Afro-textured hair

Afro-textured hair
Prominent Ghanaian economist and author George Ayittey with natural afro-textured hair.

Natural or Afro-textured hair is a term used to refer to the typical texture of African hair that has not been altered by hot combs, flat irons, or chemicals (by perming, relaxing, or straightening).

Each strand of this hair type grows in a tiny spring-like, corkscrew shape. The overall effect is such that, despite relatively fewer actual hair shafts compared to straight hair,[1] this texture appears (and feels) denser than its straight counterparts. Due to this, it is often referred to as 'thick', 'bushy', 'coarse' or 'wooly'.

For several reasons, possibly including its relatively flat cross section (among other factors[2]), this hair type also conveys a dry or matte appearance.[3][4] Its unique shape also renders it very prone to breakage when combed or brushed.[4] The members of many post-Columbian Western societies have typically used adjectives such as "kinky", "nappy", or "spiralled" to describe natural afro-textured hair. More recently, however, it has become common (in some circles) to apply numerical grading systems to human hair types. One particularly popular version of these systems describes afro-hair as being 'type 4' (as opposed to the straight type 1, wavy type 2 and curly type 3); with the subcategory of type 4C being the most exemplary of the afro texture (Walker, 1997) But, it should also be said that afro-textured hair is difficult to categorize because of the many different variations it has from person to person. Those variations include pattern (coils, springs, zig zags, s-curves), pattern size (watch spring to chalk), density (sparse to dense), strand diameter (fine, medium, wide) and feel (cottony, wooly, spongy)[5]



There are differences across ethnicity in the structure, density, and growth rate of hair. With regards to structure, all human hair has the same basic chemical composition in terms of keratin protein content.[6] However, Franbourg et al. have found that Black hair may differ in the distribution of lipids throughout the hair shaft.[6] Afro-textured (nigguh hair) hair was not as densely concentrated as other phenotypes.[1] Specifically, the average density of Afro-textured hair was found to be approximately 190 hairs per square centimeter. This was significantly lower than that of White people's hair, which, on average, produces approximately 227 hairs per square centimeter.[1]

Further, Loussourarn found that Afro-textured hair grows at an average rate of approximately 256 micrometers per day, while that of White people grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day.[1][7] In addition, due to a phenomenon called 'shrinkage', Afro-textured hair that is a given length when stretched straight can appear much shorter when allowed to naturally coil upon itself.[8] Shrinkage is most evident when Afro-hair is (or has recently been) wet.[8]


See Main Article: Hair.

Afro-textured hair may have initially evolved due to an adaptive need (amongst humanity's hominid ancestors) for protection against the intense UV radiation of Africa. Subsequently (and/or additionally), due to the fact that the relatively sparse density of Afro-hair, combined with its springy coils, results in an airy, almost sponge-like effect, the resulting increased circulation of cool air onto the scalp may have served to facilitate our hominid ancestors' body-temperature-regulation while they lived in the open savannah. Further, Afro-hair does not respond as easily to moisture/sweat as straight hair. Thus, instead of sticking to the neck and scalp when wet (as do straighter textures), unless totally drenched, it tends to retain its basic springy puffiness. In this sense, in addition to the above-listed causes, the trait may have also been retained/preferred among many equatorial human groups due to its contribution to enhanced comfort levels under warm conditions. Finally, sexual selection based on visual and/or tactile socio-aesthetics may have also and/or further contributed to this trait's ubiquity in certain regions.


Continental Africa

Young girls from Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, 1869

Historically, afro-textured hairstyles were used to define status, or identity, in regards to age, ethnicity, wealth, social rank, marital status, religion, fertility, manhood, and even death. Hair was carefully groomed by those who understood the aesthetic standard as the social implications of hair grooming was a significant part of tribal life. Dense, thick, clean and neatly groomed hair was something highly admired and sought after. Hair groomers possessed unique styling skills allowing them to create a variety of designs that met the local cultural standards. Hair worn in its loose state was not the norm, and usually left the impression that an individual was filthy, mentally unstable or in mourning.

