My afro, Harriet the ‘Fro, turns two this month. She’s named after Harriet Tubman and embodies the freedom Harriet attained for the hundreds of thousands she led to independence. The natural hair craze has been equally as freeing for the legions of black women embracing their unaltered tresses. Here’s a quick chronological timeline on the political, cultural and social history of the afro, in honor of Harriet ‘the Fro’s nappiversary and the overarching natural hair movement.
Adornment for Adornment Sake: Pre-1960s
Afros have existed forever. Linda Frost, author of Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in U.S. Popular culture 1850-1877, found a similar style worn by Circassians, a group of women living in North America, in the 1860s. Afros were also seen in ancient Egypt and throughout other countries and cultures in Africa.
The popularity of the afro shifted during slavery, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Africans, stripped of their culture and forced to assimilate, styled their tresses in a way that was suitable to their masters. Braids and chemically-altered hair arose in popularity, eventually leading to the creation of the hot comb by Madam C.J. Walker in the late 1890s.
Black Liberation, Civil Rights and Soul: The 1960s and 1970s
The afro made a sudden resurgence in the late sixties as fashion shifted to reflect the cultural pulse of the African-American community. Afros, also known as naturals, evolved into political statements designed to echo a growing segment of blacks reclaiming their identities. The Black Power Movement of the 1970s orchestrated the emerging of the afro as cultural embodiment of freedom of expression.
Author Cynthia S. Scott reports the afro was initially unpopular among the elders in the black community “who were still driven by older values that the young people were rejecting.” However, this shifted as the Black Panther Party rose to prominence and proudly displayed their afros as a sign of resistance.
It was a period of redefining aesthetics to further identity and resist monolithic notions of blackness. Black became synonymous with beautiful and the afro was a symbol of pride. As pride grew, so did the size of afros.
The afro was small in the mid-1960s. The Civil Rights Movement, interlaced with respectability politics, kept many blacks in church attire and away from afro picks. The adoration for large afros increased in the 1970s. Pam Grier, Angela Davis and the Jackson Five displayed the style proudly.
New Craze, New Love: The 1990s – Present
Afros and afro wigs resurged in the late 1990s and early 2000s on heads like Ben Wallace, Solange Knowles, Kobe Bryant and Jill Scott. This love for the afro has continued through the present, especially as the natural craze continues to accelerate.
The afro is here to stay.