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Black Natural Hair: Trend or a Tradition

Updated on February 10, 2015
big haired lady
big haired lady
a picture of Madam C.J. Walker (because I couldn't find one of Cornelia Bowen)
a picture of Madam C.J. Walker (because I couldn't find one of Cornelia Bowen)

Natural Hair Before it was Cool

It was July 1904 in St. Louis Missouri and the World Fair was the city’s main attraction. Jack Daniels had won the gold medal for the world’s finest whiskey and J.T. Stinson coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Another notable speaker was Booker T Washington. A few weeks later at the National Association of Colored Women’s meeting in St. Pauls Missouri Washington’s wife Margaret Murray Washington was set to speak. Proceeding Mrs. Washington though was one Cornelia Bowen who I would venture to call the mother of the natural hair movement. At this speech and other engagements she criticized the practice of hair wrapping which still a practice done today where the woman wraps her hair up in a scarf so that it would lay down straight. Miss Bowen went on to promote and encouraged women to join the Anti-Hair-Wrapping Clubs that started at the Mt. Meigs School in Alabama of which she was the founder.” Why make straight hair that god meant to be kinky?” were among the points made by Miss Bowen. Reported to be in the audience for that speech was none other than the princess of processed hair herself Sarah Breedlove or as we now know her Madam C.J. Walker. This event was chronicled in “The Black Rose” By Tananarive Due.

Who was Cornelia Bowen? She was born on the land where Tuskegee University is presently. She later attended the school being one Booker T Washingtons first pupils. She graduated from Tuskegee Institute with honors in 1885. When ask for recommendations for an educator for colored youth in Mt. Meigs, Alabama Booker T Washington recommended Cornelia Bowen. She accepted and went and improved the community greatly. Later she traveled to Europe and took courses at Queen Margarets College in Glasgow Scotland. Little is known about this great educator but a lot can be said about the creation of an Anti-Hair Wrapping Club at a time when hair straightening techniques were seen as progressive.

Despite the anti hair wrapping movement hair straightening would become the standard for black women’s hair for many years to come. History remembers Madam CJ Walker as the pioneer of hair straightening and it often forgets the women who gave her her beginnings. This woman was Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone who as an amateur chemist who created hair straightening techniques that launched her into the forefront of black hair care. Selling her product “Wonderful Hair Grower” she became a multi millionaire along with the wealth she became a great philanthropist giving large sums to the local YMCA, colored orphanage, and the Howard University College of Medicine.

Its not only the product that is notable here it is the business model. She advertised widely in the black press and toured the southeast to promote her product. She recruited and trained sales agents throughout the country one of whom was Madam C.J. Walker. One of the most significant parts of her business was the development of beauty schools where she taught students proper techniques and how to use her products which she name Poro College. The “princess of processed hair” Madam C.J. Walker later used much of Annie Malones business model in the creation of her own hair empire. Annie Malone later lost a large part of her fortune in divorce proceedings and other lawsuits

Queen Tiye who long ago did the "big chop" beside the river nile
Queen Tiye who long ago did the "big chop" beside the river nile

Natural Hair

This history of natural hair takes us all the way back to pre-colonial Africa. I suppose god came down from heaven on the 10th or the 20th day and created the black women made her nappy hair stepped back and looked at it and said it was good. I wasn’t there for the event so I don’t care to speculate but Id like to imagine that’s what happened. Seriously though black people lived in Africa for thousands of years where our hair through natural selection developed into its present form of kinky goodness to accommodate the humid climate. So for thousands or millions of years without Eurocentric influence our ancestors enjoyed their hair in all its nappy glory.

Fast forward a couple of thousands of years cousin some slave raiders have raided a village or a distant cousin has sold you to slave traitors who were hanging out on the west coast of Africa waiting to take you on a one way all expense paid not optional very low quality cruise {think carnival) to the new world. So begins the story of the African Diaspora and the influence of it on numerous straight haired ethnicities. Yes our mayflower was a slave ship and Plymouth Rock landed on us. Those Native Americans had this horrible habit of dying from diseases that Europeans brought over so the colonist needed a new form of free labor that was resistant to those diseases and skilled in agricultural techniques. Enters black folk.

After years of feeling bad about that horrible cruise and that incredibly long torturous and spiritually crippling and intergeneration tenure of indentured servitude (slavery) we lifted ourselves up by our boot straps and began to take pride in who we were. Enter the 1960s and 70s and the black power movement. Picture a land where big beautiful afros scattered the landscape. Think of James Brown singing “im black and im proud” (despite many of his relationships being with women outside of his race). The seventies passed and the 90s produced a renaissance of African Hair braiding and dreadlocking.

Now we are approaching a new view on hair care. Why not just go natural?

One of the first perming machines which also doubled as a torture device
One of the first perming machines which also doubled as a torture device

processing hair

The first perming process was created by Marcel Grateau in 1872. A later process that involved a mixture of cow urine and water was invented by Karl Nessler in 1905. The first perming contraptions looked as if they may have caused much gruesome causality. Relaxers by their very nature are disruptive to the natural physiological processes of hair. Relaxers restructure the chemical bonds in hair making them very brittle and leading to hair loss. Lye which is an ingredient in many relaxers can cause chemical burns to the scalp. Furthermore African Americans spend billions of dollars on hair care products very few of which are made by African American companies. This Phenomenon is covered further in “Good Hair” Produced by Jeff Stilson and narrated by Chris rock.

Certificate from Poro College which was a beauty school started by hair mogul Annie Malone
Certificate from Poro College which was a beauty school started by hair mogul Annie Malone

The Natural Hair Revolution How Can it Last?

I was sitting and talking to a dear aunt of mine. She’s had a very successful career in the hair care field for many years. She made her money for many years off of perms and relaxers and had seen many fads come and go so naturally I wondered what her view on natural hair was. Her answer surprised me. “They don’t make any good product for it” she said.

The natural hair movement is still in its infancy. It’s so young that we don’t know if its just a fad or if its here to stay. Now is a time for natural hair innovation. Any one reading this blog could get in on the ground floor of this industry and create their own natural hair care product and market it and take it very far. The issue is developing a reputation for the product and sees that those who purchase it know how to use it and know its capabilities. Here is where we learn from the processed hair predecessors Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker.

Malone and Walker developed beauty schools that taught hair care professionals about the products. Hair care products have been doing it for years and it works. Hair care companies such as Paul Mitchell and Dudley maintain these schools to these days so why don’t Natural hair care companies? The importance of education and promotion cannot be understated. Another example is the Bronner Brothers trade show which was created as a way to promote the company’s product and now attracts over 100,000 attendees annually. Creating a natural hair education structure is crucial also due to that fact that most state beauty curriculums don’t mandate any information on natural black hair or braids. So creating an industry standard is important along product promotion and education.

Jheri Curl
Jheri Curl

Trend or Tradition?

Will the natural hair trend continue and become the new status quo for black hair care? This will be determined by how the natural hair care industry develops. If natural hair care companies develop and properly educate hair professionals and clientele then it will last for many years if not then natural hair may go the same direction of the jerry curl (see Jheri Redding).

Is natural hair along term fashion tradition or is it a short term trend?

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