The following only covers black women in America. It is based on “Hair Story” (2001) by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps:
Most blacks in America come from West Africa. In that part of the world hair is anywhere between kinky to loosely curled and flowing. In the 1400s and 1500s there were all kinds of beautiful hairstyles. They had the right kind of oils and combs to do them. Some took hours, some even took days. Only the mad and the mourning did not do their hair.
Then in the 1500s came the slave ships from Europe. One of the first things they did when they caught you was to cut off your hair. That was merely the beginning of a long process of wiping out your culture and identity – to break your spirit to make you easier to control. Slaves began to arrive in America in the 1600s.
In the 1700s American slaves were often worked to death. There was little time for things like beautiful African hairstyles. So most women covered their hair in a rag. Not only to hide their undone hair but sometimes to even hide things like ringworm, which left places on your head where no hair would grow. Those who worked indoors were able to do their hair. For them braiding was common.
In the 1800s the slave ships stopped coming from Africa. That meant slaves in America could no longer be worked so hard: their lives were now worth more ($1500 and up). So they started getting Sundays off. That gave women time to do their hair – which they would still cover in a rag during the week but uncover on Sundays for church.
But things did not go back to the way they were in Africa for two reasons:
- The lack of hair care products: no one in America sold the palm oil or the right kind of combs. So women had to make do with butter and bacon grease and the carding combs of sheep.
- The idea of “good hair”: living in a country of white racists made black women see kinky hair as “bad hair” and straight, flowing hair as “good hair”. So they tried to straighten their hair even if it meant using dangerous chemicals like lye (which they mixed with potatoes).
The idea of good hair was further strengthened by how house slaves and free blacks often looked: half white or nearly white, which meant they often had good hair. But despite appearances their good fortune had nothing to do with their looks: it was because they had white relations who helped them.
After the civil war when the slaves were freed the idea of good hair, if anything, grew stronger: the blacks who had been freed before the war wanted to hang on to their position at the top of black society, so they used as their excuse their light skin – and “good hair”.