The early 1900s saw a huge shift towards straightened hair among black women in America, away from cornrows, braids and other natural styles. Some reasons for this:
- “Good hair” was a sign of class: the black upper and middle classes were still largely light-skinned and heavily mixed, so their hair was straighter in general than that of most blacks. In 1916, for example, 80% of students at black colleges were light-skinned or mixed-race.
- Good hair in a box: the creation and marketing of black hair care products by Madam C.J. Walker and others which made it much easier to straighten hair. In particular the hot comb and, later in the 1960s, chemical relaxers.
- The change from country life to city life. Women in the cities were more likely to straighten their hair which, in time, made cornrows, etc, seem country and old-fashioned.
- Freedom: No longer slaves, blacks were now free to work their way up from the bottom of American society – but they still faced white racism. Whites saw African features as a sign that one is given to violence and lacking in intelligence. Many blacks lightened their skin and straightened their hair to appear more acceptable to whites in order to get ahead.
During the early 1900s every single black beauty queen and black model on a magazine cover had straightened hair. Even men straightened their hair, as Malcolm X painfully recounts in his autobiography.
This led to the great hair debate. Many Christian ministers, civil rights leaders, black newspapers and black nationalists argued against straightening hair, seeing it as a sign of self-hatred. And yet it was the wives of these men who sent the louder message by straightening their hair. It was seeing Booker T. Washington’s wife’s hair, for example, that led Madam C.J. Walker into the industry.
Another strange twist is that much of the black press where this debate was carried on was underwritten by ads for hair care products! It was one of the few profitable black-owned businesses of the time. So while Marcus Garvey, for example, argued against straightening hair, 75% of the advertising in his newspaper came from the hair care industry.
As both Malcolm X and Maya Angelou point out, there was an element of self-hatred to it, but there was more to it than that. For example, while black women straightened their hair, they rarely put it in a hairstyle common among white women – and even when they did it came out looking different. So it was not simply a case of copying whites or trying to look as white as possible.
The hot comb, by the way, was not the invention of Madam C.J. Walker. It was invented in Paris in the 1800s at a time when Egyptian hairstyles were the fashion. Sears started selling them in America in the 1880s, long before Walker. But it was Walker who marketed the hot comb to black women as an easier way to straighten their hair.