The afro is back – this time in a freer, more natural form

Special to The News & ObserverAugust 28, 2013 

Photographer Michael July remembers the day clearly. The Brooklyn native was shooting a cultural affairs event when his lens caught a couple with big, round ’70s-style Afros.

“I kept going back to it,” July says of the image and the memory. “I thought it would be great to do a book on that.”

The thought became a quiet commitment with goals: It would be a coffee-table book. It would be big. He would take his time doing it. He would do it respectfully.

Last month, 7 1/2 years after that lingering image, July published “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair” (Natural Light Press, $44.99), a 400-plus page coffee-table book that joyfully explores the classic, iconic hairstyle and some of the people who wear it. Most are ordinary folk, but there are also known names such as Princeton professor Cornel West and MSNBC pundit Toure. And not all are African-American; there’s also a Japanese artist and a white physics teacher proudly sporting the circular manes.

The book arrives as the hairstyle seems to be having a kind of renaissance. Perhaps linked to the trend of eating and living organically, natural hair has become more popular, and Afros – also known as “naturals” – are popping up.

At the 2012 Oscars, actress Viola Davis surprised fashion watchers by shedding her wig and rocking a T.W.A. (teeny weeny Afro) with her emerald gown. Singer Prince, after decades of perms, recently re-emerged with new music and a perfectly sculptured ’fro. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey wore a 3.5-pound, goodness-knows-how-wide Afro wig for the September cover of her magazine, spurring Twitter buzz and leading Entertainment Weekly magazine to dub it a “froprah.”

The modern Afro

While Oprah’s version was extreme in size, the look is in keeping with the modern version of the Afro.

“Nobody is doing the whole neat Afro,” says Tinesha Matthews, co-owner of Revolution Ego, a natural hair salon in Charlotte. “Back in the ’70s, people went to barbershops and you picked your hair every single night,” she says, referring to the comb with wide teeth usually used for styling Afros. “Now people want that textured look. They get up, fluff and go. A lot of people don’t even comb it.”

That’s kind of what Justice Starr does. The Durham resident says she’s worn an Afro most of her life; she doesn’t label it.

“I think of it as I just tied my hair back and it stood up,” she says with a laugh. Her four children wear their hair in natural styles. Starr never allowed them to use chemicals to straighten their hair. One of her daughters wears a curly Afro – just wash and wear.

That same unfettered look is evident in July’s book. The photographer says his subjects are a mix of friends, referrals and people he stopped on the street. When he started, he says, he would have to jump off a bus and run blocks to catch someone with an Afro.

“Now you see 50 of them,” he says.

He managed to get a mix of Afro puffs (think of them as ponytail Afros), Afros with side parts and full styles, yet the one that got away was on a celebrity: Ice Cube. He couldn’t catch up with the rapper/actor (who after years of wearing an Afro went to a close-cropped Caesar style for years); when he finally met him at an event, July showed him the book. “He liked it,” July says. “A month later, he had the Afro again with the sideburns.” July won’t take credit but hopes the book stirred Cube.

Militant to mainstream

Interestingly, it seems the Afro has made the same kind of transition the rapper has: from militant to mainstream. Matthews estimates that 98 percent of her shop’s clients work in corporate America, some wearing Afros, all with some form of natural hair.

Just five years ago, the New Yorker magazine featured a cover illustration satirically depicting first lady Michelle Obama as an Afro-wearing, gun-toting subversive. It was a depiction rooted in the Afro’s connection to the Black Power movement, to a consciousness about African-American culture and an activism some found threatening. Oprah, a supporter of both the president and first lady, managed to pull off her Afro without the added meaning.

“In many ways, Michelle Obama, the woman, is not separated from politics. Oprah has become a mainstream commodity who is universally appreciated,” says Debra C. Smith, an associate professor of Africana Studies at UNC-Charlotte. “What is ironic is that both Michelle Obama and Oprah represent many of the same ideologies – strong black women with their own agenda and their own self-definition.”

July says when he started noticing an Afro renaissance around 2006, he was hoping the past sense of consciousness would return with it. He doesn’t think it has, at least not in the same way. “There’s a high sense of self. The hair is indicative of that,” he says.

A freer ’fro

In other words, today’s Afro, less perfect in form, lower maintenance in execution is somewhat reflective of how the wearers feel about themselves.

“The Afro used to be, as my friend Toni describes it, ‘that round shiny ball,’ ” says Smith. “Everyone had the same one. Now I see my students being more creative and stylish and putting their own personality into the Afro. So, in that way I would agree that it is a more freer version.”

It’s freeing in other ways too. On a recent Saturday, Valorie Sweat was at Crabtree Valley Mall shopping and sporting an Afro. The 62-year-old says she’s worn hers off and on since 1970. She cut her long hair, typically pressed, for the first time while attending Shaw University.

“It was like freedom. Before if it was raining or I went to the beach I had to think ‘Oh, what am I going to do about my hair?’ And I hated getting my hair pressed.”

Years ago, Sweat straightened her hair to get a job (then after a few months of employment, she came in with an Afro, to her colleagues’ surprise). Now retired, she says she’s done with straightening. For now, her Afro looks like a traditional one, but she’s letting her hair grow so she can play with a more textured approach.

Sweat’s journey is just what July sought to capture in “Afros.”

“Hair is a fashion statement and there’s a great thing happening with natural hair. It’s a look that has many ways you can rock it,” he says. “But it’s also an expression of how you feel, culturally and consciously. The Afro is about people feeling free.”

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