Growing up, I always wanted to tame my mane. It was tempestuous, wild, big, thick, and rough—the complete opposite of what my young, impressionable mind was told “attractive” looked like. Simply by growing up in America, I had been led to believe that my hair was “stressed out” and needed to “relax.” So that’s what I did—I relaxed my hair. And, indeed, people looked at me differently once my hair became silky. I went from being a cute young girl to an alluring young lady.
Which is incredibly unfortunate. Because it seemed to confirm that my hair should be disguised and tamed; that if I didn’t chemically change it, it should be tucked away.
I wish I had known then that women who looked like me proudly wore their hair natural and kinky in America centuries before. Some of those women were even seen as being so beautiful that laws were put in place in an effort to diminish their beauty. Yes, their hair was so damn beautiful that it was illegal.
In the late 18th century, new economic opportunities and growth led to an increase in the free African and African-American populations of New Orleans. This was because some people of African descent were newly able to make money, buy their freedom, and subsequently increase the free Black population. And with that came an increase in interracial relationships, to the dismay of colonial authorities. As Ze Winters notes in The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, “Charles III of Spain demanded that the colonial governor of Louisiana ‘establish public order and proper standards of morality,’ with specific reference to a ‘large class of ‘mulattos’ and particularly “mulatto’ women.”