At the end of the 1950s, a small number of young black female dancers and jazz singers broke with prevailing black community norms and wore unstraightened hair. The hairstyle they wore had no name and when noticed by the black press, was commonly referred to as wearing hair “close-cropped.” These dancers and musicians were sympathetic to or involved with the civil rights movement and felt that unstraightened hair expressed their feelings of racial pride. Around 1960, similarly motivated female student civil rights activists at Howard University and other historically black colleges stopped straightening their hair, had it cut short, and generally suffered ridicule from fellow students.
Over time the close-cropped style developed into a large round shape, worn by both sexes, and achieved by lifting longer unstraightened hair outward with a wide-toothed comb known as an Afro pick. At the peak of its popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Afro epitomized the black is beautiful movement. In those years the style represented a celebration of black beauty and a repudiation of Eurocentric beauty standards. It also created a sense of commonality among its wearers who saw the style as the mark of a person who was willing to take a defiant stand against racial injustice. As the Afro increased in popularity its association with black political movements weakened and so its capacity to communicate the political commitments of its wearers declined.
In the 1950s black women were expected to straighten their hair. An unstraightened black female hairstyle constituted a radical rejection of black community norms. Black women straightened their hair by coating it with protective pomade and combing it with a heated metal comb. This technique transformed the tight curls of African American hair into completely straight hair with a pomaded sheen. Straightened hair remained straight until it had contact with water. Black women made every effort to lengthen the time between touch-ups. They protected their hair from rain, did not go swimming, and washed their hair only immediately before straightening it again. If a woman could not straighten her hair, she covered it with a scarf.
The technology of hair straightening served prevailing gender norms that defined long wavy hair as beautifully feminine. While hair straightening could not lengthen hair and may have contributed to breakage, it transformed tightly curled hair into straight hair that could be set into waves. Tightly curled hair was disparaged as “nappy” or “bad hair,” while straight hair was praised as “good hair.” The Eurocentric underpinnings of these black community judgments have led many to characterize the practice of hair straightening as a black attempt to imitate whites. Cultural critics have countered by arguing that hair straightening represented much more than an imitation of whites. Black women modeled themselves after other black women who straightened their hair to present themselves as urban, modern, and well groomed.
In the post–World War II period, when the vast majority of black women straightened their hair, most black men wore short unstraightened hair. The male straightened hairstyle that was known as the conk was highly visible because it was the style favored by many black entertainers. The conk, however, was a rebellious style associated with entertainers and with men in criminal subcultures. Conventional black men and men with middleclass aspirations kept their hair short and did not straighten it.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, awareness of newly independent African nations and the victories and setbacks of the civil rights movement encouraged feelings of hope and anger, as well as exploration of identity among young African Americans. The Afro originated in that political and emotional climate. The style fit with a broader generational rejection of artifice but more importantly, it expressed defiance of racist beauty norms, rejection of middle-class conventions, and pride in black beauty. The unstraightened hair of the Afro was simultaneously a way to celebrate the cultural and physical distinctiveness of the race and to reject practices associated with emulation of whites.
Dancers, jazz and folk musicians, and university students may have enjoyed greater freedom to defy conventional styles than ordinary working women and were the first to wear unstraightened styles. In the late 1950s a few black modern dancers who tired of continually touching-up straightened hair that perspiration had returned to kinkiness, decided to wear short unstraightened hair. Ruth Beckford, who performed with Katherine Dunham, recalled the confused reactions she received when she wore a short unstraightened haircut. Strangers offered her cures to help her hair grow and a young student asked the shapely Miss Beckford if she was a man.
Around 1960, in politically active circles on the campuses of historically black colleges and in civil rights movement organizations, a few young black women adopted natural hairstyles. As early as 1961 the jazz musicians Abbey Lincoln, Melba Liston, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and folk singer Odetta were performing wearing short unstraightened hair. Though these women are primarily known as performing artists, political commitments were integral to their work. They sang lyrics calling for racial justice and performed at civil rights movement rallies and fund-raisers. In 1962 and 1963 Abbey Lincoln toured with Grandassa, a group of models and entertainers whose fashion shows promoted the link between black pride and what had begun to be called variously the “au naturel,” “au naturelle,” or “natural” look. When the mainstream black press took note of unstraightened hair, reporters generally insinuated that wearers of “au naturelle” styles had sacrificed their sex appeal for their politics. They could not yet see unstraightened hair as beautiful.
