In the second of our weekly blogs celebrating Black History Month, this post will look at the history of hair straightening creams or relaxers, jokingly known as creamy crack to those with natural hair as getting a relaxer was an addictive practice.
Garret A Morgan may not be a familiar name but he was noted to be the person who invented the relaxer which was an accidental discovery. Morgan realised how problematic it was when sowing fabric as it scorched due to the rapid movement of the sewing machine needle. Whilst experimenting with different chemicals to see if it could lessen the friction and stop the fabric from scorching, Morgan saw that after wiping his hands clean of chemicals onto a piece of cloth, the fibres on the cloth had become straight. He took this small discovery and tested it on a neighbour’s dog, he then began to test the chemical on his own hair. From this accidental discovery, Garret A Morgan manufactured the cream that would chemically straighten women’s hair. He named it the G.A Morgan Refining Cream. In 1913, he set up G.A Morgan Refining Company to market his product.
Stripped of their identity in attempts to sever any connection with their homeland, African slaves were forced fed new identities that imposed Western standards. This included shaving the hair of women which was a source of pride, beauty and status. Post emancipation supposedly bought freedom for slaves but history tells us this is far from the truth. Black people weren’t free from the notions of what it meant to have good hair. Kinky, coarse and textured hair was ugly and sleek straight hair was more desirable. The demand for products and tools to achieve this was look was therefore inevitable as this standard of beauty was internalised and passed on through generations. Even though the 60s gave power to the afro due to the Black Power Movement, relaxers were still popular. However, it wasn’t until 1971 when the lye relaxer was commercialised. Although it was soon transpired how strong lye relaxers were. The main ingredient was sodium hydroxide and due to the harsh ingredients in the relaxer, a lot of women had over processed hair which became dry and brittle. Subsequently, manufacturers produced a no lye relaxer which was marketed to be “gentler” as it contained less harsh ingredients.
In 2009, comedian and actor Chris Rock produced the documentary Good Hair. His exploration of black women’s relationship with hair gave a candid insight into how women viewed their hair and the wider implications showing its social, political and cultural influence. There is one memorable scene where Chris Rock attempts to sell black hair. He comes across one hair shop where the black woman behind the counter says, “your hair is no good and black people don’t wear that no more”. More crudely, the Asian shop worker says, “no one wants to look like Africa”. Quite damningly, Chris Rock asks if his nappy hair is good enough and the answer was a firm no. Interestingly, the natural hair movement was probably in its early stages the year after the documentary release.
What about now? The black hair that Chris Rock was attempting to sell is in high demand. Kinky textured wigs and extensions are sought for and desirable. The natural hair movement seems to have put a dent in the sale of relaxers. However, despite the history and politics of black hair, whether it is in its straightened or curly form is still a choice for black women. This means a woman can choose to have her hair in whatever hairstyle she pleases. However, in should be said with confidence that black hair is, and always was, good enough.