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Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America

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Two world wars, the Civil Rights movement, and a Jheri curl later, Blacks in America continue to have a complex and convoluted relationship with their hair. From the antebellum practice of shaving the head in an attempt to pass as a "free" person to the 1998 uproar over a White third-grade teacher's reading of the book Nappy Hair, the issues surrounding Black hair linger as we enter the twenty-first century.

Tying the personal to the political and the popular, Hair Story takes a chronological look at the culture behind the ever-changing state of Black hair-from fifteenth century Africa to the present-day United States. Hair Story is the book that Black Americans can use as a benchmark for tracing a unique aspect of their history and that people of all races will celebrate as the reference guide for understanding Black hair.

198 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 2001

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About the author

Ayana Byrd

3 books18 followers
Ayana Byrd is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. A Phi Beta kappa graduate of Columbia University's Barnard college, she is an entertainment journalist whose work has appeared in Vibe, Rolling Stone, Honey, TV Guide and Paper magazines.

Aside from writing, Byrd has appeared on numerous panels, including Harvard University's Black Arts Festival and Barnard College's Scholar and the Feminist, to discuss the representation of women in popular culture and the intersection of gender, race and class in the arts. Philadelphia native Byrd is an avid traveler who has visited Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews
Profile Image for Marissa Sackett.
15 reviews3 followers
February 3, 2013

Chapter 6 is something that every white person should read to understand and accept our ignorance of black hair. Growing up with many black friends and my freshman year college roommate being Haitian, I had heard many of the stories told in this book already. This book raises a lot of questions that I'll internalize as self reflection of myself and what I will teach my future kids so that they won't be poking and prodding into personal subjects that arent really their right to question in the first place. What a great book. Highly recommend
Profile Image for Maya Smart.
39 reviews46 followers
January 2, 2015
Every American has something to learn from “Hair Story,” which spans from the elaborate hairstyles of the 15th century Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba to the fades, weaves, locs and twist-outs of today. And the lesson is that the hair we grow and the styles we wear it in say something significant about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we hope to go.

Its studied exploration of prickly hair politics is astute and revelatory, delivering deep insight to novices and enthusiasts alike. Even as a longtime student of black history and culture, I found new detail and understanding on each page.

My personal takeaway was that rather than judging others’ choices in hair styles—natural or not—we need to bring a spirit of openness and inquiry to the looks instead. That is, we need to earn our opinions on hair in the same way that we should earn our opinions on politics or religion, through careful study, contemplation and more than a little compassion.

The Politics of Appearance

While many realize that when it comes to black hair, there is much, much more historical and cultural significance than meets the eye. It takes a deep study like this one, however, to reveal just how much more there is.

“Hair Story” meticulously details a centuries-long assault on black hair. It begins by offering a moving account of what exactly was lost when slaveholders shaved off the elaborate hairstyles of their captives. Signifiers of age, religion, marital status, ethnic identity, wealth and rank fell to the ground. Distinctive humanity was shorn into anonymous chattel.

The book presents a vexing picture of what happened when the evolutionary genius of dense, tightly coiled hair (perfect for insulating heads from intense sun) was taken out of context in the New World. In the skin-shade, hair-texture hierarchy of interracial antebellum America, straight hair often afforded substantial economic and social advantage. Less backbreaking work on plantations and in some cases an “opportunity” to pass for white altogether could be won if hair passed muster.

In such a divided and dysfunctional world, the obsessive pursuit of unnaturally straight hair among black people became, well, natural, the authors explain. Inventive enslaved people turned cornmeal and kerosene into shampoo, and bacon grease and butter into conditioner. Butter knives became crude curling irons and grown men slicked axle grease made for wagon wheels onto their heads as dual hair dye and straightener. Lye and potatoes, a mix potent enough to burn the skin off a person’s head, became a hair straightener of choice.

Years later the echoes of these black hair-taming offensives reverberate in contemporary press-and-curls, Jheri curls, relaxers and weaves, the authors reveal.

