Black men throughout American history have resorted to creative manners of styling their hair. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that black men in America were able to use their hair as a form of expressing self pride and confidence. This article aims to look at black men and their hair, with the focus on black males currently being much lower than the focus on black women and their hair. I am myself a black male with a deep interest in the evolution and current state of affairs of black men in mainstream US society and I would like to dedicate at least part of my blog to this issue of black men’s hair and freedom evolution as I believe this is a topic often neglected.
Black men in the United States trace their lineage to sub-Saharan Africa, most markedly the western coast of Africa in what today makes Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Angola. The hair type of the people from this area of Africa is known as “kinky hair” which a word used in current day America for denoting extremely curly hair that forms tiny coils as it grows out. Both genders of African Americans (black men AND women) typically grow kinky curly hair just as the peoples of West Africa grow.
Black men’s hair during slavery
Until the mass deportation of black Africans to the Americans, males would wear their hair long in what is argued was a social engineering process. The longer the hair in a male, the more “wisdom” and wiser he was assumed to be. Because curly kinky hair takes many years to manifest a long length, hair length was thus often used to gauge a tribesman’s life experience and social position within the tribe.
Once black slaves were taken to the Americas, these slaves were denied from practicing their traditions and regional African folklore. Likewise, individuals from different tribes and regions would be mixed around so as to further minimize the chances of the slaves socializing and potentially revolt (the latter did however occur many times, especially in the Caribbean region).
As part of being denied from practicing their tribal traditions, black women and men were mandated to keep their hair short which was usually trimmed by either the slave owner himself or a slave who had earned a wider amount of freedom within the slave property. Black men would have their kinks trimmed very short so that their hair would not become unhygienic and/or limit the slave’s ability to maximize his work output. Throughout slavery, black men kept the same short haircut profile and no amount of natural African hairstyles were allowed such as dreadlock hairstyles or twist hairstyles which were popular back in the regions were the slaves had been taken from.
Black men hairstyles during the early 20th century
As blacks were slowly integrated into mainstream society (although still regarded as second class citizens), black men started emulating the hairstyles of the white men in an effort to improve their (blacks’) social status. The hair relaxer, a chemical product that straightened hair, was used by many black men so as to keep their kinks softer and be able to comb the hair, a feat that with naturally kinky curly hair is impossible as this hair type will remain upright regardless of how much manipulation to the hair is performed. From my research, the mere act of combing their hair and getting some slick to the hair (after relaxing it) helped black men earn a higher degree of respect from white men.
This hair styling phenomenon of black men relaxing and combing their hair continued until the early 1960s, and hair relaxing would then regain its popularity again in the 1980s.
Black men and their hair during the Civil Rights movement
It was only until the early 1960s when the Civil Right movement was started that African Americans were socially free to express their kinky curly hair as they wished to. Because kinky curly hair stands upright even at hair lengths of one foot, the afro hairstyle was chosen as the styling insignia of African American men to showcase their self pride and self embracing. By the early 1970s, it is estimated that over 2/3 of black men had an afro hairstyle in the United States of America as the Civil Rights movement coincided with the hippie era which too encouraged long hair so as to defy the establishment.
The 1970s was the decade of big hair, meaning that the afro hairstyle became the most popular hairstyle among black men and women in the United States. Unlike the very short hairstyles and haircuts black men had to endure only a couple of decades earlier, black men were now free to choose their hair styling and most of them swung to the other extreme of men’s hairstyles: choosing hairstyles that were big in nature and somewhat menacing and defying. A great site to study the natural afro hairstyles of black men is Manly Curls (www.manlycurls.com), a website by a fellow hair blogger (Rogelio Samson) who too has an interest in the evolution of men’s hairstyles and haircuts, particularly of curly hair. At Manly Curls, Rogelio goes on to explain the uses of kinky curly hair and how to particularly style black men’s hair, it certainly is a site worth the visit for any men with curly hair.