“I am Black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me because I am Black because the sun hath scorched me.” –Song of Solomon

The 1960s not only birthed a political revolution, it created a Black cultural renaissance that impacted music, art, beauty and fashion. Known as the “Black is Beautiful” movement, the era brought a renewed sense of identity and pride.

And the afro, also known as a natural or ‘fro was the iconic mane event in Black fashion.
Whether kinky or curly, low-cut or towering majestically, the rounded halo hairstyle became a symbol worn to demonstrate Black pride and resistance against European ideals of beauty that had been forced on Black people. The afro was the complete antithesis to what Black people were being told was beautiful.

It framed the faces of many nationally recognized Black leaders from literary activists Nikki Giovanni to musical icon Gil Scott-Heron. And who could forget the large black Afro of famed Black Panther member Angela Davis? Her brazen beauty made her natural all the more striking to behold and more threatening to the White establishment. Even the nonviolence advocate Rev. Jesse Jackson donned the politically inspired hairstyle.

Today, the Afro hairstyles are back in the limelight, and this time with a unique message of individuality, personal style and fashion frankness, says one hairstylist. But it’s not a fashion statement for the faint of heart. It’s a hairdo for those who have the guts to flaunt African ancestry blended with today’s cutting-edge trends.

“You don’t just wear an Afro,” said Kari Williams, Ph.D., a natural hair designer and owner of Mahogany Hair Revolution in Los Angeles. “You let it become a part of your personality and professional image or brand, as seen on entertainers such as Ludacris, Lauren Hill, Maxwell and others.”

Cal State University, Northridge, Professor David Horne, Ph.D., said that this generation is apolitical. They lack the “political acumen” to make the Afro a political statement.

“I think it’s a fashion statement,” said Horne. “There are some young people who are doing it because they see it as a cultural statement. But counterculture is in. Overall, the Afro (today) is not a political statement. Young people are wearing the Afro because entertainers are wearing it. So it’s cool, it’s funky, and it will get them noticed.”

There are other differences about the afros worn today versus those of yesteryear. According to Williams, the 1960 naturals were sharply manicured. “But today, they are no longer the perfect halo. Women and men are wearing more textured afros. They are layering the hair, twisting it and it has more body. Men like D.L. Hughley come into the salon and he has coils. It’s still an afro, but men don’t want their hair blown out, and they don’t want locks.”

Williams said the motivation behind the natural is also different for many women. She notes that the move toward more natural hair allows them to be more health conscious and exercise more frequently. “It prevents them from being held hostage to their hair,” added the hair-care specialist.

Some older women lose hair as they age, and Williams said this sends them to the salon looking for the natural solution to hair care.

Younger people in their late teens and early 20s seem to look at the afro in a different way as well. Williams believes they are so far away from of the days when Blacks had to leave the house with every hair in place in order to be accepted that they feel perfectly free to express their own style by seemingly rolling out of bed, doing a little fluffing of the ‘fro and going about their business. “It’s part of their design ethic,” Williams said.

But there are some mixed messages behind the new afro look as well.

Williams says she sees so many women come into her salon with pictures of Traci Ross (who is mixed raced Black and White). “A great many more women are embracing their natural hair, but we still have some work to do as far as accepting who we are . . . . We see Black women wanting the loser curl with the texture of the hair a little softer. But we still haven’t embraced the kinky, tightly coiled hair.”

While the afro is primarily a phenomenon of the 1960s, there are earlier instances where “afro-like” hairstyles occurred. According to some researchers, ancient Egyptians wore a Nubian wig, which is a headdress that was purportedly an imitation of the thick hairstyles of the Nubina people of Southern Sudan. The wig partly resembled the modern afro but most typically was a built-up series of tightly coiled plaits.

Research also indicated that the Nubian wig was most popular during the 18th Dynasty, particularly during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. This wig is most frequently associated with Queen Kiya and was also worn by Nefertiti and the pharaoh’s mother Tiye.

There are other early example of afro-like hairstyles. For example, the Beja are nomadic tribes that live mainly in the Red Sea Hills of the Sudan. Rudyard Kipling made them famous in the west by describing them as the “Fuzzie-Wuzzies” in his poem on the Mahdi wars in the Sudan. This is because the Beja men arranged their curly hair in a distinctly bushy Afro style.

In the late 1870s, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wore something that resembled a natural. Photos show the ex-slave and diplomat sporting a bushy head of white hair combed back. According to the Urbandictionary.com, there is even a modern hairstyle named after the activist.

“The Frederick Douglass refers to the hairstyle worn by famous African-American historical figure Frederick Douglass. It is a non-discriminatory hairstyle and can be worn by anyone, but does require a degree of masculinity and volume. The Frederick Douglass is predominately worn by African-American men and features voluminous hair and a side part.

“The length of an individual’s Frederick Douglass can vary from approximately an inch long to shoulder length hair.”

The modern afro can be traced back to the 1960s as part of the Black power and Black pride movements. The Black Panthers were one of the early adopters of the hairstyle and wore it as a short, tight ‘fro. But as the years progressed, the volume of the afro increased to the sizes worn by such notables as Angela Davis and Jimi Hendrix.

But not everyone saw the afro as an expression of African heritage. Although styles similar to the afro had existed in Africa prior to the colonization of the Americas, some critics have suggested that the afro hairstyle is not particularly African.

In his book, “Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies,” cultural critic Kobena Mercer argued that the contemporary African society of the mid- 20th century did not consider (the) hairstyle to denote any particular “Africanness;” conversely, some Africans felt that these styles signified “first-worldness.” Similarly, Brackette F. Williams stated in her book, “Stains on My Name, War in My Veins: Guyana and the Politics of Cultural Struggle,” that African nationalists were irritated by the afro’s adoption by African Americans as a symbol of their African heritage; they saw this trend as an example of Western arrogance.

Afros were not popular among the Afro Caribbean countries because of the use of dreadlocking in the Rastafarian movement. Instead dreadlocks were a sign of Black pride in the Caribbean for the Rastafarian.

In the 1960s, Cuba banned afros, and in the next decade, Tanzania did the same because the country leaders saw them as neocolonialism. The country felt as though America was trying to invade their culture.

While today’s afro in general is no longer used as a sign of resistance against “the man,” it is still a divergence from what is commonly seen in the media. There is a growing acceptance of the style in corporate and social circles. Most importantly, the choice of afros is attached to celebrating who we are. Black women are growing tired of losing their hair because of the aggressive styling methods they undergo to smooth and straighten their locks. In some cases, these processes are finally manifesting irreversible hair loss and scalp damage.