scorecardresearch Skip to main content
About this section

See how the stories we tell shape the world we live in, and how the arts affect our ideas about racial justice and equal participation in democracy.

Public embrace of natural hair offers new twist on civil rights

Celebrations, like SOulFully Textured on Martha’s Vineyard, capture the beauty and the belonging that is Black hair

A scene from SOulFully Textured, A Natural Hair Festival on Aug. 13 at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.Marvin Germain

Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime just got better with a celebration of Black beauty during the SOulFully Textured natural hair festival at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs. Such gatherings — including CurlFest in Brooklyn, Taliah Waajid’s natural hair event in Atlanta, Natural Hair Academy in Paris, and Nappywood in Los Angeles — have convened throughout the 21st century, with diverse groups of Black people honoring the beauty of Afro-textured hair, while destigmatizing naturally tight curls.

In July, Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker signed The CROWN Act (“Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”), a law prohibiting discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles. The law banned discrimination against such hairstyles as Afros, cornrows, or tightly coiled twists in the workplace and at school.

The law was created in part as a response to the treatment of Deanna and Mya Cook, punished for wearing extensions at school in 2017. The Cook sisters experienced prejudice like many African Americans nationwide, ostracized at school and work for wearing kinky, curly, and coily Afro-textured hair. One group of Black women attorneys was discouraged from wearing natural hair to a presentation on corporate attire; a student-athlete was forced to cut his hair at a New Jersey wrestling match; a Texas teen could not participate in his high school graduation ceremony; and a 4-year-old was removed from preschool in February simply for wearing her hair the way it grows out of her head.

A scene from SOulFully Textured, A Natural Hair Festival on Aug. 13 at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.Marvin Germain

These discriminatory instances connect to a longer history of racism, as hair has been entangled in the Black struggle for freedom and protection. In the 1960s, student-activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) prepared to have their hair pulled by the police and White counterprotestors when they engaged in peaceful demonstrations.

Photographs document SNCC’s direct-action, passive resistance training, where they prepared for hair-grabbing and physical attacks. During a 1963 lunch counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, White supremacists poured condiments on the heads of Prof. John Salter, and Tougaloo College student-activists Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody.

Black hair also figured into laws about controlling Black people held in bondage. As early as 1670, the Virginia General Assembly required fugitives from slavery to have their hair “cut close” upon recapture, using forcibly cropped hair to signal “slave status” to the public.

The tignon (or headwrap) law enacted by Gov. Don Estevan Miro of New Orleans in 1786 required Creole women to cover their elaborate hairstyles and remove decorative additions, such as feathers. Instead, they could only wear scarves or handkerchiefs to diminish personal style to distinguish them from White women. These women, in turn, transformed their head coverings into art, using “elaborate fabrics and jewels.” The delicate adornment of headscarves among Black women persists to this day.

Recognizing this history of control and humiliation through the material of Black hair is important for understanding new efforts to celebrate and protect wearers of Afro-textured hair in the United States. In a 2019 study commissioned by Dove cosmetics, sponsors of The CROWN Act, researchers found Black women were more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair, more inclined to face social pressure to change their hair for work, and more likely to be targeted by official policy documents related to hairstyling in the workplace.

A scene from SOulFully Textured, A Natural Hair Festival on Aug. 13 at Waban Park in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.Marvin Germain

Children and adults of African descent are more likely to be monitored, punished, and excluded based on their hair when it is presented in its natural state or in culturally specific hair styles, such as braids, twists, or locs. And despite acceptance of The CROWN Act legislation, passed in 18 states, there continues to be a struggle for acceptance from lawmakers elsewhere. Legislation seeking to prohibit discrimination based on hairstyle and texture failed three times in the Florida legislature. CROWN Act legislation awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate. where a narrow Democratic majority will consider the bill, after it was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Mar. 18.

Black hair care products have been central to successful entrepreneurship among African American manufacturers and hair stylists, such as America’s first Black woman millionaires Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker. Yet discrimination about the character of Black hair continues to limit opportunities for Black Americans, whether in the everyday choices to wear textured styles or transformations, or in the licensure of natural hair care practitioners engaged in ancient routines.

Public events like CurlFest, which celebrate the wearing of Black hair, are just as important as legislative measures to end hair discrimination. Together, they acknowledge Black hair as a unique material, worthy of reframing in the broader cultural consciousness.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb is professor of African & African American Studies and of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. She is the author of “Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” and “New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair.” You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jasminecobbphd.