The History of the Afro

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[Detangling Our Roots] Stop the co-opt. In this EBONY.com series exploring Black hair origins, we trace the Afro to the 1960s Black Power movement.  

A little over a year ago, Beyoncé declared to the world: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afros.”

As far as hairstyles go, it doesn’t get much blacker than the Afro.

“Nappy,” “woolly” and “unruly” are only some of the unflattering adjectives that have been used to describe Black hair during and post slavery.

In the 1960s, Black folks finally said, “To hell with that!” After decades of subjecting ourselves to European beauty standards, we decided to take back our hair. This newfound self-acceptance was widely known as the Black Is Beautiful movement, which sprang from the Black Power movement.

With political activists such as Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton and Jesse Jackson proudly rocking Afros while fighting oppression, the hairstyle quickly emerged as a symbol for Black beauty, liberation and pride.

“Black activists were agitated with White supremacy and Jim Crow laws, and they wanted to show an outward sign of their frustration toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent philosophy,” explains Chad Dion Lassiter, president of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. “The Afro was Black beauty personified without White validation, and it did not care about critics. For many Black men, it was about cool pose and hyper-masculinity in the face of police brutality and constant oppression.”

That’s why Allure’s tutorial in its August 2015 issue titled, “You (Yes, You) Can Have an Afro, Even If You Have Straight Hair” was particularly irksome and insulting on many levels. Strike one? The model featured was White actress Marissa Neitling.

It certainly didn’t help that the hairstyle shown was more of a twist out than an Afro and the publication failed to explore the Afro’s origins.

Allure issued a response to BuzzFeed amid the controversy: “The Afro has a rich cultural and aesthetic history. In this story, we show women using different hairstyles as an individual expressions [sic] of style. Using beauty and hair as a form of self-expression is a mirror of what’s happening in our country today. The creativity is limitless—and pretty wonderful.”

If Allure’s editors had pointed out some of the Afro’s “rich cultural and aesthetic history” with its readers, then maybe we wouldn’t still be here talking about the tutorial two years later. Just sayin’.

What’s interesting about the Afro is its cultural trajectory. In the early 1970s, the ’fro was perceived as a major political statement that would’ve never appeared in the pages of a mainstream publication, especially as a hair tutorial. It didn’t take long for the hairstyle to become associated with Black ass-kicking thanks to the rise of Blaxploitation films, including ShaftFoxy Brown and Coffy. It was seen as less militant as The Jackson 5, Sly & the Family Stone, Billy Preston and other acts appeared on television shows, such as Soul Train to promote their music, while showing off their bountiful Afros as they worked the stage.

Read more of my latest piece for Ebony [here].