Avoiding the Hair Police Trap

Importantly, Byrd and Tharps explore these issues of hair, identity and social acceptability without plotting styles along a facile continuum, from supposedly self-hate-inspired relaxers to empowered naturals. In today’s black hair free-for-all—where a black first lady’s bangs and a black gold-medal gymnast’s ponytail edges send the media atwitter—things are much too complicated and contested for that.

The authors are especially adept at walking the fine line between critique and condemnation. I was shocked to discover through their account the extent to which hair styles are still thought to both signify and confer economic and social status. They smartly observe a host of contradictions and fissures within the black community that merit discussion, but they contextualize them fairly, prompting reflection versus mere reaction.

They also infuse historical voices and searing details into their narrative that keep it lively and personal. I won’t soon forget their description of a fine-toothed comb dangling outside a church to signal that only those with hair silky enough to pass through it were welcome to worship. I shivered as I read about hair product companies named Curl-I-Cure, Kinkilla and KKK (Knocks Kinks Krazy). I lamented the irony of black newspapers that wrote about racial pride on pages overrun with advertisements for skin whiteners and hair straighteners.

I loved this book and recommend it highly to anyone seeking insight into black culture in America–our hair speaks volumes.


In fact, I have only a few grumbles about it: the artwork, the less nuanced present-day perspective and a few too many mentions of one Nat Mathis, who by some editing glitch was introduced in four different chapters. With a nickname like “The Bush Doctor” he stood out, in a jarring way.

As the book’s narrative inches closer to 2014, the authors don’t provide the same depth of context and insight that they do from slavery to the 60s. We get a good picture of “what” is going on with hair styles and hair debates, but the analysis is missing a bit of the “why” that we got in earlier chapters, which chronicled slavery through the Black Power Movement.

Perhaps the authors assume that the reader brings sufficient personal knowledge of the social and cultural context in which new hairstyles and hair attitudes are emerging. Maybe the reasons behind the profusion of styles we see today are too hard to pinpoint given the increasingly diverse social, economic and cultural lives of black people in America. After all, today we are mass incarcerated in jail cells, own television networks and occupy the White House, a range of black experience never before witnessed.

Still, I wanted more of the Byrd’s and Tharp’s distillation of hair stories in relation to large-scale social trends affecting contemporary black people in recent decades. What exactly was going on with black people in the 70s and 80s that made a Jheri-curl (wet mess that it was) seem attractive? How are contemporary trends like failing public schools, growing wealth inequality and a black First Family expressed in hair? (Basically, I’m lobbying for an illustrated Hair Story II so that we can all hear more from these fantastic authors.)

n Living Color

Additionally, better paper stock and photography would have taken this book from great to exceptional. While several photos are featured within the book, the fuzzy reproductions just don’t do the styles or the author’s analysis justice. I wanted to really see the drip off of the ‘80s curly perms on page 109 and the kinks and curls throughout the book.

Until my dream of a fully illustrated edition of this book comes true, I recommend “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present” as a companion to “Hair Story.” “Posing Beauty” features gorgeous duo-tone and full color photographs of everyday folks and celebrities rocking the naps and conks and perms and twists that Byrd and Tharps contextualize so well.

“Hair Story” talks about the brief moment in time when singer James Brown abandoned his press-and-curl for a short ‘fro and sang “I’m Black and I’m Proud” with such charisma that it became an anthem. But you need a copy of “Posing Beauty” to see the sharp-as-a-tack, unstraightened style on him after a concert where the “Black is Beautiful” slogan was introduced.
Profile Image for Monique.
1,684 reviews
March 13, 2014
Black hair is big business and natural hair doesn't mean product free hair. I've been natural for 14 years and often say "I was natural but it was cool". Today African American women have more freedom to make the hair choices they want. With the public acceptance of natural hair, African American women have been freed from the bondage of conformity. This book discusses the history of hair through the self-hate, political implications and lucrative business of African American hair. A must read for those that want to truly understand the deep seeded appreciation for African American hair.
Profile Image for Racquel.
29 reviews3 followers
September 30, 2012
It was a bit repetitive in its information at times, but there was a lot to learn in this text. It brought back some moments of nostalgia and is definitely a "fun" take on black history. I imagine sharing this with a future daughter or niece. I do wish that there could be an updated edition to include the massive return to natural that we're currently seeing in Black hair care.
Profile Image for Aspasia.
782 reviews9 followers
September 6, 2014

