Black Men and the Politics of Hair

Although Black women are often the primary focus in discussions about the politics of hair, Black men's experiences are also central to this story. A viral video of New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson illustrates this point. On December 22, 2018, Alan Maloney, a white referee with a murky racial past, forced Johnson to have his dreadlocks cut off or forfeit a match, choosing between a team victory or loss. In a society based on toxic masculinity, Johnson’s choice to submit to an impromptu hair cut was predictable rather than revolutionary. The pressure of forfeiting the match caused Johnson to adhere to the conventional wisdom of Western culture that pride in one’s hair is feminine rather than masculine, and Johnson “took one for the team,” as expected. Yet, the racialized and gendered politics of this incident depicted the ways white supremacy has long exacted violence against Black hair. This reality is as poignant to Black men as it is to Black women.

The history of Madam C. J. Walker’s hair straightening products, which revolutionized Black women’s hair care, is well known. Largely overlooked, however, are the ways in which respectability politics governed how white and Black business owners targeted Black men by reinforcing white standards of beauty regarding proper hair grooming. In Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, authors Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps demonstrate that the slave trade permanently altered African peoples’ relationship with their hair. In Africa, hair symbolized tribal identity and status. African men also endured psychic trauma as Europeans shaved their heads for the purpose of hygiene; an act that served as a ritual of stolen identity and shaming. Consequently, the grooming practices of Black men in America came to mimic those of their white male counterparts. Tight, coiled tresses of sub-Saharan Africa connoted incivility, impurity, and profanity.

By the eighteenth century, barbering became standard in American slave societies; skilled laborers such as chauffeurs, valets, and other household “staff” donned wigs. In a list of desirable physical traits, Thomas Jefferson in his 1781 publication Notes on the State of Virginia stated, “Add to these flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form,” which standardized American beauty as imported from Europeans. Rooted in scientific racism, nineteenth century Western medical journals featured articles on Black anatomy that closely examined the “Negro” skull, brain, ear, nose, leg, heart, eye, and foot. Racialized science scrutinized Black bodies for the most minute traces of what W. E. B. Du Bois dubbed “the grosser physical differences of color, hair, and bone” to justify white supremacy’s body politics. By the late nineteenth century, Black men utilized products made for white patrons, such as bear’s grease, and ox marrow, to lay down the hair, which was stylized with a side or middle part.

In Hair Raising: Beauty Culture and African American Women, Noliwe Rooks notes how twentieth century marketing campaigns directed towards Black men and women sought to capitalize on the false promise of class mobility in the Black community as well as social acceptance in the white community. A 1905 product known as Curl-I-Curl promised to cure the curse of kinky hair because “positively nothing detracts so much from your appearance as short, matted un-attractive hair.” A 1910 advertisement stated, “Race men and women may easily have straight, soft, long hair by simply applying Plough’s Hair Dressing and in a short time all your kinky, snarly, ugly hair becomes soft, silky, and smooth.” Although Plough diversified its target audience by 1919, using the general term “people,” the larger point remained: kinky hair was undesirable.

Black men were also in the hair straightening business. The same year the Plough Company promised to smooth the kink, African American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan of Cleveland, Ohio discovered that a liquid polish that decreased friction in sewing machine needles could also straighten hair. He successfully marketed his G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream using recruiting advertisements such as, “IMPROVE YOUR APPEARANCE!” and declared “World War on short, mean, stubborn, and bad appearing hair.” C.D. Murray joined the brigade in 1925 with his invention of Murray’s Superior Hair Dressing Pomade which “keeps the hair smooth, makes it lay straight, improves the texture, and tones up the scalp.” By the end of the decade S. B. Fuller, a Louisiana native with only a sixth grade education, literally made waves in Black Chicago’s South Side community with his hair straightening product. Such products kept a grooming style known as the Conk and the Pompadour in vogue from the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

In the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, many Blacks, particularly the younger generation, felt disillusioned by the slow progress of the civil rights movement and its promises of integration and equality. Hence, a more radical, internationalist movement dubbed “Black Power” underscored by Malcolm X’s Black nationalism emerged and threw off the respectability politics of its predecessor. Equipped with a radical message of self-determination, Black youth embraced a Black beauty aesthetic epitomized by the Afro hairdo.

The afro--the quintessential sign of Black radical politics--also marked the rise of the first wave of the natural hair movement. By the 1970s, Black entrepreneurs such as George E. Johnson, a former production chemist for S. B. Fuller and co-founder of Johnson & Johnson Products, developed the first natural hair care product line known as Afro Sheen, which guaranteed to meet the hair needs of the entire family. Its advertisements appeared on Black radio and sponsored popular African American television shows such as Good Times and Soul Train. With political activists such as Huey P. Newton and Jessie Jackson, as well as big screen stars of the Blaxploitation film era such as Fred Williamson, Jim Kelley and Jim Brown rocking ‘fros, the hairstyle epitomized notions of Black pride and Black is beautiful.

