Going Natural: The Political Statement behind a History of Untamed Roots
Many people have attempted to make the argument that the wearing of one’s natural hair is simply a fashion statement and not a political one. While this may hold true for a particular group of Black women, it is definitely not the truth for all. The state of a Black woman’s hair has always been significant to her self-identification as well as her political ideas. To many people, the style of a Black woman’s hair often tends to signify how comfortable she is with herself, her race, and her culture. Politically-speaking, during a time when assimilation was necessary to obtain equality and desegregation, pressed and curled hair was the ideal style for Black women across the nation. They had to have some type of commonality with the Euro-centric idea of beauty, and they also had to present themselves as being equal in terms of physical appearance. Overtime that idea began to revolutionize. Radicalism became necessary to obtain wide-scale integration and proclaim Black pride— which were the next few items on the political agenda of Blacks across the country. Accordingly, hairstyles began to change, and the hair of Black women began to be left alone in its natural state to show the comfort within its unaltered beauty. This presented a stark difference between beauty defined by Euro-centrism and beauty defined by the Black community. Having natural hair was a silent protest of refusing to conform while holding the expectancy to be not only accepted but respected. In the minds of Black women, respect and civility would not be denied on a basis of physical appearance. Natural hair would be respected. Quite similar to that earlier time in history, an increasing amount of black women are now neglecting both heat and chemical straighteners and instead opting for natural hair. More than a simple fashion trend, this is beginning to represent non-conformity, black beauty, and the embracement of one’s race.
The political statement within wearing natural hair has been expressed in multiple African-American texts. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Walter’s younger sister Beneatha challenged the oppressive white culture through the cutting and naturalization of her hair (Hansberry.) A Raisin in the Sun is set to take place during the 1950’s, a time when assimilation was essential in order to gain acceptance. In an effort to find herself and to avoid assimilation into white culture, Beneatha dramatically changed her hairstyle by cutting it and leaving it in its natural state. Hansberry presented this idea of anti-assimilation while also bringing light to the fact that the physical appearance of Blacks played a key role in the politics and ideas of the community.
By cutting her hair, Beneatha made a bold statement about the importance of her African heritage. There was radicalism seeping through her tightly coiled natural which was not easily accepted by American society or her own community and family. In a society that worshipped Euro-centric beauty and straight hair, there was no room for the coiled hair of a Black woman.
Delving into the history of Blacks, it is clearly seen that hair was always significant. Styled in ways meant to be much more than aesthetically pleasing, hair has always served as a medium for an unspoken language. There is evidence that hair was always important in the lives and cultures of Africans. Since centuries ago in West Africa, it has been typical for hair to be used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank (Ayana and Tharps.) It also could indicate a person’s geographical origins and last name. A woman’s hair represented a lot and said a lot about her as a person. Through the Middle Passage, many of the grooming tools and techniques that were necessary to maintain the hair of Blacks were lost which resulted in the matting of their woolly hair (Wade.)
Rather than creating products to help make the hair more manageable, there was an influx of ideas and products that were created to alter the hair and its texture. This was more than the resistance of Afro-textured hair; it was an attempt to destroy the African culture and its voice. Another important aspect of Black hair is the difference of treatment given to slaves that were multi-cultural verses slaves that were solely African. It became evident that in order to receive different treatment, one had to mimic Western civilization in appearance. This meant lighter skin and straighter hair. Since hair was much easier to change than skin, it was a change often made. It was also a change that aided in suppressing the self-hatred caused by “nappy” hair. Black hair soon developed a negative connotation and was viewed as undesirable. To straighten it was to destroy negative stereotypes, identity, and history.
And so it was straightened. In order to gain political and social equality, especially during the earlier period of the Civil Rights Era, Black women began to dress and style their hair in a way that resembled those of the dominant society. It was unacceptable to have “nappy” hair shown in an arena outside of the home. Young girls expected to get their hair straightened at a certain age, and before then, they kept their hair neatly platted and tamed. Hair straightening became a ritual for Black women.
Hot combs and chemical relaxers made this possible while helping to dispel the myth that Black women were ugly, uneducated, and powerless. By having straightened hair, black women began to become more socially accepted and were no longer seen as “nappy-headed” or unruly. Having straight hair became synonymous with being well-groomed which also boosted the appearance of Black women. When it came to politics, black men could also be seen as more credible since the image of their women was becoming more respectable. Black women began to succumb to the pain of chemical and heat straighteners in order to climb upwards on the hierarchy of beauty. In order to gain respect, Euro-centric beauty was mimicked. Black women were forced to destroy their natural appearance and assimilate.
Lisa Jones, a journalist, once wrote, “Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at black people’s hair” (Leeds Craig.) Prior to the 1960’s, straight hair was seen as “good” hair and hair that glorified natural Afro-textures was seen as “nappy.” At the turn of the decade, this way of thinking was thrown out as the once despised hairstyle became revolutionary as well as admired. This was largely due to the “Black is beautiful” lifestyle that began to trickle into Black communities. It urged Black women to love the skin that they were in and to submerge themselves into a pool of Black pride. Another critical factor that contributed to the increase of respect toward natural, non-chemical treated hair was the up rise of the Black Panther Movement. In the late 1960’s, “the magnitude of political importance given to the formulation of beauty” was something unheard of (Leeds Craig.) As Craig notes in Ain’t I a Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, self-love began to present itself in an arena much larger than the homes of black women. Self-love was now political. Black people had to look at themselves in a positive light before they could fight for the same treatment from the rest of society. Sporting natural hair in itself was a way of advocating for racial pride, racial support, and racial determination. It became a uniform for Black love, and it helped members of a fragmented Black political movement find unity.
