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Beauty & Race: Did Malcolm X Have Red-Colored Hair? Was He A Natural Redhead, Or Did He Dye His Hair?

AS A TEENAGER MALCOLM X, aka 'Detroit Red', enjoyed having straight hair, but later came to hate its natural red color — or rather, the Scottish ancestry in his background that created it. By Ben Arogundade. Nov. 20, 2020.

AMERICAN BEAUTY X: Did African American civil rights leader Malcolm X have red hair? He inherited a natural reddish color from his white Scottish grandfather. X, nicknamed Detroit Red on account of his hair color, was 15 when he straightened his hair and got his first 'conk' — the popular African American hairstyle of the era.

AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS leader Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha Nebraska. He was the fourth of seven children. His father, Reverend Earl Little, was an African American Baptist minister from Reynolds, Georgia. He was an imposing figure — six-feet-four and with one eye. His mother, Louise Little, was born in Grenada in the British West Indies. Her background was very different from her husband's. She was an educated woman of mixed heritage. Her father was white, and so she was light-skinned. She “looked like a white woman”, Malcolm recalled in his autobiography. “She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro’s”. Although Malcolm’s father was very dark-skinned, he inherited much of his mother’s complexion. His skin was the lightest of all seven children. As a result, as a child he believed that he was treated better by his father, and escaped many of the routine beatings suffered by his siblings.


Malcolm also inherited a reddish color, in both his skin-tone and hair, from his white grandfather’s side, which later earned him the nickname “Detroit Red”. The civil rights leader's mother’s partial white ancestry was a sore point within the family. She had never met her father, and was ashamed of her link to him. Malcolm himself came to resent the genetic legacy that had awarded him his light skin and red hair. “I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me,” he said.


In 1920s America, a new hairstyle known as the “conk” swept through the African American community. Afro hair was chemically straightened with a home-mixed recipe called congalene – a caustic sauce made from lye, potatoes and raw eggs. The thick cream was combed through the hair and left on for several minutes to take effect. The process was routinely painful, as the cream reacted with the scalp, causing a strong burning sensation, as illustrated in the famous scene from the Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X. The substance was then shampooed out, leaving the hair permanently straight, with a built-in lacquered sheen. It was then greased and styled.

The conk craze caught on with African American celebrities across the country. Malcolm got his first “process” in Boston in 1940, at the tender age of 15, during his days as a petty criminal: “the transformation, after a lifetime of kinks, is staggering”, he recalled.


This part of Malcolm X's legacy remains a popular part of today's Internet searches about the former civil rights leader. Google, who collect and publish monthly global search figures, report that currently, approximately 550 Internet users type the words, “Detroit Red Malcolm X” into their browsers each month, while a further 2,000 Google the terms, “Did Malcolm X have red hair?”, and “Malcolm X conk”.


With the awakening of his political consciousness, X, who also went by his Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was scathing about the days when he wore the conk hairstyle. “This was my first really big step towards self-degradation: when I endured all that pain, literally burning my flesh with lye, in order to cook my natural hair until it was limp, to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that black people are ‘inferior’ – and white people ‘superior.’”

Malcolm X’s hair revisionism was subsumed into his manifesto of black self-determination and civil rights, which peaked in the 1960s. African Americans, influenced by the cultural mandates of ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Black power’, suddenly rejected their processed hairstyles, and for a while at least, Afro hair took centre stage.

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Hi there. I am a London-based author and publisher, specialising in fiction, non-fiction and online journalism. Discover more about me and my latest projects, at Ben Arogundade bio.

FAMILY BACKGROUND: Civil rights leader Malcolm X's parents, Louise and Earl Little. His mother was of part-Scottish ancestry, which Malcolm came to hate, and which accounted for his red hair color. BOYHOOD: Malcolm X as a young boy.



The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Detroit Red Malcolm X” each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the terms, “Did Malcolm X have red color hair?”, and “Malcolm X conk”each month.

*All figures for “Malcolm X’s Red Hair Color - According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.


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