A once ‘defiant’ hairstyle remains mired in controversy

By Merdies Hayes, Editor, Our Weekly News

 

“How ya doin’? Good to see ya. Have a seat.”

O.D. Threatt makes way for the barber chair. You feel at home as he affixes the bib over your chest. He takes your glasses. He asks the usual question: “Cut it short?” He hasn’t needed to boost the chair upward for at least 50 years.

Between the chit-chat about the Dodgers or Lakers—there’s very little political talk—the subject of the Afro (or “natural”) comes up, of which he is a font of knowledge. O.D., by his estimate, has probably given 50,000 haircuts over the past 60 years. Of those, there’s a good chance that half have been Afros since his days at the legendary Upright Barber Shop at 58th Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. Back then, in the late 1960s, it was the place to go to wear that distinctive style that marked a new era of Black social consciousness.

Wanting to make a statement

“I was thinking about that just the other day,” he said. “You know, before the natural, Black teenagers generally kept their hair relatively short. Much more conservative, often with a “Kennedy part” on the left side. That all changed with the natural. The kids wanted to make a statement. They wanted a separate identity from White America.”

There was some early blow-back resulting from the Afro. Beside the fact that many Black parents then frowned on the new expression of Black pride—and often prohibiting younger children from donning this haircut—White society was uncertain what to make of this outward and unapologetic show of African American pride and independence.

“No, a good many parents would not let their little kids have a natural,” O.D. explained. “That was a little too daring—a little too ‘militant’—for the generation who moved from the South after World War II. It was different for the teenagers. They saw people like James Brown, Angela Davis or the Black Panthers wearing a natural, and this expression was part of new generation of kids who were exposed more to their history going back to slavery and further back to Africa.”

Turning tables on ‘nappy,’ ‘woolly’ hair

In the 1960s, Black people said, essentially, “to hell with that” and turned the tables on the familiar and unflattering tropes of “nappy,” “woolly” and “unruly” hair in liberating themselves from any and everything originally associated with White “acceptance.” After generations of subjecting themselves to European beauty standards, African Americans decided to take back their hair. This newfound acceptance was widely known as the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, which sprang from the Black Power movement.

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

Black activists were agitated by White supremacy and Jim Crow laws. As well, they wanted to show an outward sign of their frustration toward Dr. Martin Luther’s King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence. The Afro would become Black beauty personified—and done without White validation. The Afro did not care about critics. It did not care about
disapproving looks. For many Black men, it was about “cool pose” and, to a degree, about hyper-masculinity in the face of police brutality and constant oppression.

What may be most interesting about the Afro is its cultural trajectory. In the 1970s, for instance, the Afro was perceived as a major political statement that, beforehand, would have never appeared in the pages of a mainstream publication, or graced the motion picture or television screens. The Afro originated in both a political and emotional climate. The style would fit with a broader generational rejection of artifice but, more importantly, it expressed defiance of racist beauty norms, rejection of middle-class conventions (much like the hippie movement of the mid-60s) and demonstrated pride in Black beauty. The unstraightened hair of the Afro was simultaneously a way to celebrate the cultural and physical distinctiveness of the Black race, and to fully reject practices associated with any emulation of Whites.

An ‘in-your-face’ style for Black youth

“You didn’t see Black celebrities or athletes wearing the natural. Willie Mays didn’t have one. Neither did Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali in their early days,” O.D. said. He explained that the Martin Luther King generation would have said the Afro was a little too “in-your-face” and that it would do more to instigate White America rather than attracting them to the subject of Black equality.

“The young people saw it differently,” O.D. noted. “This was their time to speak. It was their time of self-expression. The Black teenagers wore the Afro with pride and distinction because it was theirs…and no White person could take it away from them.”

Black hair has been an integral feature of Black history, from African tribal styles to Caribbean dreadlocks. In early African civilizations, for instance, hairstyles could indicate a person’s family background, tribe and social status. As an example, when men from the Wolof tribe (in modern Senegal and Gambia) went to war, they wore a braided style, while women in mourning—in other words a widow—would either not “do” her hair or adopt a subdued style.

During the slave trade, these captives took many of their African customs with them to the New World, including their specially-designed combs—not terribly different from the ever-present Afro combs of the 1970s. During the 19th Century, when slavery was abolished throughout much of the world, many Black people felt pressure to “fit in” with mainstream White society and adjusted their hair accordingly.

