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Black hair throughout history

portrait photo of a woman with dreadlocks

Roots: Bernadette, taken in L8 in 1990
© Abdullah Badwi 
Accession number MMM.1991.12.9

The HAIR display at the Museum of Liverpool focussed on the following five definitive periods of Black hair throughout history.

African origins

Since the beginning of African civilizations, hair has been an essential form of communication and identity. Your hair style would immediately show your position and standing in society. Different styles and designs demonstrated, for example if you were married, of royal blood, or sexually mature. Various peoples and tribes still continue to use these time-honoured methods today.

Post emancipation

When the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807* many Africans achieved their long fought-for freedom. Compelled to integrate into dominant white society, many smoothed and straightened their naturally coarse hair with harsh chemicals and dangerous heated irons. Special hair products for Black women were developed by entrepreneurs such as Madam CJ Walker, who is considered the first Black female self-made millionaire in America. Black females of this era emulated the hair styles worn by high profile members of Black society such as Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith and Margaret Washington.

*(Full emancipation in British territories in 1834 and 1862 in the United States)

archive photo of a young Black girl

Post emancipation: Rebecca from New Orleans, 1863. Accession number ISM.2011.4.1

Civil rights era

In a response to continuing oppression and discrimination, members of the Black community decided that enough was enough! The afro became a symbol of the Black civil rights movement in the USA and here in the UK in the 1960s. In an act of resistance, people began to wear their hair in afros to support the 'Black Power' movement and express pride in Black identity. In 1970s Liverpool the Black community represented 8% of Liverpool’s population. Housing policy, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination affected the community. Many community-based organisations were established in response. These groups campaigned to address the social, political and economic issues faced by Black people in the city.

Roots 

The Rastafarian faith gained global following in the 1970s following the success of Bob Marley and his reggae music. Rastas wear dreadlocks because they do not believe in cutting or combing their hair. It is believed that this is interpreted from the Bible. It is also the way some ancient African priests and Israelites wore their hair. The wearing of hair in dreadlocks is believed to be spiritual. The distinctive style can be seen worn by Hindu deities in historic scriptures and in hieroglyphics on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs.

man with a huge feathered mask carnival costume on his shoulders

Courtesy of Brouhaha

Urban culture

In recent times there has been a certain freedom to how Black people can wear their hair, however some styles have proved to be more popular than others including braids, high tops, fades and weaves - all influenced by changing contemporary culture, including music and fashion. The Black hair product business is a multi million pound industry. In recent years there have been ethical issues about the chemicals used, how human hair extensions are sourced and whether it is politically correct to hide one's natural hair.  

The future

Black hair will continue to set trends, break boundaries and reflect social issues. With the growing concern of chemical damage to Black hair many have opted to allow their natural hair to grow. Looking beyond this, what do you think is the next big trend and future of Black hair? Tell us on twitter @Brouhaha_Int using the hashtag #HAIR.

Display created by Brouhaha International - The International Spirit of Community and Carnival. 

Heritage Lottery Fund logo - Lottery funded       Brouhaha logo 'The international spirit of community and carnival'       Liverpool City Council logo