In addition to being able to showcase Black pride through natural hair, the hair also allowed Black women to develop a closer relationship to their African roots. Craig explains how Myesha Jenkin’s natural hair deepened her connection with the Motherland. “It was like, once I did get into style and got really political, it was like I couldn’t understand why anybody would ever straighten their hair. I mean it just seemed such, like the most obvious contradiction. And in that sense that’s the kind of an authenticity that I felt the hairstyle meant. And it’s like we have this alternative. We can create this new way of being that’s closer to Africa and farther away from Europe” (Leeds Craig.) Having natural hair became a way of asserting oneself as denying the dominant oppressive culture and its cultural restraints. Natural hair was visual evidence of the race having pride in itself. Instead of straightened hair being glorified, it was looked at with disgust by those who took pride in their natural roots. Women with straightened hair were seen as being hypocrites if they advocated for equality and encouraged racial love but opted out of wearing their hair in its natural state. It was seen as a sign of embarrassment. The transition from straightened hair to natural hair was not one that was simple, though, and so it is understandable why Black women would continue pressing their hair despite the important political implications.
Within the community and beyond the community, natural hair and its “unkemptness” was a bad representation of race—specifically in the eyes of the older generation of Black women in the country. To go natural would elicit negative responses. Some women had to go as far as wearing wigs in front of their family members in order to hide their natural hair. Black women urged the younger generation to keep a clean, presentable presence which consisted of pressed hair. In order to gain respect, the older generation believed that this was necessary. In Ain’t I A Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, Craig notes the outcry from the older generation when women were in an issue of Ebony wearing their natural hair. Some women took personal offense to this portrayal because the beauty and presentation of the Black women said a lot about the community as a whole. Shirley Drake wrote, “Each time I walk down the street and see another woman of my race wearing one of those hideous ‘naturals’ I am so humiliated I could cry’ (Leeds Craig.) Black women were embarrassed of these women that sported the natural hairdo when in fact they were just showing their pride despite what society believed. The older generation of Black women knew that in order to change common perceptions of them, they had to present themselves in a way that would be widely accepted. All their lives it was preached to them that their appearance was a key factor in why they were treated in certain ways, and so they took this lesson and tried to ingrain it into their daughters. The older generation knew that both the nation and their own community had a contaminated perception of Black people, so by keeping their appearance non-radical they believed that they could counter the negative beliefs.
It has been scientifically proven that Black people base their perceptions of themselves upon how closely they resemble Euro-centric society. This is clearly seen within The Clark Doll Experiment. In The Clark Doll experiment, there was “an analysis of the genesis and development of racial identification as a function of ego development and self-awareness in Negro children” (Clark and Clark.) Black children were given four dolls—two of which were Black while the remaining two were white. The children were asked to do things such as play with the doll they liked the best, give the experimenter the doll that looked bad, give the experimenter the doll that had a nice color, etc. Throughout the experiment, it was proved that the Black children thought that the dolls of color had a negative identification which translated in the way that they saw themselves and people of their own race. The white dolls were seen as good and pure which indubitably explains why Blacks felt the need to mimic Euro-centric ideas of beauty in order to be taken seriously. It also explains why going against this established norm was seen as radical and politically moving.
Initially the emotional response to “nappy” hair within the community was initially a strong one, but the tables eventually turned. Soon it was straightened hair that was looked at as unacceptable. In the twenty-first century, more and more women are beginning to either keep their natural or cut off their treated hair. The increased popularity of natural hair is seen as a fashion statement, but little do people know that its roots lay in politics and the evolution of the black community and social equality. Having natural hair may not seem like much today, but many women would not have their hair sprouting out of their scalps in its natural glory if it was not for the political revolutionaries that preceded them.
Today, more women are able to wear their hair naturally without being judged. Some do it in order to prove their undying racial pride while other women do it just for the fashionable aspect of it. Overall this trend of natural hair just means that women are becoming more comfortable with themselves which is a statement within itself. There are more blogs that showcase natural hair and share advice on taming it, there are definitely more products that allow naturals to blossom and show the beauty of their hair, and there are certainly more women walking around, proclaiming “Man, I want to become natural!”
Being natural today would not be possible without the harsh criticism that an older generation of Black women had to endure in order to prove that their natural hair would stay and that they would continue to glorify it. This has continued throughout the decades. More than anything, this shows the evolution of the Black community and the acceptance of its women in their purest state which speaks volumes politically. No longer are Blacks beginning to see Euro-centrism as the ideal example of beauty. No longer does the Euro-centric ideal of beauty sit atop of the hierarchy of beauty. Blacks are beginning to realize that acceptance can be gained without light skin and straightened hair. From the discomfort that used to be created by naturals in the earlier part of the Civil Rights Era to the negativity associated with those without natural hair during the Black Panther Movement, it has become clear that things have come a long way.
Natural hair today still defines pride and expresses an evolving, although imperfect, perception of Black people and Black women. The politics of natural hair has changed, but it indubitable that there is political importance behind the natural hair of Black women today.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Modern Library ed. New York: Random House, inc., 1995. Print.
Byrd, A. D., and L. L. Tharps. Hair story, untangling the roots of black hair in america. St Martins Pr, 2003. Print.
Wade, Shawan. n. page. <http://sitemaker.umich.edu/intersections/intersections.cultural.studies/_black_hair_>.
Leeds Craig, Maxine. Ain't I A Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty & the Politics of Race. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Clark, M., and Clark, K.. N.p.. Web. 16 May 2013. <http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/13/doll.study.1947.pdf>.