The Beginning of Change
African-American hairstyles have changed drastically throughout history. Before the 1960s, conking was very popular and accepted. The term “conk” is derived from congolene, a gel like substance made from potato starch, egg protein, and lye. Black males would slick back their hair, making it sit down so it was not as puffy; this made their hair appear more similar to hair of whites of the time. The act of conking was very dangerous and unhealthy for hair. Malcolm X recalls having his hair conked for the first time in his autobiography stating,
“But then my head caught fire. I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off. My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it…” (p. 60)
Experiences similar to this were common since conking involved using lye, a corrosive substance, to make the hair tame. Black women were also expected to make sure their hair was straight and contained. Madam C.J. Walker patented the “hot comb” in the early 1900s and it was used for decades by black women to straighten hair. In the 1960s, George E. Johnson developed chemical straightener, or “relaxer,” which was promoted to black women as a less damaging way to straighten hair.
When Afros began to become very popular, conking and other hairstyles were used at lower rates. Afros were a significant part of the culture during the black power movement as blacks began to realize their self worth. Malcolm X elaborates on this in autobiography when reflecting on having his hair conked declaring,
“This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will even violate and mutilate their Godcreated bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (p. 61-62)
Afros became a huge symbol of Black American Pride as blacks began to embrace their natural hairstyles.
In the video above, there are multiple segments of Malcolm X speaking. The most significant portion is the beginning where he asks, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?” For centuries, blacks had been shamed by whites for their appearance, including their natural hairstyles. Malcolm X, along with other leaders, caused blacks to think deeply about why they practiced things such as straightening hair; this led to many African Americans realizing they did not need to alter their appearance because they were beautiful as they were.
In addition to showing the prominent hairstyles during this time, this video also depicts fashion through clothes and other changes during the Black Power Movement.
Afro-picks became very important during 1965 and continued to be, as it was all most African-Americans would need to fix their hair. Other products they used were combs and “Blow-out” products. Picks could be seen sticking out of many ‘fros and even when it was not seen sticking out, they often had one handy.
Many of the picks during this time also incorporated other symbols of the Black Power Movement, such as the iconic fist that is at the end of this pick. The peace symbol was also very prominent during this time.
Black is Beautiful Movement
Black is Beautiful was a peaceful movement started in the 1960s in order to make African-Americans feel more accepted in their own skin and hair. The phrase “Black is Beautiful” was popularized by Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael. Blacks began rejecting notions of assimilation by wearing their hair naturally. Less black individuals felt shame in being told they had “kinky” or “nappy” hair. During this time, other phrases encouraging natural hair became popular, such as “I am quite happy being nappy.” As time went on, many acts of violence were committed, which ultimately made the Afro have bad connotations to members of society. New leaders took over the movement in the 1970s and more extremists were involved with this group, worsening the reputation of the movement. After this association made between afros and violence, individuals began to choose to wear their hair in dreads, cornrows, or braids which also have roots in Afrocentrism. The political motives behind natural hairstyles were heightened after blacks were fired for their natural hairstyles but whites were complimented for imitating the natural hairstyles of African Americans. Blacks were working to defy the fallacy that blacks must “appropriately groom” their hair in order to get ahead in life. Hair spoke for more than aesthetics; it was a statement of cultural, political, and racial identity.
“An activist with straightened hair was a contradiction. A lie. A joke, really. ”
-Gloria Wade Gayles