Assimilation through Hair Straightening in the United States
When I found an advertisement in the Times Picayune for a product manufactured by Nelson MFG, Co., Inc that’s meant to make “harsh stubborn hair soft glossy and luxurious”, I immediately identified with it. Though it was called something different in 1918, it is clear by the language on the illustrated box that this ad was intended to sell a product that I’m very familiar with—relaxer.
Relaxer seems to only be widespread in black communities, but not at all confined to the small selection of these that exist within the United States. Though it’s difficult to find an encompassing definition, the product can be described as a chemical cream that is smeared onto hair to straighten that which is seen as unprofessional, ungroomed and unclean. In order to achieve this, the chemical bonds of the hair are broken down so that it can not longer retain its shape. Many of these are known to have sodium hydroxide as a key ingredient, which is damaging to hair and can cause burns on the skin and blindness. Regardless of the risks, it is still used heavily in black communities. It seems that we’ve been convinced that the result is worth it.
Nelson was not the only company to produce a cream or ‘pomade’ like this in the beginning of the twentieth century. There were numerous versions and brands, including those of the hugely impactful Madame C.J. Walker, the first person to bring black hair care into mainstream consumerism. In these, the language differed and became more overt, even with the clear similarity in purpose. In an ad produced by a company called Herolin, the target audience is asserted bluntly through the use of sentences that detail how the pomade will “[cause] nappy, coarse, stubborn, kinky or short hair to grow soft, long, silky, easy to manage”.
These words associated with textured hair have maintained negative connotations throughout the evolution of American society and remain impactful as a tool for social oppression today. The implication that both the hair and mere presence of black people is unpleasant and difficult to process is one of the factors that has worked as a catalyst for the turmoiled race relations since the beginning of the United States.
These products became popular because of the desire to look as close to white as possible that ran rampant in black society in years following the abolishment of slavery in America. This was done in order to gain socioeconomic standing in a culture overtly tilted in favor of the white population. The dynamics between white and black people were still deeply uncertain at this time, given the continued presence of anti-emancipation citizens. This created an urge to assimilate among the black population. At the time that this ad appeared, Louisiana was operating under the Jim Crow laws, designed to target African Americans and remove their rights. Some people with African heritage had an easier time integrating than others, which was often due to them having more ‘white’ physical attributes such as lighter skin and hair and less broad facial features. These individuals are known in some cases to have partaken in crossing the color line, a process made easier with the use of hair straightening paraphernalia. The mentality that straight hair is necessary to succeed in a Caucasian dominated society is one that has been passed down through generations of African Americans.
In a segment about hair on The Tyra Banks Show, a guest articulated why she uses relaxer: “We…stay in a Eurocentric lifestyle…even though we came [to America] unwillingly, we’re here now and we’ve adapted to this way and we’re accustomed”. This, combined with the perceived difficulty associated with textured hair, is why products like Nelson’s pomade still exist and thrive in modernity. The need to assimilate and ‘blend in’ to white society has become so ingrained in the life of African Americans that many relaxers are marketed specifically towards children. These variations are sold in most stores with a hair care aisle. The ease with which it can be accessed allows parents to begin processing their children’s hair as early as they please, often when they are toddlers. I believe that much of the reason for this is because it is advertised in the same way as the versions from a hundred years ago were—it claims to bring manageability to the child’s otherwise coarse hair, with the added benefit of coconut oil and other health buzz words that excite consumers.
The continued desire for these products effectively shows how the black community is consistently affected by ideals of white beauty and strength. The language remains the same across packaging and ads that shift otherwise is the strongest evidence of this, showing that no matter when we let our natural hair grow, it will always be inconvenient.
“(28) Good Hair on Relaxer – YouTube.” Accessed October 22, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCEX34-1o6M&t=33s.
“(28) What Is Good Hair? – Tyra (Part 1) – YouTube.” Accessed October 22, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeXUm8OOUA8&t=235s.
“Madam C.J. Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. Accessed October 22, 2018. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker.
“Toxins in Cosmetics.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~nshah/cosmetics/relaxers-healtheffects.html.
“The Guthrie Daily Leader. (Guthrie, Okla.) 1893-1996, January 11, 1918, HOME, Image 3,” January 11, 1918.
“Just For Me No-Lye Conditioning Crème Relaxer (Regular).” Target. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.target.com/p/just-for-me-no-lye-conditioning-cr-232-me-relaxer-regular/-/A-16608611.
“Just For Me Relaxer Kit Coarse No Lye Conditioning Creme.” Walmart.com. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Just-For-Me-Relaxer-Kit-Coarse-No-Lye-Conditioning-Creme/10313873.
“Just For Me Texture Softener System No-Lye System.” Target. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.target.com/p/just-for-me-texture-softener-system-no-lye-system/-/A-16600618.