Black hair always held great social, aesthetic and mystical powers in the motherland. Five hundred years ago, Senegalese women routinely visited each other, styled their hair and gossiped with other women. According to custom, the women would commune with grandmothers, and young women with little children would talk and laugh while they styled each other’s hair.
Hair grooming was such an important part of village life that the African people gave hair a social significance that could be both influencial as well as beautiful.
Hair would be washed, combed with a wooden pick and then decorated with symbolic designs. Then it would be braided with mud or animal fat and dyed with red earth.
On a special day, like a wedding, the bride would be meticulously groomed by her fellow tribeswomen, who would then decorate her hair with beads, shells, leaves and ceremonial shaved patterns.
Ceremonial art objects made for (and from) hair were an integral part of the family and the spiritual life in thriving villages.
As early as 1444, Europeans who traveled to the west coast of Africa to barter and trade returned to Europe and reported seeing Africans wearing elaborate hairstyles including locks, plaits and twists.
“In the early fifteenth century, hair served as a carrier of messages in most West African societies,” stated authors Lori L. Tharps and and Ayana Byrd in their book, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.” “These African citizens from the Mende, Wolof, Yoruba, and Mandingo-were all transported to the ‘New World’ on slave ships. Within these communities, hair often communicated age, marital status, ethnic identity, religion, wealth, and rank in the community. Hairstyles could also be used to identify a geographic region.”
For most Africans, there was a spiritual connection where many Africans believed the hair was a way to communicate with the Divine Being.
According to Mohamed Mbodj, an associate professor of history at Columbia University and a native of Dakar, Senegal, “the hair is the most elevated point of your body, which means it is the closest to the divine.” Consequently, many Africans thought communication passed through the hair. Many believed a single strand of hair could be used to cast spells or inflict harm.
This may explain why even today, hairdressers held and still hold prominent positions in the black community. The many hours required to wash, style and groom black hair fosters an intimacy and often results in close bonds between the stylist and the client.
But with the coming of the slave trade and slave traders centuries ago, hair care rituals, along with other acquired customs, were lost.
Africans who were kidnapped and brought to a strange new land had to leave behind everything that was precious to them, including the highly-revered hair care tools.
White Americans, unaccustomed to seeing black hair in its natural state, called black hair “wool” as a way to dehumanize the slaves. For the next 400 years, Africans, later African Americans, struggled with their hair, deprived of their traditions, their tools and their dignity.
Despite the determination of slave owners to discourage the practice of African traditions, (a slave found with an African pic comb could be severely punished), some of the slaves held onto their tools and rituals that managed to survive.
In 1865 with the ending of slavery, whites looked upon black women who styled their hair like white women as being well adjusted. “Good” hair becomes a prerequisite for entering certain schools, churches, social groups and business networks.
With the creation of metal hot combs, invented in 1845 by the French, black women popularized the comb, which is heated and used to press and temporarily straighten kinky hair.
Many a black woman can recall harrowing tales of fidgeting in a chair in a hot kitchen or beauty salon and fearfully waiting to hear the sizzle of their hair being “fried” by the almighty hot comb. “The whole process of getting my hair straightened was very traumatic,” said Faustina Beard, 37, a law firm secretary. “Sometimes the hairdresser would accidentally burn me on the ear or on the nape of my neck. But somehow I always forgot about the pain when she handed me the mirror and I saw how pretty I looked in my shiny new curls.”
It was not until the 1900s that an enterprising African American woman by the name of Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, developed a range of hair care products for black hair.
Thought to be America’s first black female millionaire, this daughter of ex-slaves was orphaned at age 7, working at 10, married at 14, and became a widow with an infant daughter at 20. Breedlove worked as a domestic and laundress and later sold hair-care products. In her scant spare time she experimented and developed an ointment and system to stop hair loss in African American women and create smooth, shiny coiffures. In 1906 she moved to Denver, married newspaperman Charles J. Walker, and adopted Madam C. J. Walker as her business name. She expanded her product line, notably with a “pressing comb,” and she and her husband began selling her wares door-to-door. They proved so successful that Walker was able to hire saleswomen and to open stores and a beauty college. She moved her factory to Indianapolis in 1910. Three years later, she moved to Harlem and within a few years she had created a cosmetics empire and earned a fortune. She popularized the press and curl style which is still much in demand today. Despite the success of her hair care products, some criticized Walker because they believed she encouraged black women to look white.
As an antithesis to the popularity of straightening the hair with the wildly popular hot comb, Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey urged his followers in the 1920s to embrace their natural hair and reclaim an African aesthetic, and many of his supporters followed suit.
In 1963, the first black woman to wear her hair natural–in private and on television–was actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson created a sensation by proudly flaunting braids and a natural hairstyle on the national television show, “East Side, West Side.”

