Between 1945 to 1964, more than 50 percent of ads in most Black publications were ads for hair straightening and skin bleaching and played a strong role in financing Black publications. Still trying to remake the image of blacks in America, men, like women, cold-creamed their faces and tied down their hair at night because they also felt straightening their hair offered additional style options and made them look good and hip. The idea was that you had better opportunities and would have a better life if you had straighter hair and lighter skin.
“The Black skin is not a skin of shame…”
There were still blacks, however, who rejected this idea. One such man was Marcus Garvey, a publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, Black Nationalist, Pan-Africanist, and orator. Garvey was a controversial leader who believed firmly in the power of unity in the black community. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, and advanced a Pan-African philosophy which inspired a global mass movement, known as Garveyism. Garveyism would eventually inspire others, from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement.
Of particular interest to the history of black hair, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) group launched a newspaper called Negro World in 1918. Unlike just about every publication of the time, Garvey refused to run ads for skin lighteners or hair straighteners. He rebuffed their efforts with the following quote: “Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.”
Marcus Garvey did many great things that have nothing to do with hair and more to do with the love of his race and culture. Read more about his life here.
The Ad Campaign for Being the “Right” Black
I’ve collected quite a few ads from this time period – all geared at Black Americans, and all promising to give them a better life through the lightening of their skin and the straightening of their hair. After reading these and understanding what they implied, I became ashamed. Not of my beautiful chocolate dark skin tone, but by the realization that not so much has changed today. There are still ads, still companies who are selling lightening products; and there are still Black men and women who think that lighter is better so they bleach their skin and wear their hair in straighter styles in order to have what they feel to be the more “desirable” look. This saddens me and I am grateful that I had parents and friends and family who never bought into that ideal, and taught my sister and I that the tone of your skin is not what made you more or less beautiful. Have I ever been slighted or viewed differently for my darker skin complexion? Yes. Has it changed my view of my skin tone, or made me want to be lighter? Nope. I wouldn’t change this shade for a million dollars!
Look at these ads. Let them make you uncomfortable – even angry. And then appreciate your shade of black, and learn to accept and appreciate others!
“The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness” Marcus Garvey.