By the 1980s, neo-conservatism had taken hold of the nation. Blacks seeking the advantages of hard-won battles of the civil rights era who wanted to shield themselves from the economic violence of white backlash once again embraced white aesthetic ideals of respectability and professionalism. It was time once again to control the kink, and a new generation of products geared towards Black men and women (marketed by white and Black men) saturated the market. The Jheri Curl, named for its inventor – a white Chicago chemist and hair stylist Jheri Redding – was marketed to Blacks as an answer to controlling the kink while avoiding the harsh effects of lye perms.

The DuRag, also called the wave cap, a silk cloth used to tie down the hair after grooming, increased in popularity during the 1990s. According to Darren Dowdy, president of So Many Waves, “The idea was that you didn’t want the hair to revert to its natural, tightly coiled structure after brushing it down.” Yet by the new millennium, the natural hair movement was back in full force. Afros, cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks all sought to hold dominance over perms, texturizers, and weaves.

While hair has been an area of contention and controversy for Black men, even in sports, it has also been a site of spiritual healing and strength.

This was demonstrated by two progressive musical artists, who eloquently capture the beauty and pride of Black hair in their debut albums. On the cover of her 1993 album titled Plantation Lullabies, a bald Meshell Ndegeocello appears in a 3D graphic with ears protruding forward as if admonishing the listener that her message, rather than her mane (or lack thereof), is most important. She further wades in the water of hair politics with the anthem “Dred Loc” (its title singular to connote wholeness), with the refrain “Let me rub my fingers through your dred locs and rub your body down.

” In this way, Ndegeocello envisioned such a ritual during sexual foreplay as a way to renew her partner’s strength as he “walk[s] through this world of confrontation.” Ndegeocello also challenged toxic masculinity and notions that crying and vulnerability signal weakness. “So rest your weary head,” she sings, “and let me run my fingers through your dreds.”

A decade later in 2003, neo-soul singer Donnie (Johnson) released The Colored Section. On its iconic cover, the singer wears an afro that recalls the 1970s heyday of soul music’s affirmations of self-love, worth, and acceptance. The song “Cloud Nine” challenged white supremacist notions of cultural inferiority, drawing on strength to combat societal lies rather than seek to escape from them. Unlike the Temptations who were “doing fine on Cloud Nine" in their 1968 hit single, Johnson was “doing fine under Cloud Nine” by embracing the power emanating from his natural hair. In a voice reminiscent of '70s soul singer Donny Hathaway, Johnson crooned, “We live from the head down and not the feet up / and I'm adorned with the crown that's making this up. And I'm fine under cloud nine.”

Imagining himself as an avatar of the Black Christ in the book of Revelation, Johnson sings, “Yes I wear the lamb's wool, the feet of burned brass.” Johnson also summons an image of Black liberation as one of God’s chosen singing, “Happy to be nappy, I'm black and I'm proud that I have been chosen to wear the conscious cloud.” He implicitly invokes Samson, the Old Testament Israeli warrior, to unapologetically support the benefits of natural hair: “I be a chameleon and wear it bone straight / but it's so much stronger when it's in its natural state.” The full weight of natural hair’s spiritual power shows forth in the song’s refrain:

Twist my cloud and it rains And when it rains o it pours And the energy will absorb Power for the metaphysical one

Johnson concluded with affirmations and admonitions looped in an old school round song fashion that encouraged Black people to draw spiritual strength from their natural hair to combat white supremacy. He sang, “Twist the hair; let it rain/ don’t you let them tell you can’t twist it; you don’t fit in/ but be proud of your cloud.”

Johnson’s powerful lyrics conjure reggae singer Bob Marley’s embrace of Rastafarian spirituality, which asserts that knotted and twisted hair prevents vital energy from escaping through the head and promotes physical and metaphysical health. Marley’s beliefs inspired both Black men and women to embrace the beautiful cloud of God-given spiritual vitality. As celebrated author Alice Walker once stated, “Bob Marley is the person who taught me to trust the universe enough to respect my hair.”

Black people have spent centuries defending their hairstyles and humanity against notions of white supremacy. As author Bertram Ashe argues in his memoir, Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, the history of Blacks in America is like the hair locking process, which “ducks and overlaps with culture.” But it overlaps with politics too, because the two are never mutually exclusive. In fact, they are, like our hair stories, forever bound together.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.