At the time, it was considered revolutionary for Tyson to wear her hair in the natural style, especially since a black woman wearing her hair ‘not straightened’ was automatically frowned upon by American society.
The message sent by America at large as well as the media was that a black woman’s appearance had to conform to a white aesthetic of beauty. The unspoken consensus was that a black woman could not find a husband or even a job if her hair was not straightened. The message was reinforced as the black female flipped through magazines, newspapers or glanced at billboards–that she needed to straighten her hair in order to appear beautiful.
But with the dawning of the ’60s, blacks began to question white society’s message that natural hair was not acceptable. Blacks began to research their history and rediscovered that natural hair was revered and honored in Africa.
As African Americans began to realize that they were being oppressed and their natural looks were beautiful, they developed a newfound appreciation for their natural hair. “Malcolm X expresses that shame was the motivation behind blacks losing their roots and ethnic identity,” wrote writer Genie McMurrick in “A Natural Hairstyle More Than Just a Fashion Statement.” “By being brainwashed into believing black people are ‘inferior’ and white people are ‘superior,’ African American’s mutated and adjusted their bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards,” she wrote.
With the explosion in the ’60s and the birth of the “Black is Beautiful” movement, millions of blacks embraced and celebrated the different shades of their complexion and prized their wooly hair.
It was a heady time of radical change and social upheaval. The Black Panthers and other politically active groups demanded societal change, symbolized by the flaunting of raised fists and the popularity of the natural hairstyle. Activists Angela Davis and George Jackson, actors Pam Greier and Esther Rolle, Richard Pryor, Rosey Grier, O. J. Simpson, Jesse Jackson, Richard Roundtree, and Bill Cosby were some of the noted blacks who proudly flaunted their Afros.
The ‘fro’ was not accepted in all circles, however, which was seen by white society as a symbol of black rebellion. In 1971, news reporter Melba Tolliver was fired from an ABC affiliate in New York for wearing an Afro while covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding.
By the late ’70s, cornrows and dreadlocks grew in popularity with African Americans. At first unaccepted by white society, black women and men who reported proudly wearing locks or cornrows to work also got a rude shock when they were handed pink slips at their jobs.
Lawsuits followed, with blacks across the country suing and winning damages after being fired for wearing cornrows and dreadlocks.
A double edged standard of beauty was brought to light in 1979 when a blue-eyed actress by the name of Bo Derek shot to instant fame in the movie “10,” where she was filmed running down the beach flaunting the cornrow hair style. Derek ignited a firestorm of controversy when society raved about how beautiful she appeared in cornrows, yet black women, who were originators of the style, were still frowned upon.
Some felt it meant the end of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement.
In 1977, a new craze called the Jheri Curl came into vogue. Billed as “a curly perm for blacks,” the Jheri Curl’s popularity lasted through the ’80s and was laced with heavy moisturizers and activators. For many blacks, it was the first time that they could actually see their hair shake and bounce. The style, however, required high maintenance. The Jheri Curl had to be constantly moisturized to keep it from drying out. The result was that many a Jheri Curl lover’s collar was drenched with activator that resulted in endless dry cleaning bills.
In the 1990s the weave, where synthetic or human hair is sewn or glued to the scalp, burst upon the scene. “Sisters love the weave,” Essence magazine declared.
But for those who shunned the weave, a variety of natural styles and locks also became more accepted.
Dreadlock singer Lauryn Hill broke new ground in 1999 when the Grammy award-winning singer was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
Writer Cathy Grant-Hill’s article “Rooting Out Prejudice” stated that hair is a nonverbal part of communication passed on from generation to generation.
Grant-Hill observed that African American women’s search for societal acceptance often encompasses a struggle between natural and socially defined ideas of beauty.
Francis Ward experienced the legacy of being torn between the African and Anglo cultures during her Sunday hair straightening sessions with her grandmother, her hot comb and the stove. As she grew older, Ward realized she and many other women were assimilating to try to get what was closest to “good hair.” “Her mother or her grandmother never told her that her natural hair was not suitable,” wrote Grant-Hill. “But their actions spoke an eye-opening truth.”
For decades, blacks have debated “good” hair versus “bad hair,” a discussion that has divided the black community. “Good hair has been defined as long, straight and therefore beautiful. Good hair was the hair that bounced and shook,” Grant-Hill observed. “You saw it in the shampoo commercials, the white lady with the hair bouncing around, and you were told that was good hair. No one ever defined what bad hair was,” wrote Grant-Hill. “African American women have been trying to manipulate, control or find solutions to their ‘hair problem’ for years.”
Lois Corbin, a hairdresser for many years, has seen black hairstyles come and go. “Hairstyles are a representation of the African American soul, and all of their confidence and dignity show in how they present themselves on Sundays and on a daily basis,” she reflected.
Despite the emphasis on perms, relaxers and straighteners, many African Americans are returning to the natural hair style, bringing to full circle the hairstyles that were worn and revered centuries ago in Africa. Some express pride in their natural hair pointing to the chemicals that can cause hair damage.
“You can do fun and versatile things with black hair,” said A. Hermitt, who wears her hair in a natural hairstyle. “Unlike straight hair, naturally kinky hair can stand straight up, can be braided into complex designs, and can be temporarily straightened without chemicals and worn in its natural state again the next day.”
But research has also found that hair chemicals can be dangerous. The food and drug administration reported, “Hair relaxers and hair dyes are among its top consumer complaint areas. Complaints range from hair breakage to symptoms warranting an emergency room visit.”
In February 1994, the FDA and the American Cancer Society released an epidemiologic study involving 573,000 women. Researchers found that women who had never used permanent hair dyes showed decreased risk of all fatal cancers combined and of urinary system cancers.
“Straightening chemicals are dangerous,” said Hermitt. “If not applied correctly, it can cause burns, hair damage and temporary to permanent hair loss.”
Another wearer of the natural hairstyle, Marva Trueberry, said, “I love my Afro. My natural hair makes me feel beautiful. I have seen many sistas who used to continuously relax their hair and now have bald patches or their hair keeps on breaking. We should always be careful what we put in our hair. I too like the natural hairstyles, twists, braids, cornrows, afros and so on.”
Tina Mitchell went back to the natural hairstyle. “I just got tired of straightening my hair. I haven’t permed my hair since October of 2007. The love of convenience coaxed me into wearing ponytails, half wigs, full wigs and quick-add pieces because I’m a mom with three school age children. One day I just looked at myself with one of my new wigs and said to myself, ‘Why?’ I simply decided to stop relaxing then and there. What’s wrong with my own natural hair?,’” Mitchell asked herself one day. “I’m beautiful. My hair in all its wooly glory is beautiful, too. Why am I yielding to the European American standards of beauty? I realized that I’ve been brainwashed. So have my people.”
Hermitt said that after wearing her hair natural, she vows she will never go back to perms and straighteners. “Your hair is an identifying symbol of your race. If you are proud of your race, you should be proud of your hair,” she maintained.
Black hair care is a billion-dollar industry and will continue to grow as African Americans share the experience of finding their hair identity.
Rapper Lil’ Kim proudly flaunts her blond wig, crooner Macy Grey and Erica Badu prowl the stage in their oversized Afros and singers Beyonce and Rhianna set new fashion trends every few months by constantly switching their glamorous “dos.” African American women now enjoy the freedom and variety of hairstyles without societal taboos.
Perhaps actress and founder of the National Black Theatre Barbara Ann Teer sums it up the best: “The way we talk, the way we walk, sing, dance, pray, laugh, eat, make love, and finally and most important, the way we look, make up our cultural heritage. There is nothing like it or equal to it, it stands alone in comparison to other cultures. It is uniquely, beautifully and personally ours and no one can emulate it.”