Ethnic groups from regions all over the continent evolved diverse ways of forming afro-textured hair. It was common practice for the head female of the household to groom her family's hair, teaching her craft to her daughters. In some cases, an elder would facilitate the transfer of hair grooming skills seeing that many members of her family inherited and mastered the craft.

In many traditional cultures communal grooming was a social event where a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds between herself, other women and their families. Historically, hair braiding was not a paid trade as it has evolved into a multi-million dollar business in places like the United States and Europe. An individual's hair groomer was usually someone whom they knew closely. Sessions included shampooing, oiling, combing, braiding, twisting adding accessories. For shampooing black soap was widely used in places like West and Central Africa. Additionally palm oil and palm kernel oil were also popularly used for oiling the scalp. Shea butter has also been traditionally used to moisturize and dress the hair with a yellow variety being popular in West Africa, and a white variety in East Africa. In North Africa Argan Oil was applied to the hair and/or scalp for protection against the arid environment and intense sun. Hair grooming of afro-textured hair was considered a very important, intimate, spiritual part of one's overall wellness, and would last hours and, sometimes, days depending on the hair style and skill required. Diversity in, and experimentation with, afro-textured hair styles was the norm up until the European slave trade, and the height of the Arab Slave Trade, penetrated sub-Saharan Africa.[9]

Oceanic, Asian, Polynesian and Melanesian people

Traditional Fijian hair dressing

The United States

Trans-Atlantic slave trade

Diasporic Africans in the Americas have been experimenting with ways to style their hair since their arrival in the Western Hemisphere well before the 19th century. During the approximately 400 years of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that forcibly extracted over 20 million people from their indigenous homes, chaining them to sell as human capital, the beauty ideals pertaining to their own natural hair changed drastically. The visibility, and pride, seen in pre-colonial Africa regarding the afro-hair texture became sparse. Imported slaves were mostly young, generally between the ages of 10 and 24. Upon arrival to the Americas, slaves lacked the skills, tools and ability to meet local aesthetic standards. The issue was most particular to women. Furthermore, there was no time for hair grooming as slave masters worked their subjects 12–15 hours a day, 7 days a week. The barbaric and desperate social climate left slaves with little concern for grooming and personal well-being. The carefully crafted combs and tools available for hair grooming in their homeland were no where to be found in the new world. American slaves wore matted and tangled locks, instead of the well maintained, long, thick and healthy tresses worn by their brethren left in Africa.

To resolve this, slaves began using sheep fleece carding tools to detangle their hair which resulted in wide spread scalp diseases such as lice and dandruff. Slaves invented remedies for disinfecting and cleansing their scalp such as applying kerosine or cornmeal directly on the scalp with a cloth as they carefully parted through the hair. In the fields, Male slaves shaved their hair and wore hats to protect their scalps against the sun; female slaves wore scarves and handkerchiefs. The aesthetic norm for house slaves was to appear neat and clean. The men sometimes wore wigs mimicking their white masters, and even wore hairstyles resembling theirs, while the women plaited and braided their hair. Women with long and/or wavy hair were prone to becoming objects of jealousy by the master's wife and were often forced to cut their hair, making them look less feminine.

When the 19th century arrived, new laws were passed that enabled slaves to set aside Sunday as a day for attending church, socializing and styling each others hair. The women, who wore their hair bound in cotton rollers all week, would remove their scarves, allowing their curls to hang past their shoulders. With more time to spend on hair grooming, slaves further invented and evolved their techniques. Men began using axle grease to straighten and dye their hair. Cooking grease such as lard, butter, and goose grease were used to moisturize the hair. A hot butter knife was sometimes used, afterwards, by female slaves to add curls to their locks.

Overloaded with the suggestion that straight hair was more acceptable than natural, kinky/curly, hair textures slaves and freedman began exploring solutions for straightening, or relaxing, their tresses. One toxic solution was a mixture of lye and potato which burned the scalp upon contact. Among whites and African-Americans alike, those with lighter skin and 'straighter' hair textures were better embraced socially, and were offered the luxury of upward mobility. Afro-textured hair was often referred to as 'wool', along with darker skin tones, this physical characteristic was generally seen as something bad that 'needed to be fixed'. During the mid-19th century afro-textured hair was basically outlawed in New Orleans. While in public, African-American women with kinkier hair textures were to cover their hair with a scarf.

Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade

After 1860s some African-Americans continued to straighten their hair in order to conform with mainstream beauty ideals. This practice also aided in thwarting mistreatment and legal and social discrimination. Some women, and an even smaller number of men, lightened their hair with household bleach. A variety of caustic products that contained bleaches, including laundry bleach, designed to resolve afro-textured hair, became available following emancipation (between the late 1890s and the early 20th century). More prevalent became the use of creams and lotions, combined with hot irons, in order to straighten the hair. Although the black hair care industry was, then, dominated by white-owned businesses, Annie Turbo Malone, Madam C. J. Walker, Madam Gold S.M. Young, Sara Spencer Washington and Garrett Augustus Morgan revolutionized African American hair care by inventing and marketing chemical (and heat-based) applications to alter the natural tightly curled texture. In 1898, Anthony Overton founded a hair care company that offered saponified coconut shampoo and AIDA hair pomade. Men began using pomades, and other products, to achieved the standard aesthetic look. During the 1930s, conking (vividly described in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X") became an innovative method in the U.S. for Black men to straighten kinky hair; whereas, women at that time tended to either wear wigs, or to hot-comb their hair (rather than conk it) in order to temporarily mimic the same straight style without permanently altering the natural curl pattern. Popular until the 1960s, the conk hair style were achieved via the application of a painful lye, egg and potato mixture that was toxic and immediately burned the scalp.

Black-owned business in the hair industry secured jobs for thousands of African-Americans. These business owners gave back heavily to the African-American community. During this time hundreds of African-Americans began owning successful beauty salons and barber shops offering permanent and hair-straightening as well as cutting and styling services. Media images conditioned to perpetuate European beauty ideals, even among African-Americans represented. African-Americans began sponsoring their own beauty events, with the winners, wearing straight hair styles, adorned various black magazines and product advertisements. Portrayal of traditional African hair styles, such as braids and cornrows, in the media was associated with African-Americans who were poor and lived in rural areas.[9][10]

It has been debated whether hair straightening practices arose out of a desire to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Supporters of the second process believe that the same prejudice that viewed lighter skin as preferable to darker, held that straight or wavy hair (i.e. "good" hair) was preferable to tightly curled hair, and that this prejudice originated not from African Diasporic peoples but from European slaveholders and colonizers as part of the rhetoric used to support slavery and racially-based social class stratifications. Some claim that the dominant prejudice for Eurocentric ideas of beauty pervades the western world.[11] Further, the tendency to judge people, especially women, based upon their physical appearance speaks to the fact that this issue is especially poignant for African American females. In other words, it is a clear example of an inherent, interlocking conflict that Black women face with Western norms that involves both race (i.e. the fact that the natural afro-hair texture of sub-Saharan African descended peoples deviates starkly from the global 'norm'), and gender (i.e. the fact that the disproportionately strong need for women to be physically 'beautiful' is heavily marketed to all Westerners, and is thus reinforced by men (and women) of all races).

The rise of Black pride

The civil rights movement and black power and pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. created an impetus for African Americans to express their political commitments and self-love by the wearing of fairly long, natural hair. This contributed to the emergence of the Afro hairstyle into American mainstream culture, as an affirmation of Black African heritage, that "black is beautiful," and a rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty. It has been used in songs, as a symbol of Black African heritage, notably in I Wish by Stevie Wonder. By the 1970s natural hair had evolved into a popular hairstyle.

Over the years, the popularity of natural hair has waxed and waned. Today, a significant percentage of African American women elect to straighten their hair with relaxers of some kind (either heat or chemically based). This is done despite the fact that prolonged application of such chemicals (or heat) can result in overprocessing, breakage and thinning of the hair.

Nonetheless, over the past decade or so, natural hair has once again increased in popularity with the emergence of styles such as cornrows, locks, braiding, twists and short, cropped hair, most of which originated in Ancient Africa. With the emergence of hip-hop culture and Caribbean influences like reggae music, more non-blacks have begun to wear these hairstyles as well. There has been a boom in marketing hair products such as "Out of Africa" shampoo to African American consumers. Slogans that promote a pan-Black African appreciation of Afro-textured hair include "Happy to be nappy," "Don't worry, be nappy," as well as "Love, peace and nappiness."[citation needed]

Controversy over natural Afro-textured hair in the United States

Although there has been a reemergence in the popularity of natural Afro-textured hair, it is still widely perceived by African-American women that straight hair is viewed as more professional. Women who feel pressured to straighten their hair for reasons related to this perception cite the fact that many high-profile professional Black women still straighten their hair.[12] There are, of course, very prominent exceptions, including: Ursula Burns, the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company and Leah Ward Sears, the first Black Chief Justice of a state court in the United States.

In 1971 Melba Tolliver, a WABC-TV correspondent, made national headlines when she wore an afro while covering the wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of President Richard Nixon. The station threatened to take Tolliver off of the air until the story caught national attention.[13]

In 1981 Dorothy Reed, a reporter for KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, was suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows with beads on the ends. KGO called her hairstyle "inappropriate and distracting." After two weeks of a public dispute, an NAACP demonstration outside of the station, and negotiations, Reed and the station reached an agreement. The company paid her lost salary and she removed the colored beads. She returned to the air, still braided, but beadless.[14]

A 1998 incident became national news when Ruth Ann Sherman, a teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn, introduced her students to the book Nappy Hair by African American author Carolivia Herron. Sherman, who is white, was criticized by parents of black children, who thought that the book presented a negative stereotype.[15]

On Wednesday, April 4, 2007 radio talk-show host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team playing in the Women's NCAA Championship game as a group of "nappy-headed hos" during his Imus in the Morning show. Bernard McGuirk then compared the game to "the jigaboos versus the wannabes," alluding to Spike Lee's film School Daze. Imus apologized two days later, after receiving criticism. CBS Radio canceled Don Imus' morning show on Thursday, April 12, 2007.

During August 2007, American Lawyer Magazine reported that an unnamed junior Glamour Magazine staffer did a presentation on the "Dos and Don'ts of Corporate Fashion" for Cleary Gottlieb, a New York City law firm. There was a slide show where the woman made negative remarks about black women's natural hairstyles in the workplace, calling them "shocking," "inappropriate," and "political." Both the law firm and Glamour Magazine issued apologies to the staff.[16][17] However, natural afro hair texture continues to be an issue in US workplaces.[18]

In 2009, Chris Rock produced Good Hair, a film which addresses a number of issues pertaining to African American hair, including the styling industry surrounding it, the acceptable look of African American women's hair in society, and the effects of both upon African American culture.

Natural black hair in other diasporic black populations

See Main Article: Rastafari Movement

Natural black hair styling

Because of the highly politicized nature of natural black hair in the United States of America and the intersectional pressures faced by black women in particular, the care and styling of natural black hair has become an enormous industry. Throughout the United States, there are a number of salons and beauty supply stores that cater solely to clients with natural afro-textured hair. Online forums, social networking groups and web-logs have also become enormously popular resources for Blacks in the exchange of styling ideas, techniques, and hair-care procedures.

There are a number of specific hair-styles that are commonplace in the canon of styles for natural Black hair, many the result of the experimentation of African slaves in the Western colonies. The afro is a large, often spherical growth of afro-textured hair popular in the Black power movement. The afro has a number of variants including the "afro-puff" and a variant in which the afro is treated with a blow dryer to become a flowing mane. The hi-top fade was common among African-American men in the 1980s and has since been replaced in popularity by the Caesar hair cut. Other styles include plaits or braids, the two-strand twist and basic twists all of which can form into manicured dreadlocks if the hair is allowed to knit together in the style-pattern. Basic twists include finger-coils and comb-coil twists. Dreadlocks, also called "dreads," "locks" or "locs," can also be formed by allowing the hairs to weave together on their own from an afro.

