RuPaul’s Drag Race

Reclaiming the Afro

Me wearing my natural hair straight with dyed front ends

Whilst I can now proudly say that I love my hair, my Blackness, and the versatility my hair has, it’s important to note that a hairstyle is simply that – a hairstyle. It may be easier for one ethnicity to achieve a particular hairstyle, such as box braids and whilst many hairstyles’ origins carry a rich history, in some ways ‘belonging’ to a certain culture, it does not mean some people should not wear these hairstyles.

Needless to say, if you’re curious about how your Black friend, colleague, or any other acquaintance you might have, styles their hair or how they maintain it, know when to ask and think before you do. Appreciate, educate, and oh – please don’t touch.

Hair can be personal, hair can be political, hair can be cultural. Whatever it means to you, own it and be proud of the skin you’re in (and the hair that grows on the top of your head).

If you want to learn more about Black hairstyles throughout the ages:

Furthermore, I recommend you give the following video/ podcast a watch/listen. I discuss hair cultural appropriation, comparison, everyday Black hair (caring and maintaining) with my Mother, Sharon, and my cousin, Dara, whilst also addressing our own personal experiences and sharing our own hair journeys with each other.

Written by: Rhianna Selkridge-Carty (Advisers at Citizens Advice – Bath & North East Somerset)

Date: 03 Oct 2021

Click here to listen to the podcast playlist: Reclaiming the Afro

Hair is a protected characteristic

The styling of Black hair in whatever form is part of Black culture and as such, it is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equalities Act and it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their hair. However, despite the law, discrimination still occurs in society and often in schools and workplaces.

If you feel you have been discriminated against on the basis of your hair or on any other basis, then please call our Adviceline and speak to an adviser who will be able to guide you through what action you are able to take.

Adviceline: Call 0344 848 7919 or Freephone 0808 278 7897 – Mon – Fri 9.30am – 2.30pm

Published
8 October 2021
Last Updated
12 October 2021