Korean domination of the black hair market
How African Americans can share the retail niche

By Amber Jones
OW Intern

Food for thought: Popular brand names like African Pride, Dark & Lovely, Doo Gro, Dr. Miracle’s and Afro Sheen are all made by non-black manufacturers.
Today’s multi-million dollar black hair industry that originated from innovative African American businesswomen such as: Madam C.J. Walker, Annie Malone, and Marjorie Taylor, has become a Korean dominated market where almost every beauty supply shop on the corner is Korean-owned and black manufacturers’ products are slowly being phased out of retail beauty supply stores. However, a non-profit organization called the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), may be a step toward the solution to this problem.

Can you handle the truth?
Jaguar Luxury, the first African American owned hair extension manufacturer found that Koreans own 80 to 90 percent of independent beauty retail stores, Middle Easterners own anywhere from 5 to 10 percent, while African Americans own 1 percent or less.
A documentary called “Black Hair” by Aron Ranen, revealed that in addition to Koreans’ major control of retail and wholesale distribution of African American products, some black manufacturers and black-owned beauty supply stores face discrimination from Koreans. Ranen’s documentary showed the owner of Kizure, a 30 year black-owned beauty supply company, claiming that some Korean-owned beauty supply stores do not sell her company’s products in their stores because they say there is not a “demand” for their products anymore. When in actuality, she says the Koreans are blacklisting black products; they are duplicating existing black products and buying out existing black-owned companies so that black distributors’ products are out of the retail loop. As a chain reaction to their monopoly over the market, some Korean manufacturers sometimes will not sell to the black-owned beauty supply stores which affect their ability to be competitive against other stores.
“It’s getting harder and harder because they keep everything to themselves…certain people {Koreans} we deal with, we’ll place an order {with them} and they’ll tell you, they don’t have it. Then later we’ll find out they do have it…And when our customers come looking for it, we can’t give it to them,” says the owner of black-owned beauty supply store, Trina’s, located in Mid-City, Los Angeles.