Manicured locks - alternatively called salon, or fashion locks - alone have a large variety of styling options that involve strategic parting, sectioning and patterning of the dreads. Popular dreadlocked styles include cornrows, the braid-out style or lock crinkles, the basket weave and pipe-cleaner curls. Others include a variety of dreaded mohawks or lock-hawks, a variety of braided buns and combinations of basic style elements.

Natural hair can also be styled into bantu knots, which involves sectioning the hair with square or triangular parts and fastening it into tight knots on the head. Bantu knots can be made from both loose natural hair as well as dreadlocks. When braided flat against the scalp, natural hair can be worn as basic cornrows or form a countless variety of artistic patterns.

Other styles include the "natural" (also known as a mini-fro or "teenie weenie afro") and "microcoils" for close-cropped hair, the twist-out and braid-out, "brotherlocks" and "Sisterlocks," the fade and any combination of styles such as cornrows and afro-puff.

It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of Black hair styles involve parting the natural into individual sections before styling.[19] Research shows that excessive braiding, tight cornrows, relaxing and vigorous dry combing of afro-textured hair can be harmful to the hair and scalp. They have also been known to cause ailments such as alopecia, balding at the edges, excessive dry scalp and bruises on the scalp.

Keeping hair moisturized, trimming ends, and using very little to no heat will prevent breakage and split ends which are all important for the care of natural and even relaxed hair. [20]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Loussouarn G (August 2001). "African hair growth parameters". Br. J. Dermatol. 145 (2): 294–7. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2133.2001.04350.x. PMID 11531795. 
  2. ^ Franbourg et al. "Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction" In Ethnic Skin and Hair E. Berardesca, J. Leveque, and H. Maibach (Eds.). page 101. Informa Healthcare. 2007
  3. ^ Teri, LaFlesh (2010). Curly like me. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0-470-53642-1.
  4. ^ a b Dale H. Johnson, Hair and hair care, (CRC Press: 1997), p.237
  5. ^ Naanis, Naturals. "LOIS Hair System: What Type of African/Black Hair Do You Have?". Retrieved 01/18/2008. 
  6. ^ a b Franbourg et al. (2007). "Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction". In Enzo Berardesca, Jean-Luc Lévêque and Howard I. Maibach. Ethnic skin and hair. New York: Informa Healthcare. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-8493-3088-9. OCLC 70218017. 
  7. ^ Khumalo NP, Gumedze F (September 2007). "African hair length in a school population: a clue to disease pathogenesis?". Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 6 (3): 144–51. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2007.00326.x. PMID 17760690. 
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ a b Joy Phido (2011-04-18). "Going Back to the Roots of Black Hair". World of Braiding & Extensions. Retrieved 2011-05-22. 
  10. ^ Victoria Sherrow (2006). Encyclopedia of hair: a cultural history. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313331459. Retrieved 2011-05-22. 
  11. ^ Byrd, Ayana D.; Tharps, Lori L. (2001). Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-28322-9. 
  12. ^ Viscoti, Luke (Aug 3, 2009). "Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted?". Retrieved July 25, 2010. 
  13. ^ Douglas, William (Oct 9, 2009). "For Many Black Women, Hair Tells the Story of Their Roots". Retrieved Dec 29, 2009. 
  14. ^ "1981:Television reporter Dorothy Reed is suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows". Retrieved Dec 29, 2009. 
  15. ^ Leyden, Liz (1998-12-03). "N.Y. Teacher Runs Into a Racial Divide". Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  16. ^ Moe (2007-08-14). "'Glamour' Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate "Don't"". Jezebel. Gawker Media. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  17. ^ Kym Platt (2007-09-07). "Glamour Apologizes". Ask This Black Woman. Archived from the original on 2008-04-17. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  18. ^ Having ethnic hair in corporate America
  19. ^ "Braiding 'can lead to hair loss'". BBC News. 2007-08-24. 
  20. ^


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