This date is Hairstylist Appreciation Day and The Registry looks briefly at African American hair.
The history of “Black Hair and Beauty Culture” mirrors the intricacy of both African and American cultures. Over the years, African American hair has been associated with the ideology of white visual conception. Some people say that blacks have embraced hairstyles and beauty methods that reflect popular European standards of beauty. However, Blacks have used their West African roots and their own artistry to create styles and standards that reflect a unique black culture.
Around 1441 when African slaves were brought west to the "New World," they were confronted with their first loss of identity. It was then that the one and only identity they had, was stripped from them. The standards of beauty that they encountered were the privilege of fair skin, straight hair, and thin features, in contrast to "African" dark skin, curly hair, and wider noses and mouths. Some slaves had to get accustomed to the European beauty styles to survive (literally). Often times they would serve as barbers and/or beauticians for their white owners. Other slaves attempted to stay with their traditional African hair customs like braiding hair using African patterns and using natural herbs from trees for their hair and skin care.
Officially, the root of a hair fiber sticks into something like a bag in the skin. The fiber is pushed out of this bag about 0.35mm per day growing about 1cm, or half of an inch, per month. The growth rate relates to the individual, his/her age, diet etc. Healthy hair has an average lifetime of 2-6 years. Though there are exceptions, the hair of blacks is usually coarser in texture, tighter in curl pattern, more naturally delicate, and more vulnerable to damage from chemical treatments. Because of our multicultural heritage there really isn't any one typical “type” of African-American hair. Its texture can vary from fine to medium to coarse; its curl pattern from straight to softly wavy to excessively tight; its colors from blonde to red, to all sorts of browns, to black.
There is no chemical difference in the makeup of African-American hair in comparison with any other hair type. It has a cuticle (the outer layer), a cortex (the middle layer, composed primarily of keratin and moisture, plus melanin, which gives our hair its color), and a medulla (the center of the hair shaft). All these parts are identical to those of Caucasian hair. What is different is our wave, curl or kink and bonding pattern. (Bonding speaks to the structure of hair: the tighter the bond, the curlier the hair.) Our hair color can vary from a very light, sandy blonde to dark black. Universally ethnic women do tend to have rich-brown complexions and deep-brown hair.
There are many different tonal qualities to African-American hair, from medium browns and reddish mahogany to darkest blue-black. When slavery ended, there was an overabundance of blacks who were knowledgeable in European hair care. The need for blacks that were knowledgeable in black hair care began to grow. It was then that the kitchen beauty shops began. There was a growing number in black beauty shops everywhere. As the number of commercial establishments grew, barber shops and beauty parlors became increasingly important in the economic and social structure of black communities.
Beauty salons and barber shops became places not only to get your hair done but locations where blacks could talk about their community. In the barber shops you could usually find a couple of men playing a game of chess, cards, or dominoes while talking about what is going on in the black community. In the beauty salons you usually could jump into a conversation about the town gossip. Many film adaptations of African American themes use these businesses to show black culture in the United States. Coming to America, 1988, Malcolm X, 1992, and Barber Shop, 2002 are examples. Over the years, beauty salons and barber shops have come to provide a unique social function.
Regarding the structure of “Black Hair,” the reason why kinky hair breaks so easily is that every twist in African American hair represents a potential stress point, which means the curlier your hair, the more prone it is to breakage. Cornrows left in too long can cause traction that may result in breakage. Our kinky hair is also prone to catching onto one another, which causes fragmentation. What makes the color of hair different? Whether it be black, blond, and brown, the answer lies in melanophore. The hair roots contain pigment cells called melanin, which creates a black pigment. Melanophore is a chromatophore that sends pigment to new hair. The greater the amount of pigment sent to the hair, the darker the hair becomes. On the contrary, as the amount of pigment sent is reduced, the hair color turns brown and then blond.