How did they do it?
How did the black hair care market evolve from being dominated by black female entrepreneurs into what it is today? Ranen’s documentary alluded that the Korean government and the U.S. government may have played a role in the Korean control over the market. The documentary discovered the archives of a well-respected Korean newspaper called Chosunilbo that basically revealed in the 1960s, that Korean wig manufacturers convinced the Korean government to put a ban on the export of raw hair. This made it difficult for anyone other than the Korean manufacturers to make wigs from the Korean population. Then, six months later, the U.S. government banned the import of any wig that contained hair from China which basically handed the wig industry to the Koreans.
According to the Korean Beauty Supply Association, during the 1980s many immigrants from Korea came to the United States and opened wig shops. The money to start their shops came from selling their farms or apartments and funding from relatives which allowed Koreans to start small businesses in urban areas, says John Lie, professor at U.C. Berkeley.
South Korea use to be the largest supplier of hair exports to the United States. However, around 1993 China surpassed South Korea in hair exports, according to the US Commerce Department. According to Jaguar Luxury’s website, now the majority of hair comes from China which the Korean distributors have access to and many non-Korean distributors do not. In addition, their website reports that around the 1990s black manufacturers such as: Soft Sheen, Johnson Products, and Pro-line that distributed conditioners, shampoos, and relaxers began selling their businesses to mainstream corporations. Today, these corporations are known as: L’Oreal, Alberto-Culver, and Proctor and Gamble which are the top three sellers of black-hair products. Jaguar Luxury found that significant factors in the Korean dominated market were that they are community oriented, keep the business within the family, share information, and they help each other own and operate their own or new stores.
African American consumers, salons, and barbershops have also been instrumental in the Koreans making money from black haircare. Although 90 percent of black hair salons are owned by and operated by African Americans, they heavily depend on products from Korean suppliers and often recommend that their clients visit the Korean-owned stores from where they get their goods. Most African American customers purchase their hair and products from Korean-owned stores due to the convenience instead of going to a black-owned beauty supply store.

‘Connecting the black dots’
Although people are tired of the monopoly Koreans have over the black hair market and the discrimination black manufacturers and black beauty supply owners face, not much has been done to change it. It was not until March of 2004 that former 10 year district sales manager of Clairol, Sam Ennon, began a non-profit organization called the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), to attempt to alleviate this problem. Even though BOBSA’s mission is to change Korean American’s dominance over the black hair industry by establishing African American and black owned beauty supply stores nationally and internationally, they also provide job training, scholarships, and networking supports for blacks in the hair business. “We have lost control of the industry…Our communication isn’t good and I want to improve that by connecting the black dots. Then we can band together, buy in bulk, and get better prices on black goods. That’s how the Koreans have gotten to be so strong…,” says Ennon.
BOBSA’s “Connecting the Dots” mission goes beyond networking to actually educating black consumers about where the money they spend on hair and beauty supplies ends up, to providing business consultations for members and non-members on starting a beauty supply store. BOBSA also offers exclusive services to their members such as: Business Plan Services, Contract Review Services, Inventory Services, Product Merchandising Services, and many others. They hold educational conferences around the United States on various topics pertaining to black haircare, instructional books on how to be a black entrepreneur in the hair industry, and have their very own beauty stores start up series called the, “Brick and Mortar Beauty Supply Store Development Teleconference Series”.
With more than 415 members made up of barbershop owners, beauty supply stores, salons and manufacturers throughout the United.States, BOBSA has already been successful in helping to open over eight new black-owned beauty supply stores. However, this is just the beginning for BOBSA: Ennon has plans for BOBSA to have an online store in every state, open franchise stores, and one day host a hair show.
BOBSA welcomes anyone who supports the mission and shares their vision to join their organization. The cost of becoming a BOBSA member is $50 for consumers or individuals not working in the hair industry and $125 for professionals. The community can help BOBSA’s mission become reality by making a conscious effort to shop at black-owned beauty supply stores and purchase black manufacturers’ products. BOBSA’s website provides information on where consumers can find local black-owned beauty supply stores in Los Angeles and the names of African American owned beauty brands. For more information on the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association visit the website: