Will the black hair wars ever end? Will the morning hair-combing hostilities between black mothers and daughters ever cease? Will the permed vs. natural debate be resolved in our lifetime?
As a veteran of the Great Hair Skirmishes of the 1960s, I witnessed a brief, shining moment when large numbers of black women conquered the fear of unprocessed roots. For a time, I actually believed we had made peace with that multi-textured mass of protein—whether kinky, coiled, crinkly, wavy or straight—that sprouts from our scalps.
I now realize I was naive and overly optimistic. Truth be told, there was at least a touch of tyranny in the notion that we all should conform more or less to the same style, forever and always, amen. Plus, it was impossible for a few years of happily nappy glory to erase the psychological scars brought on by centuries of living in a society that didn’t treasure African beauty. Barely a generation after Cicely Tyson appeared in a short Afro on CBS’s “East Side/West Side,” the Jheri curl was vying with hair weaves and braid extensions for dominion over our scalps.
When I waged my own personal Afro Rebellion in 1969, there was more than the usual family discord. With both parents in the beauty business—my father as president of Summit Laboratories (a company that had pioneered chemical straighteners in the 1950s) and my mother as vice president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. (the firm founded by her great-grandmother in 1906)—hair care products literally put food on the table. Despite my father’s warning that my decision to go natural might affect Summit Labs’ sales—and therefore mean less money for my college tuition—my mother escorted me to the Walker Beauty School in Indianapolis, where my shoulder-length flip was transformed into a massive halo of hair, compliments of permanent wave rods until the chemicals could grow out.
For me this episode always felt highly subversive and ironic, especially because I knew it would confuse the 1960s hair police who had labeled Madam Walker an enemy of the state. What they didn’t know is that Madam Walker’s first products—a vegetable shampoo and an ointment with sulfur—were designed to heal scalp disease and promote hair growth. The myth that Madam Walker had invented the hot comb was not true.
When Madam Walker—and her primary competitor, Annie Malone—revolutionized hair care for black women a century ago, most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. Needless to say, hygiene in those days was very different than it is today. A weekly bath was a luxury. Because most women washed their hair less than once a month, many were going bald.