Emancipation the ‘great oppressor’?

“Black people felt compelled to smooth their hair and [texture it] to fit in easier, and to move in society better (and in camouflage) almost,” said Aaryn Lynch who produced a London exhibition on the history of the Afro comb. “I’ve nicknamed the post-emancipation era ‘the great oppression’ because that’s when Black people had to go through really intensive methods to smooth their hair. Men and women would put their hair in a hot chemical mixture—that would almost burn their scalp—to make it look more European and silky.”

In the 1930s, Rastafari theology developed in Jamaica from the ideas of Marcus Garvey, the legendary political activist who worked to improve the status of Black people. Believers then and today are forbidden to cut their hair and instead twist it into dreadlocks.

While it is not clear when and where the style originated, there are references in the Old Testament. The Hindu deity Shiva is sometimes depicted wearing dreadlocks. Along with the Afro, dreadlocks remain the most distinctive Black hairstyle.

A tumultuous timeline

Black hair—specifically the Afro—can trace a centuries-old timeline:

  • 1444: Europeans trading along the West African coast observe people wearing elaborate hairstyles, including Afros, locks, plaits and twists
  • 1619: The first slaves are brought to Jamestown, VA, many of which have an Afro and/or plaits and twists
  • 1700s: Calling Black hair “wool,” many Whites dehumanized slaves. The more elaborate African hairstyles could not be retained
  • 1800s: Without the traditional combs and herbal treatments, slaves rely on bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair conditioners and cleaners. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired Blacks would command a higher price than the more “kinky-haired” slaves
  • 1865: Slavery ends, but Whites look upon Black women who adopt a Western coiffure as “well-adjusted” meaning that “good’ hair is a specific White attribute
  • 1880: Metal hot combs, invented by the French in 1845, are used by Blacks to temporarily straighten kinky hair
  • 1900s: Madame C.J. Walker develops a range of hair-care products for Black hair
  • 1954: George E. Johnson launches the Johnson Products Co. with Ultra Wave Hair Culture to be used as a “permanent” hair straightener for both Black men and women
  • 1963: Actress Cicely Tyson wears cornrows on the television drama “East Side/West Side”
  • 1970: Angela Davis becomes an icon of the Black Power movement with her large Afro
  • 1971: Melba Tolliver is fired from the ABC News affiliate in New York for wearing an Afro while covering the marriage of Tricia Nixon
  • 1988: Director Spike Lee exposes the schism between “good-hair/bad-hair” among African Americans in the film “School Daze”
  • 2006: Black hair care becomes a billion-dollar industry
  • 2009: The movie “Good Hair” grosses $4 million

Celebrating Black beauty

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 repudiation of Eurocentric beauty standards. The Afro also created a sense of commonality among African Americans who saw the style as a mark of a
person who was willing to take a different stand against racial injustice.

Even today, the natural state of Black hair causes debate in the workforce. Because certain African hairstyles may leave White employers baffled and confused, many workplaces still do not tolerate locks or natural hair and require that Black men and women adhere to a style more suited with White fashion norms.

This debate has led to an historic bill introduced by California State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (30th District) making California the first state in the country to ban racial discrimination based on natural hair. Known as the CROWN (“Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”), the bill was signed in early July by Gov. Gavin Newsom to amend the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state Education Code to prohibit employers and schools from enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies that disproportionately impact people of color.

Sen. Holly J. Mitchell’s CROWN Act

“This law protects the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms,” Mitchell said. “I am so excited to see the culture change that will ensue from the law.” Similar legislation has been proposed in New York and in New Jersey, with New York in February banning any form of hair discrimination at school and in the workplace.

History, to an extent, is defined by a simple haircut not simply for one person, but for a generation who came of age during the Black Power Movement.

You see yourself in the hand mirror, just to check if your look remains normal for the times. Everything checks out.

“Everything okay?” O.D. asks. “Looks good O.D. Each time I stop in you seem to trim more gray hair.” “That’s father time for ya,” he replied.

And with that, the bib is removed, and any remaining hair is neatly brushed away until next time.

“Thanks O.D.” “Thank you,” he responds. “See ya next time.”

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