African Hair: A Brief History of Afro-Textured Hair

African Hair: A Brief History of Afro-Textured Hair

Lesego Komane

Beyond the 1960s, many of us don’t know much about the history of natural hair. Omonike, member of the forum posted this brief history of black hair based on the Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History by Victoria Sherrow.

Why do Black women typically have so much pride in styling their hair?
This “pride” has been passed down since pre-colonial Africa where afro-textured hairstyles were used to define status and identity. Different styles indicated certain qualities about an individual during that period. An individual’s age, wealth, marital status, religion, fertility, and manhood could be identified simply by the style of their hair. Because hairstyles were tied to identity, skilled hairdressers put much time and care into creating elaborate designs that met the cultural standards of their region. The styling process would last hours, and sometimes even days, depending on the hairstyle and skill required. Hair grooming was considered a very important, intimate, and spiritual part of one’s overall wellness. Dense, thick, and neatly groomed afro-textured hair was something highly sought after and admired. Afros at this time were not the norm and were avoided, as they indicated filthiness, mourning, and/or mental instability.

Since there were no salons back then, who was typically responsible for grooming afro-textured hair?
The head female in the household was typically responsible for grooming the hair of her family. Inheriting and mastering the craft of intricate designs and styles was highly significant and therefore such practices of proper grooming were taught and passed down to her daughters. It was pretty standard for communal grooming to take place in the form of social events, where women would socialize and bond with other women and their families while sharing styling techniques (sort of sounds like NatSun!). Unlike today, hairstyling was not a paid service but was done with love and devotion.

What products did pre-colonial Africans use on their hair?
Black soap was widely used for shampooing in West Africa and Central Africa. In addition, palm oil was used for oiling the scalp, Shea butter was used to moisturize and dress the hair, and argan oil was applied to the hair and scalp for protection against the harmful rays of the sun.

Why does the hair of modern-day African women always appear short, as opposed to the long elaborate braided styles represented in their pre-colonial days?
It’s important to know that the African men and women portrayed in the mainstream media are NOT representative of the entire African continent. Much of what mainstream media portrays are third world countries in Africa, where there is very little time or concern for hairstyling due to impoverished social conditions. Many of these men and women spend most of their days working or in search of food and water. Remember, longer afro-textured hair demands proper care and attention which requires time, especially since this type of hair is very fragile—therefore, shorter hair is more prevalent in African regions where the luxury of hairstyling is just not feasible. In addition, once African countries were invaded and colonized, social conditions changed for many African cultures which affected their access to the time, resources, and tools necessary for maintaining their hair. Over time, poor health conditions also became a factor that affected the healthy appearance of hair for men and women in these colonized regions.