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Afro-textured hair, or Black hair, are terms used to refer to the typical texture of Black African hair that has not been altered by hot combs, flat irons, or chemicals (by perm, relaxing, straightening, bleaching or coloring). Each strand of this hair type grows in a tiny spring-like, corkscrew shape. The overall effect is such that, despite relatively fewer actual hair shafts compared to straight hair, this texture appears (and feels) denser than its straight counterparts. Due to this, it is often referred to as 'thick', 'bushy', or 'woolly'. For several reasons, possibly including its relatively flat cross section (among other factors), this hair type also conveys a dry or matte appearance. It is also very coarse, and its unique shape also renders it very prone to breakage when combed or brushed. Adjectives such as "firm", "kinky", "nap" or "spiralled" are often used to describe natural afro-textured hair in Western societies.


There are differences across ethnicity in the structure, density, and growth rate of hair. With regards to structure, all human hair has the same basic chemical composition in terms of keratin protein content. However, Franbourg et al. have found that Black hair may differ in the distribution of lipids throughout the hair shaft. Afro-textured hair was neither as densely concentrated nor as rapidly growing as other phenotypes. Specifically, the average density of Afro-textured hair was found to be approximately 190 hairs per square centimeter. This was significantly lower than that of Caucasian hair, which, on average, produces approximately 227 hairs per square centimeter. Further, Loussourarn found that Afro-textured hair grows at an average rate of approximately 256 micrometers per day, while that of Caucasians grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day. Finally, in most cases, unless natural Afro-textured hair is left alone (i.e., not combed and/or grown into dreadlocks), loose natural Afro-textured hair, upon reaching a certain length (which varies by the tightness of the coil), reaches a "steady state" such that it does not appear longer despite continual new growth.

History in the United States

Diasporic Black Africans in the Americas have been experimenting with ways to style their hair since their arrival in the Western Hemisphere well before the nineteenth century. In the U.S. following emancipation (between the late 1890s and the early 1900s), Annie Malone, Madam C. J. Walker and Garrett Augustus Morgan revolutionized African American hair care by inventing and marketing chemical (and heat-based) applications to alter the natural tightly curled texture. During the 1930s, conking (vividly described in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X") became an innovative method in the U.S. for Black men to straighten kinky hair; whereas, women at that time tended to either wear wigs, or to hot-comb their hair (rather than conk it) in order to temporarily mimic the same straight style without permanently altering the natural curl pattern.

It has been debated whether hair straightening practices arose out of a desire to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Supporters of the second process believe that the same prejudice that viewed lighter skin as preferable to darker, held that straight or wavy hair (i.e. "good" hair) was preferable to tightly curled hair, and that this prejudice originated not from Black African Diasporic peoples but from European slaveholders and colonizers as part of the rhetoric used to support slavery and racially-based social class stratifications. Some claim that the dominant prejudice for Eurocentric ideas of beauty pervades the western world.. Further, the tendency to judge people, especially women, based upon their physical appearance speaks to the fact that this issue is especially poignant for African American females. In other words, it is a clear example of an inherent, interlocking conflict that Black women face with Western norms that involves both race (i.e. the fact that the natural afro-hair texture of sub-Saharan African descended peoples deviates starkly from the global 'norm'), and gender (i.e. the fact that the disproportionately strong need for women to be physically 'beautiful' is heavily marketed to all Westerners, and is thus reinforced by men (and women) of all races).

The civil rights movement and black power and pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. created an impetus for African Americans to express their political commitments and self-love by the wearing of fairly long, natural hair. This contributed to the emergence of the Afro hairstyle into American mainstream culture, as an affirmation of Black African heritage, that "black is beautiful," and a rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty. It has been used in songs, as a symbol of Black African heritage, notably in I Wish by Stevie Wonder. By the 1970s natural hair had evolved into a popular hairstyle.

Over the years, the popularity of natural hair has waxed and waned. Today, a significant percentage of African American women elect to straighten their hair with relaxers of some kind (either heat or chemically based). This is done despite the fact that prolonged application of such chemicals (or heat) can result in overprocessing, breakage and thinning of the hair. Nonetheless, over the past decade or so, natural hair has once again increased in popularity with the emergence of styles such as cornrows, locks, braiding, twists and short, cropped hair, most of which originated in Ancient Africa. With the emergence of hip-hop culture and Caribbean influences like reggae music, more non-blacks have begun to wear these hairstyles as well. There has been a boom in marketing hair products such as "Out of Africa" shampoo to African American consumers. Slogans that promote a pan-Black African appreciation of Afro-textured hair include "Happy to be nappy," "Don't worry, be nappy," as well as "Love, peace and nappiness."

However, most Black women in the West, continue to relax their hair. For, despite the rise in the popularity of these natural hair styles, people (particularly women) are subtly (or overtly) discouraged from wearing their hair in a natural style in the workplace and/or by their families, friends, or significant others (see the section below for examples). Notably, the Western standards of appearance are growing in strength throughout the world as a whole. Hence, the American marketing strategies that have inspired Black women throughout the African diaspora to straighten their hair are now being directed at Black Africans themselves. For this reason, in many urban areas of the African continent, and increasingly in some rural areas, straightened hair (and all of the mentioned complications associated with it) is common among adult females, and traditional hair care methods are being increasingly discarded and forgotten.

Controversy over natural Afro-textured hair in the United States

Although there has been a reemergence of natural Afro-textured hair, there is still the fact that straightened hair is considered to be a more acceptable or professional hairstyle. This is evidenced by the fact that high-profile black women in professions such as journalism and politics still wear straight hair.

A 1998 incident became national news when Ruth Ann Sherman, a teacher in Bushwick, Brooklynmarker, introduced her students to the book Nappy Hair by African American author Carolivia Herron. Sherman, who is white, was criticized by parents of black children, who thought that the book presented a negative stereotype.

On Wednesday, April 4, 2007 radio talk-show host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers Universitymarker women's basketball team playing in the Women's NCAA Championship game as a group of "nappy-headed hos" during his Imus in the Morning show. Bernard McGuirk then compared the game to "the jigaboos versus the wannabes," alluding to Spike Lee's film School Daze. Imus apologized two days later, after receiving criticism. CBS Radio canceled Don Imus' morning show on Thursday, April 12, 2007.

During August 2007, American Lawyer Magazine reported that an unnamed junior Glamour Magazine staffer did a presentation on the "Dos and Don'ts of Corporate Fashion" for Cleary Gottlieb, a New York City law firm. There was a slide show where the woman made negative remarks about black women's natural hairstyles in the workplace, calling them "shocking," "inappropriate," and "political." Both the law firm and Glamour Magazine issued apologies to the staff. However, natural afro hair texture continues to be an issue in US workplaces.

When asked by his daughter, "How come I don't have good hair?" Chris Rock spent two years making a documentary entitled Good Hair where he seeks to explore some of the aspects of African American hair, a $9 billion dollar a year industry. The film debuted October 9, 2009.

See also


  1. G. Loussouarn (2001)
  2. Franbourg et al. "Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction" In Ethnic Skin and Hair E. Berardesca, J. Leveque, and H. Maibach (Eds.). page 101. Informa Healthcare. 2007
  3. Nick Arrojo, Jenny Acheson, Great Hair: Secrets to Looking Fabulous and Feeling Beautiful Every Day, (St. Martin's Press: 2008), p.184
  4. Dale H. Johnson, Hair and hair care, (CRC Press: 1997), p.237
  5. Walker, Adre. Andre Talks Hair. (1997) SIMON & SCHUSTER
  6. Having ethnic hair in corporate America


  • Interview by Dr Victoria Holloway-Barbosa from the definitive award-winning documentary on Black Hair called"My Nappy ROOTS: A journey through Black HAir-itage".

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