Historically, Black beauty culture alongside the barbershop (and the soul food restaurant) is attached to the African American story. As Canadians, we have enjoyed American films such as Beauty Shop, Barbershop and its two sequels, and Soul Food. By comparison, there has scarcely been any attention paid to Canada’s Black beauty culture let alone our barbershops and soul food restaurants, which are mostly Caribbean or East and West African cuisines.
When playwright, actor, and producer Trey Anthony brought Da’ Kink in my Hair to the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001, then to Theatre Passe-Muraille in 2003, and the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2005 before it appeared on Global television for two seasons in 2007-2008, there had never been a distinctly Canadian performance of not just hair but Black beauty politics. Anthony’s productions brought an awareness of the deeply personal journey Black women go on with our hair—how to style it, worries about its texture and length, and the politics that get attached to its styling, i.e. an Afro as a signifier of radical politics or hair straightening and hair weaves as signs of acquiescing to the western beauty standard to “fit in” or to “keep a job.” Althea Prince’s The Politics of Black Women’s Hair also explored Black women’s hair, the feelings women have about their hair, and the external pressures—societal and media-driven—to adhere to what some have called “the straight-hair rule.” These works laid an important foundation that placed Black beauty culture in Canada.
This August my first book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, will be published. This book took me nine years to write. I was influenced by Anthony’s and Prince’s work, but I wanted to take the discussion a step further to understand the business of Black beauty and the impact media representation has on Black beauty entrepreneurship and public awareness of Black culture. The “aha” moment that gave birth to my book occurred in 2009 when I saw Chris Rock’s film Good Hair.
The film was supposed to be a “tell-all” look at Black hair but instead it was largely focused on chemical relaxers (hair straightening products) and the global business of hair weaves. For those Black women who wear their hair natural—dreadlocks, Afros, cornrows or twists—Good Hair rendered us virtually invisible. We did not exist. The invisibility of natural hair in this film infuriated me because it played into the “straight-hair rule” without challenging the very hair bias it claimed to comment on. As someone who has worn dreadlocks for over ten years, I have witnessed the rise of Black women embracing their natural hair and the growth of natural hair product lines, such as Carol’s Daughter. However, I have also witnessed the encroachment on Black beauty product ownership by major beauty conglomerates, like L’Oréal.
In 2014, the French cosmetic giant bought Carol’s Daughter. In 1998, L’Oréal acquired Soft Sheen Products, an African American-owned firm founded in 1964 in Chicago by Edward and Bettiann Gardner. At the time, Soft Sheen had sales close to USD $80 million because of export sales to Canada, the United Kingdom, western African countries and the Caribbean. While Soft Sheen sold dozens of brands tailored to Black women, its Optimum shampoo and hair straighteners are what made the company such a success. In 2000, L’Oréal acquired another major African American-owned firm, Georgia-based Carson Products, which sold its products in more than 60 countries, including Canada. Its most popular chemical relaxers brands included Dark & Lovely and Gentle Treatment. Today, L’Oréal’s SoftSheen-Carson division, under the Dark and Lovely brand, also sells “Au Naturale,” which is geared toward “the naturally curly consumer,” according to their website. Yet, most people still think these products are “Black owned” because of the faces on the box.
The encroachment of the Black beauty business by “big beauty” have meant that on the one hand Black beauty culture is now available for purchase anywhere “mainstream” beauty products are sold, most drugstores and grocery stores. On the other hand, it has shifted the balance of control out of the hands of Black businesses and in some ways, out of Black communities completely. In 2008, Ebony magazine ran a feature titled, “Guess Who Sells Your Weave?” This editorial essentially blamed the decline of African American beauty culture ownership on Korean Americans who not only own the vast majority of the beauty product shops in many American cities, but also control and dominate the sale and distribution of hair weaves. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon.
