How Disdain For Pan-African Hair Is Affecting Textured Hair Worldwide

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

As a member of the Pan-African Diaspora, you may have textured hair, one of that community’s common traits. Textured hair has been a point of contention since the beginning of the Pan-African slave trade. When African slaves were captured, their heads were shaved, and they were given rags to cover their heads. These rags were used to prevent lice and protect the slave’s heads from harsh weather, but they also signified poverty and inferiority. The Tignon Laws, enacted in 1786, give further understanding about the disdain for African hair. These laws, established by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró of Louisiana (which was a Spanish colony at the time), ostensibly sought to establish order and bring back stability to the region. The free women of color of the time wore their textured hair natural and full. Their hair was often adorned with jewels and feathers and exuded extravagance. The Tignon Laws put an end to such a rich display of culture and further served as a designation of inferiority. As noted by Virginia M. Gould in Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola, one can extract from the historical research that Miró intended on making a name for himself by addressing the differentiation in class and race by implementing these laws. Miró believed that “free women of color threatened the social stability of the region”. These rules were not only practiced in what would be the United States, but also extended to Europe and other European colonies.

Miró’s beliefs were not far from the beliefs of the Western slave holding society. There were many laws enacted prior to this that helped to perpetuate the use of hair to signify inferiority and to designate inferior station or standing. The Code Noir (The Black Code) which was implemented in Louisiana in 1724 (when Louisiana was a French territory) was a set of laws established to provide some rights to slaves but, in turn, to keep them and even mixed children from inheriting property. The goal of these laws, modeled after the French Code Noire in 1685 for its Caribbean Islands, was to discourage intermixing of races. There was also the Spanish Black Code, implemented in 1777, which sought to impose restrictions on interracial relations and ordered fines for those who bore children. To maintain order in the New World, it was important to establish these orders to preserve “purity”. Although these customs and laws were ending in Spain, the ideals were perpetuated in New Spain or soon to be the Americas. Alexander Von Humboldt wrote an essay on New Spain in which he notes that “In Spain it is a kind of title of nobility not to descend from Jews and Moors.” However, in New Spain it is the “whiteness” of one’s skin that denotes one’s nobility. Also, there were clear applications of how race and skin color impacted slave status. It followed as part of the natural order of things to hide the differences of women of Pan-African decent, especially in Louisiana, where there were many light skinned women or feed slaves who appeared to be of the upper class and competed with the white women of the area, threatening their purported nobility and honor.

Agostino Brunias, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, freed slaves sought to wear their hair straight. Given hundreds of years of slavery, and the constant requirement for covering or hiding their hair in its natural state, this was not surprising. Straight hair was perceived as more professional and acceptable to society. The invention of the pressing comb which began to be marketed in 1886, and the creation of the lye relaxer which was commercially produced in 1917, aided the message to disavow our naturally textured hair. Also, if you understand what was happening in the world in the 20th century, you will understand why there would be a dislike for textured hair. In South Africa in 1950, the Population Registration Act classified the population of South Africa and registered each person based on their racial characteristics. This act was a part of the Apartheid system and included a number of “tests” that determined race. One such test pertained to hair and was labeled the Pencil Test. The pencil test was used to determine a person’s heritage if there was uncertainty about their race. In it, a pencil was placed in the hair. If the pencil fell to the floor, you were categorized as white. However, if the pencil did not fall to the floor, you were classified as “coloured” and of mixed racial heritage. The utter baselessness of this test starts with the fact that textured hair transcends race and that 55% of the world has textured hair. It is possible those stats were different at the time, but I doubt it. The Apartheid system did not end until 1994 and the pencil test was used until its repeal.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

During the 1960s, there was a rise in self-acceptance and self-worth for Black people in the United States. Still “separate but equal”, African-Americans were battling for their Civil Rights. There were many organizations fighting for equal rights under the law, including the NAACP, SNCC, The Nation of Islam and The Black Panther Party. These organizations were fundamental to many black communities and helped to perpetuate the Black is Beautiful movement. During this time, there was a push for all people of color to wear their hair in its natural state and support the movement towards equality. People of the time wore afros, a common hair style of the time period.

Today, people of Pan-African descent and other people with textured hair must consider how they wear their hair in a professional environment. Women especially are advised on how they wear their hair to work or on an interview. As a woman in my 40’s, I was often told prior to the beginning of my career that my hair must be neat and professional. I was told that braids and afros are not professional and not for the workplace. Women of Pan-African decent must comply with a veritable handbook of hair rules in order to qualify as professional. Nationwide, hair discrimination is not protected against under current laws. The Crown Act is a campaign that is working to address hair discrimination in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the Halo Code was created to address and end hair discrimination for Black people in schools and the workplace.

Given the laws, regulations and discrimination inflicted on people of Pan-African decent with regards to hair, it is not surprising that Black men and women hold conflicting, sometimes negative, emotions toward textured hair. However, we should remember that although there were many negatives, there are also many positives. Although the Pan-African women of New Spain were required to adhere to the Tignon Law, they responded to this demeaning requirement with a beautiful display of creativity, wearing the tignons with beautiful knots and jewels which further exuded their prominence and became a point of fashion. Also, the Crown Act in the United States has made tremendous headway. It has been made law in seven states and is now in the process of becoming federal law if it passes the Senate. If bad laws need to be undone by the passing of good ones, so be it. And the very basis of the civil rights movement in this country is rooted in the determination of one’s freedom to be, act as, and think as a unique individual. In the end, wearing one’s textured hair in its natural state is not an act of rebellion. It is an act of acceptance of one’s natural self, an appreciation of one’s authentic identity and a demonstration of self-worth.

Awoke from dreams of my curls flowing wild and free. Felt a slight breeze and realized I was me. -Phoebe Ash

Edited by Sterling Russell

Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash

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Lover of Curly Hair and a Builder of Experiences. Founder and CEO of: Curly Sister Ex - Microsoft ; Tuskegee University & ESMT Berlin Alumni; ExPat

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Phoebe Ash

Phoebe Ash

Lover of Curly Hair and a Builder of Experiences. Founder and CEO of: Curly Sister Ex - Microsoft ; Tuskegee University & ESMT Berlin Alumni; ExPat

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