Though they received support for the style among fellow activists, the first women who wore unstraightened styles experienced shocked stares, ridicule, and insults for wearing styles that were perceived as appalling rejections of community standards. Many of these women had conflicts with their elders who thought of hair straightening as essential good grooming. Ironically, a few black female students who were isolated at predominantly white colleges experienced acceptance from white radicals who were unfamiliar with black community norms. More mainstream whites, however, saw the style as shockingly unconventional and some employers banned Afros from the workplace. As more women abandoned hair straightening, the natural became a recognizable style and a frefrequent topic of debate in the black press. Increasing numbers of women stopped straightening their hair as the practice became emblematic of racial shame. At a 1966 rally, the black leader Stokely Carmichael fused style, politics, and self-love when he told the crowd: “We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, a thick lip, and nappy hair is us and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not. We are not going to fry our hair anymore” (Bracey, Meier, and Rudwick 1970, p. 472). The phrase “black is beautiful” was everywhere and it summed up a new aesthetic ranking that valued the beauty of dark brown skin and the tight curls of unstraightened hair.
Increasing numbers of activists adopted the hairstyle and the media disseminated their images. By 1966 the Afro was firmly associated with political activism. Women who wore unstraightened hair could feel that their hair identified them with the emerging black power movement. Televised images of Black Panther Party members wearing black leather jackets, black berets, sunglasses, and Afros projected the embodiment of black radicalism. Some men and many women began to grow larger Afros. Eventually only hair that was cut in a large round shape was called an Afro, while other unstraightened haircuts were called naturals.
As larger numbers of black men and women wore the Afro, workplace and intergenerational conflicts lessened. In 1968 Kent cigarettes and Pepsi-cola developed print advertisements featuring women with large Afros. Decorative Afro picks with black power fist-shaped handles or African motifs were popular fashion items. While continuing to market older products for straightening hair, manufacturers of black hair-care products formulated new products for Afro care. The electric “blow-out comb” combined a blow-dryer and an Afro pick for styling large Afros. Wig manufacturers introduced Afro wigs. Though the Afro’s origins were in the United States, Johnson Products, longtime manufacturer of hairstraightening products, promoted its new line of Afro Sheen products with the Swahili words for “beautiful people” in radio and print advertisements that stated “Wantu Wazuri use Afro Sheen.” In 1968 a large Afro was a crucial element of the style of Clarence Williams III, star of the popular television series, The Mod Squad. In 1969 British Vogue published Patrick Lichfield’s photograph of Marsha Hunt, who posed nude except for arm and ankle bands and her grand round Afro. This widely celebrated image fit with an emerging fashion industry pattern of featuring black models associated with signifiers of the primitive, wildness, or exotica.
One wearer of a large Afro was the activist and scholar Angela Davis who wore the style in keeping with the practices of other politically active black women. When, in 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list, her image circulated internationally. During her time as a fugitive and prisoner she became a heroine for many black women as a wide campaign worked for her release. The large Afro became indelibly associated with Angela Davis and increasingly described as the “Angela Davis look.” Ironically the popularization of her image contributed to the transformation of the Afro from a practice that expressed the political commitments of dedicated activists to a style that could be worn by the merely fashion-conscious.
The style that became the Afro originated with black women. Since most black men wore short unstraightened hair in the late 1950s, short unstraightened hair could only represent something noteworthy for black women. When, in the mid-1960s, the style evolved into a large round shape, it became a style for men as well as women. Since black men customarily wore unstraightened hair, an Afro was only an Afro when it was large. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when men and women wore Afros, commercial advertising and politically inclined artwork generally reasserted gender distinctions that had been challenged by the first women who dared to wear short unstraightened hair. Countless images of the era showed the head and shoulders of a black man wearing a large Afro behind a black woman with a larger Afro. Typically, the woman’s shoulders were bare and she wore large earrings.
Declining Popularity and Enduring Significance
In the late 1960s the black radical H. Rap Brown complained that underneath their natural hairstyles too many blacks had “processed minds.” By the end of the decade many blacks would agree with his observation that the style said little about a wearer’s political views. As fashion incorporated the formerly shocking style, it detached the Afro from its political origins. The hair-care industry worked to position the Afro as one option among many and to reassert hair straightening as the essential first step of black women’s hair care. In 1970 a style known as the Curly Afro, which required straightening and then curling hair, became popular for black women. In 1972 Ron O’Neal revived pre-1960s subcultural images of black masculinity when he wore long wavy hair as the star of the film Superfly. Large Afros continued to be popular through the 1970s but their use in the era’s blaxploitation films introduced new associations with Hollywood’s parodic representations of black subcultures.
While the large round Afro is so strongly associated with the 1970s that it is most frequently revived in comical retro contexts, the Afro nonetheless had enduring consequences. It permanently expanded prevailing images of beauty. In 2003 the black singer Erykah Badu stepped onstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater wearing a large Afro wig. After a few songs she removed the wig to reveal her short unstraightened hair. Reporters described her hair using the language employed by those who had first attempted to describe the styles worn by singer Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Odetta at the beginning of the 1960s. They called it “close-cropped.” Prior to the popularity of the Afro black women hid unstraightened hair under scarves. Through the Afro the public grew accustomed to seeing the texture of unstraightened hair as beautiful and the way was opened for a proliferation of unstraightened African American styles.