In Toronto, for example, there are several major beauty product stores that cater to Black women but are owned by Koreans. While you can find “natural” products at these shops, the majority of their products are for hair straightening or weaving. We cannot stop anyone from profiting from a lucrative business—market research shows that Black women spend an estimated USD $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, shelling out 80% more on cosmetics and twice as much on skin care as non-Black women—but the question should be asked, are these businesses selling products with the spirit of celebrating Black womanhood or are they simply profiting from Black women’s need to adhere to the western standard of beauty? The limited range of Black cosmetic shades at retail is a constant reminder that dark-skinned women, for instance, are not part of the mainstreaming of Black beauty culture. Understanding the history of Black beauty culture in Canada puts these shifts and the politics that inform them into perspective.
In the mid-nineteenth century, African Americans who migrated north as “freedom seekers” opened barbershops and beauty salons in towns and cities across Ontario. In Toronto, for example, many of these barbershops and beauty salons were located in the immigrant community of St. John’s Ward, known as “The Ward.” This neighbourhood—bordered by College to the North, Queen to the South, University to the West and Yonge to the East—was bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for present-day Nathan Phillips Square and New City Hall, built in 1965. Prior to this, there was Black-owned barbershops and hair salons near and around the Ward, mostly operated by Caribbean immigrants to the city in the 1920s.
From the 1910s through 1930s there were mail-order businesses in Toronto, Windsor, and London that acted as agents for American-based firms. In 1940s Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond, who is remembered today for her refusal sit in the “coloured” section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow in 1946, was a Black beauty entrepreneur who ran a beauty salon, opened a beauty school, and sold products across the province. When Desmond moved to New York and later died unexpectedly in 1965, Black women sold products out of their homes throughout the Maritimes. By the 1950s, there were a few drugstores that offered products geared toward Black women. Major department stores like Eaton’s, Simpsons or Hudson’s Bay and major drugstores virtually ignored Black women consumers through the 1960s.
In 1970, Nova Scotian-born Beverly Mascoll, who relocated to Toronto as a teenager, incorporated her own beauty product company, Mascoll Beauty Supply, which became the first Canadian distributor of Johnson Products, a giant in the Black beauty industry at the time. Eventually, Mascoll’s became the largest Canadian Black beauty supply chain in the country, helping to get Black beauty products into major department stores. Today, there are few Black-owned beauty supply shops still in business. With inclusion into Canada’s mainstream retail sector, then, Black women now have wider access to products but it hasn’t increased levels of cultural awareness about Black hair or its many hairstyles and textures.
In 2015, for example, a crowd of nearly one hundred Black community-members led by Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) rallied in front of the Toronto District School Board headquarters in response to a racially-charged incident at Amesbury Middle School, in the Lawrence and Keele area. A 13-year-old student was disciplined by the school’s principal, Tracey Barnes (who is also Black), because of her natural hairstyle. The charge against the Amesbury student was that her hair was “too poofy” and “unprofessional” in its natural state. BLMTO’s argument was simple—there are anti-Black policies in our schools related to dress codes and hair that act as forms of systemic and institutional racism.
I recently gave a Black History Month talk at St. Augustine Secondary School in Brampton to a group of students, and many Black girls in attendance asked me questions about hair that suggest to me that Black hair is still a contentious issue in our schools. Groups like BLMTO have brought a new public visibility not only to Black social justice and natural hair but also to a queer politics that rebukes the idea that there is box that we can neatly place Black aesthetics into. Their efforts remind us that in our institutions and places of work the battle to accept Black hairstyling and its variations is ongoing.
Today, Canada’s Black beauty culture is still relatively unknown to most people but it’s not on the fringes like it was fifty years ago. Black beauty has its challenges, especially the availability of natural hair products and darker cosmetic shades at retail, but I am optimistic that things are moving forward not backward. My book will not be the last and final word on the topic, but I hope it will be a catalyst for more Black feminist cultural studies that widen the scope of what it means to be both Black and Canadian. The topic of slavery, which dominates much of Black History Month, matters but Black cultural history matters, too.