I picked up a copy of this book at my local library. Even though I'm a former hairdresser, I never learned how to work on "ethnic" or "black" hair because there were no African-American students in my cosmetology class. If there were no African-American students enrolled in the cosmetology course at the local vocational school, African-American customers would not come into the beauty school. Same thing happened to me in the real world once I was employed at salons- no African-American hairdressers in the salon, no African-American customers. Because of this, African-American hair has fascinated me yet been out of reach. I have had conversations at work with patrons and coworkers about the African-American community's perception of hair and the reactions women receive when they wear their hair super short and natural.
As the title suggests, the authors dig deep into the roots of African-American hair culture- all the way back to Africa. In Africa, hairstyles were used to advertise marital status (or lack thereof0, "age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community" (p. 2). Because of the high status of hair within many numerous African cultures, when the slave traders shaved slaves' heads this caused great cultural shame "and the highest indignity. Arriving without their signature hairstyles, slaves.... entered the New World, just as Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel" (p. 10).
The American slave system and work hierarchy environment helped "develop the social structure of the slave community- 'light-skinned' house slaves and 'dark-skinned' field slaves; 'good hair' vs. 'bad hair' (p.18). This system of skin color gradients and hair types are still used within the African-American community today which has psychologically harmed millions of African-Americans as they use various products and chemicals in an attempt to fit into a rigid standard of beauty.
The book covers historical moments in African-American hair history such as: Madame C.J. Walker, the pressing comb, the relaxer, the Afro, wigs, weaves and the natural hair movement. Contemporary hair controversies (Gabby Douglas, Don Imus, Blue Ivy) are also discussed. As the natural hair movement becomes a global phenomenon (and business opportunity) many hair care companies are realizing that "the future of hair care is going to be about texture, not race" (p.224)

You can read more of my reviews on www.thesouthernbookworm.blogpsot.com
Profile Image for Michael .
283 reviews25 followers
February 10, 2015
My book is a hardcover. It looks and feels very much like a school text book. The story of black people's hair begins in Africa. The variety of hair textures range from deep ebony kinky curls to the loosly curled flowing locks.

The hair of men and women had a social significance that spoke to society standing, and religious importance. The hair is the most elevated point of the body, which meant it was the closest to the divine. One of the most important people in community life was the hairdresser because many believed a person's spirit nestled in the hair.

The manner in which the hair was styled often sent a message about the person. Young unmarried girls often shaved parts of their heads to signal their unavailability for courting. A recently widowed woman left her hair unkept for a period of mourning. A man wore his hair in a particular braided style before going to war which signified he was prepared to die. In the tribe or social group, the hair braiding sessions were a time of shared confidences or laughter as a circle did each others hair.

When Europeans first came in contact with the African natives in the 15th century they were astounded by the complexity of the style, texture, and adornments of black hair.

As the African people were captured, bought and sold and transported to other parts of the world in the bowels of ships, they could not tend to the needs of their hair. Often the slave traders shaved the heads of their newly acquired property. Sometimes this was done for health reasons, but more often to erase the slaves culture. Arriving in the new world without their hairstyles, the people became anonymous chattle...human beasts of burden.

Without the combs, herbal ointments and palm oil used in Africa for hairdressing, the slaves were forced to use common Western household products to achieve certain styles. Instead of palm oil they used bacon grease, butter, kerosene and even axle grease.

As time passed and the number of blacks grew, the issue of "good hair" and "bad hair" became divisive among the black populations. Adding to that divide was the fact that the lighter skin of some blacks and mulattos were favored by the white society. Those with light skin were brought into the household to serve, while the darker skinned were worked in the fields. Malcom X referred to these as "house niggers" and "field niggers." Those with lighter skin and straighter hair were said to have good hair and the darker skinned were said to have bad hair.

