Elevate Difference

Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry

In Beauty Shop Politics, Tiffany M. Gill documents the central role that Black beauticians played in the struggle against Jim Crow laws. Beauty shops were one of the few industries that offered Black women some economic stability and upward mobility in the face of segregation. The industry also offered Black women a respectable alternative to domestic labor, as well as a chance to not work for White people. As political tensions rose, civil rights organizers increasingly turned to Black beauticians for disseminating social and political information.

Initially, White English and French men dominated the hair care industry. Black men slowly worked their way in, serving as hairdressers for White women, but that period was short-lived, as the stereotype of Black men as sexual predators began to emerge. During the antebellum period, Black women began to emerge as hairdressers in greater numbers; the early twentieth century saw the emergence of Black female entrepreneurs, namely Annie Malone and Madame C.J. Walker, who played an integral role in expanding Black beauty culture.

Through hard work and sheer perseverance, the women fought for beauticians to gain the respect of the general public. The women had to fight charges that they were inhibiting racial uplift, particularly because their products appeared to straighten Black women’s hair at a time when it was culturally looked down upon. Still, the women fought to have beautician courses established at Black colleges, arguing that the industry provided Black women economic stability. They also fiercely promoted themselves to the public by contributing to various philanthropic causes.

In times of economic hardship, the beauty industry offered Black women an opportunity to enter a respectable profession that entailed a steady income and entrepreneurial opportunities. On the national level, women worked to create a national organization that would legitimize their profession. In 1912, Madame Walker argued that “hairdresser” was a derogatory term, and insisted on the use of the term “beauty culturist.” With their economic and professional status now in place, beauty culturists were quickly gaining a strong foothold and establishing their place within their communities.

Because the Black beauty industry was owned and supplied by Blacks, and catered to the Black community, Black beauticians had some insulation from the economic hardships that their peers faced. Thus, they were able to participate in civil rights activism without the fear of losing their jobs or their customer base. Some, for instance, established literacy schools so that their students would be able to pass voter registration tests. Others distributed information through their beauty shops, which had become central locations for community organizing. Gill also extends her research to the present day, noting how the focus has now shifted from civil rights to women’s health initiatives.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is its accessibility to a wide audience. Gill writes in a clear and engaging style that makes the book an excellent choice for a non-academic reader who is interested in the subject. She includes noted figures in Black women’s history such as Madame Walker, Annie Malone, and Septima Clark, and uses compelling anecdotes about women such as Mahalia Jackson and Anne Moody, author of Coming of Age in Mississippi. Most importantly, Gill introduces the reader to a roster of lesser-known figures who also played important roles during this period. The book is an invaluable resource for women’s history and African American history scholars.

Written by: Melissa Arjona, July 6th 2010

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