Black History Month, Part 3: The First Hair Relaxer

Fact #3:

Having their heads shaved, being forced to use sheep’s tools to maintain their hair, and having their traditions stolen from them left those enslaved feeling shamed, demoralized, and humiliated.  These methods of dehumanizing slaves were just the beginning.  Now in a foreign land controlled by people with fair skin and straight hair, African textured hair was attacked socially and labeled as inferior and repellent.  In the 1700’s, advertisements, slave auction posters, and even the scientific community referred to African textured hair as “wool” as though it were not even human hair.  This dehumanizing language served to validate the lower-class status and enslavement of Africans.

This racist rhetoric was internalized by many slaves but was also a requirement for some slaves such as laundresses, chauffeurs, cooks, and housekeepers.  Those who worked inside the plantation houses had to present a look that appealed to their slave owners.  Both circumstances lead to the creation of the first hair relaxer in order to straighten curly hair to appear more European.  This concoction was a mixture of lye and potatoes.  The potatoes were used to lessen the harsh effects of the lye.  This early form of a relaxer was effective at straightening the hair for a period, but would often burn the scalp and damage the hair.

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Today, there are a variety of hair relaxers available over-the-counter.

Today, many of the hair relaxers you can find over-the-counter and in your local beauty shop still contain lye and have the same damaging effects on the scalp and hair.  It is also revolutionary that many products today are designed not just to straighten the hair but to bring out the natural curly texture as well.  When I went natural five years ago, I was amazed by all the products available to me.  Check out some of them under the “Jane’s Hair” tab!

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