The good hair-bad hair divide was internal in black society...slave and free. By the time slavery was offically abolished in 1865, good hair and light skin became the offical keys to membership in the "Negro elite." In some churches a fine toothed comb hung from the front door. All persons wanting to join that church had to pass the comb smoothly through their hair. If the hair was too kinky, membership was denied. This was known as the comb test.

While society was generally more accepting of lighter skinned blacks, black people, both light skinned and dark skinned helped perpetuate this truth by maintaining the straight hair, light skinned heirarchy within their own ranks. Jobs, marriage partners, and even education were typically predicated on the texture of the hair and the shade of the skin. Black men and women eagerly sought out the commercial products being manufactured exclusively for black hair in the late 19th century.

Advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straighteners marketed by white companies suggested to blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within the African-American communities and social acceptance by the dominate culture.

To gain access to the American dream, one of the first things blacks had to do was make white people more comfortable with their very presence. That was much easier for people with good hair.

As black populations began to acquire disposable income, they had the means to purchase cosmetics...bleaching creams and hair straighteners. In the early 20th century, black owned companies manufactured products to help create an industry that was pro-black while pushing an agenda of altering or "improving" on black features by making them appear "whiter."

Annie Malone and Madam CJ Walker were early successful pioneers in the hair business. Their companies sought to create safe, affordable products that would give all classes of black women the means of achieving the straight-haired ideal, by making black women feel good about how they looked.

Others like Nannie Helen Borroughs and Booker T. Washington spoke against the idea that black women spend their time and money buying and using straightening products "trying to be white."

Within the black community, straight hair was not only the preferred look, but a marker of one's position in society. Light skin and straight hair still represented wealth, education, and access to the upper echelons of society. As early as 1916, 80% of students in black colleges were light skinned and of mixed heritage.

Some of the procedures used to obtain straight hair included metal combs that were heated...hot combs and various chemicals including lye. These procedures were time consuming and often painful. Added to the several products created to straighten "nappy" hair were hairpieces, then known as falsies, and wigs.

After WWII, different attitudes began to be voiced by the likes of Cassius Clay...later known as Muhammed Ali and other black entertainers who wore their hair short in unstraightened styles that helped begin the thought that deemed straight hair was the equivalent to self-hatred. Malcom X said as much when he said he literally "burned my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair."

Through the 1950's and into the 60's as blacks united and pressed for civil rights under the leadership of the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement began to redefine themselves visually in order to find true emancipation. Colored people and Negros became Black people and they adopted an alternative to straight hair...the Afro. They also began to show a visible connection to their African ancestors by wearing African clothing and adopting African names. They came to realize that black was beautiful.

Now that black was beautiful, straightening one's hair in the image of white beauty was seen as blasphemy. Marcia Gillespie said: "This blacker than thou game, it started in the 60's." Some blacks were simply born without nappy hair. The sought after good hair of the recent past was now a badge of shame for many.

In the hippie peace movement, blacks with Afros took their place alongside of white "longhairs." The 60's changed almost everyone's way of thinking about themselves and others. The older folks, both black and white had negative reactions to the Afro and longhair because they were raised in a different way. Black hair product manufactures disliked the Afro for financial reasons. They were in a recession because not as many hot combs, relaxer kits, pomades, and curlers were being sold.

The summer of love ended. The 60's and the 70's passed away. Another generation found its voice in the 80's. Jheri Redding, a white hair-care entrepreneur invented a chemical process that converted straight (white) hair into curly hair...the California Curl. With the help of a black colleague he reformulated his original product to adapt to black hair...and the Jheri Curl was born.

Black owned hair product manufactures were back in business in a big way. So too were hair salons and barbershops. The Care Free Curl was applied in a salon at a cost of $80 to $100, then maintained daily with a variety of moisturizers and curl activators. The Curl was a gold mine for manufactures until people decided that the cost of replacing lubricant stained pillow cases, shirt collars and furniture wasn't worth the curly hairdo.

Essance magazine in 1990 urged readers to Reclaim Our Culture by living a more Afro-centric life in order to travel the path toward self-determination. Black and white owned companies tried to out Africanize one another with new or improved hair and beauty products. Many of those products, not only didn't perform as advertised, "but actually caused harm with itchy scalps with oozing blisters, green hair, and in some cases complete hair loss." After three hundred years of waiting for that perfect product to make black hair straight, shiny, and long...the weave industry took off. By the late 90's, 1.3 million pounds of human hair were imported from China, India, and Indonesia. The human hair selling business from New York to Los Angeles was dominated by Korean immigrants.

Blacks continued to dominate the salon and barbershop business, because black men and women feel more comfortable having their hair done by someone with black hair. Famous black women like Oprah Winfree, Janet Jackson,Diana Ross, and Tyra Banks wore weaves and braid extensions to get that long swinging straight hair which was once again called good hair. Beauty magazines, music videos and Hollywood movies sought out light skinned, long haired women.

Dredlocks and cornrows were another way to connect with one's African roots. Dreds were soon adopted by whites too. Also wearing Dredlocks were Hindu holy men, Rastafarians, Maori warriors of New Zealand and Bo Derek. It is a hairstyle over which no group can claim ownership.

Black children are indoctrinated into the culture of hair and the black hair lifestyle. Even now, the permanents necessary to having good hair require a lot of time and maintenance and money. Whether black people view their hair as a crowning glory or a lifelong frustration, finding the right person to clip it, cut it, or style it is very important. Their hairdresser is right up there as important in their lives as clergy and parents.

Hair for me, a white man, has always had a major importance in my life. In the 60's and early 70's when guys my age had long hair, I could not because I was in the Marine Corp. After my military service, I tried to let my hair grow, but at work or in church or in Lodge, older men kept bugging me to "get a haircut." In 2007, I retired from pretty much everything and let my hair grow long...almost down to my waist. You can see it in my profile photos.

My head of hair is very thick and has several colors in it. It's almost white in the front and on the top and graduates to a dark brown near the back of my neck. I have had many people comment about how "beautiful" my hair is. I don't mean to brag...I'm just saying the truth. When my wife would braid one single braid down the middle of my back that I call my "Jesus" braid, or makes two braids that hang over my shoulders to the front that I call my "Willie" (Nelson) braids, the several colors intertwine down through the braids. I seem to get more compliments about my hair from black folks, especially older black women. I've often wondered why that was so. Now I think I know......Michael

1 review
October 11, 2013
Before the natural hair “revolution” took fold, I purchased Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps when it first came out in 2001. It is a more comprehensive look at African American hair from slavery to the 2000’s. On a personal note, I went back to my natural hair in December 2009 and I never considered myself a champion in the natural hair journey. I didn’t do the big chop to be trendy or ground breaking. I was simply having a hard time caring for my relaxed hair because it was dry, brittle, and constantly shedding. I also believe my hormones were acting up since I just found out I was pregnant with my second child. That being said, I never realized there was a natural hair “movement” happening when I cut my hair. Three years later, there are constant debates and festivals centered around natural hair. Well, this book is an excellent source since it shows the history behind natural hair. It profiles the psychology of African American hair as well as outlines the roots (pun intended) behind the movement.
Profile Image for MJ.
116 reviews21 followers
December 29, 2022
Everyone should read this! Really incredible history of Black hair and hairstyles/fashion.
Profile Image for Stacie C.
332 reviews63 followers
June 11, 2017
There are so many aspects about Black hair and the culture surrounding it that people simply aren’t aware of. With Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Byrd and Tharps attempt to make that information as accessible as possible. This book begins where African American history begins, the tribes of Africa and the pride that was once held in black hair. It continues with how the pride and care put into Black hair was demolished during the middle passage and the beginnings of slavery. It expands on the idea of Black hair with examining the beauty standards of the day in America and how enslaved Black people had no luxuries and none of the oils and tools they used in Africa were available to them to properly care for their hair. Issues of race and colorism also weighed heavily throughout the history of Black culture and still has an effect on how Black hair is perceived in society. From the earliest parts of history to 2014 when this version was released many wide ranging topics are discussed including the industry and money behind it.
As a Black woman there are many parts of this story and the history of black hair that I was well aware of. The stigma of natural hair, the concept of “good” hair versus “bad” hair, and the manageability of Black hair were things openly commented on throughout my life. Hair Story though brought all of these concepts together and did a really good job of simply presenting the facts. I appreciated how well researched and comprehensive the information was. The area in which I was completely unaware was the industry behind Black hair and how it has changed so extensively over the centuries.
What Byrd and Tharps really did with Hair Story was remove the veil regarding Black hair. If you are a complete novice to the subject then this would be a great book to introduce you to the beauty that is Black hair. The problems I have surrounding this book has to do with the way it was structured. At times it became repetitive and redundant. There were interviews included throughout the book, in the middle of chapters, and more often than not it completely disrupted the flow of information. I would still recommend this book because it does have a plethora of information and really handles the topic well. Overall, I give this story 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Serenity.
49 reviews8 followers
April 12, 2007
That insensitive man needs to read this book to understand the history of kinky hair since he seems to have an issue about it.

It is a good read about black hair politics.

I went through all the phases of kinky hair from press in curl, perm, natural, braids, twists and then press and curl and back to the creamy crack.

Now, I am suffering from alopecia so I am allowing my hair to be pressed.

No more creamy crack for me because it is so wack!
Profile Image for Ashley Holstrom.
Author 1 book121 followers
October 2, 2021
We get the whole history of Black hair in Africa and beyond, with portraits of hairstyles through the years, and advertisements for Black hair products. We get interviews with tons of men and women about their hair and the implications of wanting “good” hair, hair that’s straight and smooth. We get the story of politics in Black hairstyles. And there’s a chapter in here that’s basically a letter to White people about Black hair and hair routines, and it is perfect.
Profile Image for Caroline Harbour.
177 reviews
April 22, 2018
I highly recommend this one, it’s informative and concise while still being entertaining to read.
2 reviews2 followers
July 21, 2020
Everyone should read this book and follow up by watching the documentary called "good hair" on youtube.
Profile Image for Gr(Ace).
81 reviews2 followers
December 18, 2021
Incredible look at Black American history through the lens of hair. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Beverlee.
229 reviews24 followers
May 3, 2019
Not only recommended reading, this should be required. I say this because like it or not, black hair is a political topic. In a better United States, it wouldn’t matter if a Black person chose to wear their hair in its natural state or if they chose to straighten their hair. We should be able to enjoy dressing our hair in whatever manner one chooses. However, many rules abound, starting with what “mainstream” seems acceptable and/or professional—straight hair (in some cases, the longer the better). Within our community, this rule can be enforced strictly by women perming their hair every four to six weeks and by men getting their hair cut close to the head. Another way this rule is exercised is through bias (unintentional or not to be determined) with those possessing “good hair” receiving preferential treatment in social settings.
Hair Story is more than debating hair textures and unwritten society rules of acceptance. The authors examine the history of hair, from different African tribes to Madame CJ Walker’s reign as the most successful entrepreneur to the Afro and Black Pride Movement. I think it’s safe to say most Black women view their hair as a crown, one that at times can be difficult to manage, but also one that we love to wear. I think it’s important for everyone to gain understanding and be able to appreciate our differences. Hair Story was published in 2001 and in 2017, some changes have occurred. Namely, the natural hair movement is popular, though there is a hierarchy within (hair typing 3B/C vs 4A/B/C). I hope that the day comes when a woman isn’t lambasted for wearing unnatural hair color (pink, blue, yellow), for wearing dreadlocks in the military or corporate setting, or for having naturally straight or wavy hair. Our hair is always evolving with various styles, our opinion of what’s acceptable should not be rooted n what mainstream society thinks is beautiful.
Profile Image for Asia Brown.
Author 2 books
June 15, 2020
A riveting, historical and painful journey of the cultural significance and devaluation of Black hair in America! Byrd and Tharps's book is very well-researched and traces the ceremonial and social importance of black hair before the transatlantic slave trade and how, perhaps, the most dehumanizing impact of the slave trade was the forced shaving of African men and women's hair--essentially their "crown of glory"--prior to entering the slave ships. Byrd and Tharps carry the reader through the torrential journey of Black hair: from its cultural beauty, to its physical enslavement; to the development of Black pomades and hair care products; and to the reawakening of Black beauty and hair through the Black Pride and "My Black is Beautiful" Movements. This book is empowering, yet is also critical, educational and transformative for Black people particularly, in reclaiming the beauty that nearly 400 years of demonizing political and cultural propaganda taught us to hate. This book helped me not only appreciate my natural hair but understand the significance of my natural hair journey during the last five and a half years.
Profile Image for Mscharlee.
73 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2007
Wonderful book! It surprisingly went all the way back to the days when blacks were still in African and ruled as kings and queens adorning regal cornrows and braids, then went all the way through to the present where we are now sporting weaves, blowouts, blonde hair and everything else under the sun.

Funny and insightful, it was a great read. So glad to own it.
Profile Image for Lashanda.
32 reviews4 followers
March 19, 2008
I read this when I started transitioning from chemically straightened hair to natural hair. So this book wasn't my inspiration for making the changed, but it armed me with a lot of knowledge to continue the journey. It's a little light on writing style and substance but still one of the better books on the shelves in this subject area.
Profile Image for Janee'.
11 reviews
November 15, 2011
In the process of going natural 2 years ago I found this book very informative. I was also able to share relevant information to others as well. I would advise anyone who is interested in reading about their hair history to read this book
Profile Image for BiblioKel.
711 reviews3 followers
July 3, 2020
An interesting and informative read that is sometimes repetitive and would often feel dry if you're not a fan of academic writing. The version I read covered the 2000s as well.
Profile Image for Cam's Corner.
124 reviews4 followers
April 25, 2020
Okay, so my thesis topic for my Masters is going to be about classism & colorism. This page has honestly been helping me focus on what specifically I want to write on.

With that being said, this book was the perfect start. Ya’ll, once again I have a new respect for our ancestors & grandparents. Hair Story gives a detailed background of Black hair, from our roots in Africa to this day.

I understand now & sympathize why they felt the need to straighten & relax their hair… Don’t get me wrong, like I’ve been known that they had to assimilate into white culture in order to be accepted, but this book really enlightened me. It was the anecdotes that really broke it down & opened my eyes.

Some parts made me angry, I can’t lie. People who looked like me (dark skin, thick hair) really weren’t hired… BECAUSE OF HAIR. NATURAL HAIR. THAT GROWS FROM THE SCALP. THAT IS DETERMINED BY GENES. Thank God today we can fight back legally; but back then they couldn’t & that just aches my heart.

The part that was definitely hard to read was witnessing white corporations entering into the Black hair game. For them (obviously), it was just for the money. Ya’ll this one YT man tried it. He tried to sue a Black business because he “owned the rights to the words African & Pride.” A CAUCASIAN!!!! THE. NERVE.

I can’t lie, this book was also very empowering. Black people, specifically women, wow we really are the blueprint. Again, I’ve been known, but seeing how& when whites & other cultures started to bite off of us… It’s interesting.

If you want a quick read about our hair history with beautiful illustrations, this book is definitely for you:) i love my hair <3
Profile Image for Felicity.
10 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2020
Really enjoyed this comprehensive exploration of the history of Black Hair and the anti-Blackness that surrounds attitudes to Black Hair. The nuanced discussion about how Madam C. J. Walker's business empire was developed gave me a lot of context for understanding some of the plot decisions for the Netflix drama, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker.

Madam C.J. Walker was very much focused on developing products which would enable Black women to straighten their hair in order to access power and opportunity in American society, and she was doing this "for the race". But there is some nuance around whether or not Europeanising Black hair is essentially rooted in anti-blackness. I loved how Hair Story looked at this context from multiple, practical and theoretical angles and broke it down into something that was both elevating, empowering and advancing for Black women situated in a racist society AND a manifestation of internalised anti-Blackness.

This is just one example but the book was full of thoughtful, multi-faceted histories of how Black hair has been politicised and I thoroughly recommend it - particularly to anyone who is white and works in the beauty industry; or who is white and works with children as in 2020 children and young people in the British and American school systems are still being criminalised and unfairly punished for wearing natural Black hairstyles.
Profile Image for Sarah.
230 reviews
July 19, 2020
A lot of great information, filled with anecdotes and history in equal measure. Suffers from reading like it was stitched together from two different projects (which it was). Really glad I bought a copy and read it, but I wish it had been a bit more evocative, or fleshed out, or detailed or something. Except for the start of the book there isn't a lot of description of the various hairstyles mentioned. I feel like all the stories I've heard from women I know about getting braids and perms and what that entails were kind of skimmed over. It might have been nice to explain why it takes hours to braid hair, and what that looks like in practice, instead of just throwing in a line about all night salons and 6 hour braiding sessions. Like that the braids have to be oiled, tight, and even across the head so that they fall on a part. It's a lot of skill, not just a vanity thing about getting tiny braids, and despite it being interesting hearing all about the afro "Bush doctor" it would have been good to spread some of that love to the braiders, permers, and other stylists who figure prominently in the hair fashion world and people's lives.
Profile Image for lili.
18 reviews
February 22, 2021
3.75 stars

More comprehensive than I expected. Was looking for a nonfiction like this when I was beginning my hair journey, but I only picked up those which I found to be mostly trying to destigmatize natural hair textures (which I find no problem with, but I didn't seem exactly the target audience as I never liked getting texturizers [never even had a "proper" relaxer and disliked straight hair on myself]). This one, however, forces the reader to come to contextualize and analyze their own views of the hair bestowed on them by their ancestors.

As it comes to the more modern eras, I found it a bit more boring, probably because they were less illuminating, as they were things I could recount from my own lived experience.

But overall, it would be cool if a book like this was common for those beginning their natural/healthy hair journey to read. I think unconsciously it was the thing I was looking for back then, as I wanted to understand how I identified with my hair and as I was making choices that irritated my parents.
Profile Image for Fraser Sherman.
Author 7 books26 followers
May 25, 2019
I've read a little about what a controversial issue hair is in the black community, and this book really does a good job explaining it. It starts with the hair styles of Africa, where fancy hair was as much a status marker as a designer dress today; then the authors trace the loss of that culture in slavery and the cultural pressures to make curly/kinky hair as straight and white as possible, something that continues into the present. The book then traces the 20th century black-hair experience (conking, CJ Walker, Afros, dredlocks) and the continuing debate: is natural hair a statement of black identity or just tacky? Is it acceptable for whites to wear black styles? Can black hair-related businesses survive without being swallowed by bigger white-owned companies? Extremely interesting.
Profile Image for Jasmine.
91 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2019
Wow! I liked this book a lot. Getting my first perm at age 4 up until age 17, I related to this story a lot. Black people have been taught to hate their looks for generations, with hair being the most criticized after our skin. Since our hair is the least expensive attribute to change, it’s often altered (at least in my opinion) and mainly by us women. The chronological order of events and pictures was a nice touch as well!

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history and to Black women, specifically those going natural and/or those with children to undo the damage—physically and emotionally—as a result of our dangerous hair practices.
Profile Image for Ninna Ottey.
190 reviews22 followers
March 30, 2022
Este libro es sensacional. Fundamental para todas las activistas estéticas que han llevado como batuta de guerra el uso del cabello natural y sus peinados como una manifestación folclórica de la identidad étnico-racial africana y del movimiento negro.

Lo he leído para utilizar como un instrumento que me permitirá profundizar mucho más en mis charlas, pero también en mis argumentos por la lucha discriminatoria que hay en el ámbito escolar y laboral.

Del mismo, me lleva a la pregunta, cómo se podría crear una cronología del Black Hair Culture con perspectiva afrolatina? Si bien nuestras influencias son estadounidenses, siempre hay una diferencia que se entrecruza.
Profile Image for Nidhi Mundhra.
28 reviews2 followers
August 9, 2021
The book is very interesting but it’s very sloppily written. For the first half of the book, you are constantly going though deja vu because the authors write the same stories again and again- often upto 3 times. I was reading it on kindle and kept thinking I had managed to click back to an already read part. This was extremely off putting.
Considering the information is so interesting and even their writing style is engaging, I’m shocked the authors haven’t gone back and fixed the messy repetitions that make up a large part of this book.
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