Dante de Blasio’s towering Afro, a supporting player in his father’s mayoral campaign, riveted attention once more last week when it caught the eye of President Obama. Introducing Bill de Blasio at a Democratic fund-raiser in Midtown, Mr. Obama digressed to point out, “Dante has the same hairdo as I had in 1978. Although I have to confess my Afro was never that good.”
Nor was it as voluminous, or as apparently devoid of a political charge. As 16-year-old Dante implied in an interview with DNAInfo.com, an online local news source, hair is just hair. “Some people want to take photos and I’m really just happy,” he said. Others want to reach out and touch it, and some did at last week’s fund-raiser, their enthusiastic petting prompting the elder de Blasio to joke that he might have to call security.
The mayoral candidate was doubtless aware that Dante’s outsize hair placed him in a league with a current generation that has adopted what once was a badge of revolt as an emblem of style’s cutting edge. Resurgent in films and television and the streets, inspired by a galaxy of pop culture idols, the Afro today seems friendly enough, even downright disarming — a kinder, gentler “natural” pretty much shorn of its militancy.
Images like those of Halle Berry’s tightly coiled halo or Nicki Minaj’s poodly pink Glamfro on the cover of Allure last year have played a part in resurrecting the hallmark style. Hoping to stand apart from her more famous sister, Solange Knowles last year chopped her chemically processed hair to reveal the wedge-shaped Afro that has since become her signature. And the actress Viola Davis showed off her natural curls at the Oscar ceremonies a year ago after walking most of the red carpet season in a wig; Prince poses regally in his Afro on the August issue of V magazine.
Even the customarily conventional Oprah Winfrey stepped out to front the September issue of O, the Oprah magazine, in a 3.5-pound wig that spanned its cover nearly edge to edge above the cover line: “Let’s talk about HAIR!”
The style’s current iteration bears little kinship to the anti-gravity hair flaunted in the late 1960s by Angela Davis, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver and other icons of the Black Power movement. “In the ’60s the Afro was looked upon as ‘Wow, you’re stepping out there, you’re really going against the grain,’ ” said Andre Walker, the man who fluffed Ms. Winfrey’s wig into its umbrella-size proportions. In contrast, “When I talk to a lot of the kids from this generation,” he said, “the whole civil rights movement, it’s very vague to them.
“I don’t think they really know the meaning of how radical an Afro was in the day,” Mr. Walker added. “It’s a different time now.”
Though his father wore an Afro in the 1970s and ’80s, 16-year-old Noah Negron, a high school senior in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was not bowing to family tradition or the politics of a bygone era when he decided to grow out his hair. “I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “That’s where the locks come in. It’s like all natural.”
Reluctant to treat her hair with potentially damaging lye, another Brooklyn resident who identified herself only as Tamar A., declared: “This is just how my hair grows out of my head. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m just more comfortable being who I am.”
Those comments were echoed by the often eco-conscious champions of unprocessed hair captured in photographs by Michael July in his new book “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair.” Many of his subjects told Mr. July that going natural was a way of embracing their racial heritage or rekindling their self-esteem.
Some seemed to share a rationale expressed by Ms. Winfrey in the September issue of O. “When I was 22-years-old,” she recalled in the article. “I got a bad perm and lost all my hair. And I thought I had lost myself.” Abandoning hot combs and chemical relaxers had a share, she indicated, in restoring that self-regard.
But others in Mr. July’s book went out of their way to distance themselves from the radical politics of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. “I don’t wear my hair natural because I’m strictly Afrocentric or don’t believe in the white man’s perm,” Sofia Loren Coffee said. “I wear my hair this way because I truly think I look adorable with natural hair.”
Though it has become increasingly popular, especially in hipster enclaves like Brooklyn, the Afro has yet to claim the status of a widespread trend. According to Mr. July, who had a hard time finding subjects when he embarked on his project in the mid-2000s, the natural remains a style in transition.
“For the first four years, it was difficult to find,” said the author, who scoured several states in search of born-again Afros. “I had to make a big effort, have my antennas up all the times,” he said. “I would see a ‘fro and have to run down the street and chase the person who had it.”
More recently though, “I’ve met a lot of people — lawyers, doctors, other professionals — who wear their hair naturally,” he said, “without worrying about it being socially acceptable.”
At the time of its genesis some 50 years ago the Afro was far from acceptable. Both white and older black Americans viewed it as a threat to the prevailing social order. The deliberately confrontational look adopted by Carol (Yaya Alafia) in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, raised hackles in the street and in the home of Louis, her boyfriend (David Oyelowo). So incensed was Louis’s mother (Ms. Winfrey) by the younger woman’s waywardness that she aborted a family dinner, throwing her out of the house.
Willie Morrow, a pioneer of the blowout, as the Afro was known in the ’70s, and one who popularized the Afro-pick, the oversize comb that many wore like diadems, recalled, “When you walked down the street it made a firm statement, much like saggy pants make a statement today. Black parents would say to their youngsters, ‘Don’t wear that comb; it sends a message.’ ”
Bebe Moore Campbell adopted an Afro in the early ’70s, aware of her parents’ discomfort. They “were grappling with a very real emotion,” Ms. Campbell wrote in Ebony in 1982. “When ‘militant’ became the rallying cry for calling out the National Guard, big naturals made good targets.”
Today in some quarters the style sends a message of a different sort. “The stigma with some black women seems to be that ‘nappy hair’ is almost as bad as a loo roll trailing from your shoe,” the actress Thandie Newton said last year to Kay Montano, a beauty blogger. When Ms. Newton permitted her daughters to grow their hair “wild and scruffy,” as she described it, “I had remarks about how I don’t take care of their hair.”
The fashion industry has been only slightly more accommodating. “Models trying to grow out their kinky hair are constantly pressured to straighten, relax or weave it if they want to book certain jobs,” the model Wakeema Hollis posted on the Web site Hollistics.com in an article titled, “Am I Really the Only Fashion Model with Natural Hair?”
“Once,” she added, “I was actually dropped from a runway show because I wouldn’t relax my hair.”
But today there are signs of mainstreaming, not least the proliferation of grooming products conceived to enhance the natural look: Carol’s Daughter Mimosa Hair Honey Shine Pomade; Jane Carter Twist and Lock Solution; the Beautiful Kinks Styling Crème Gelee by Mr. Walker, Ms. Winfrey’s hair guru; and Dr. Morrow’s California Green shampoos and pomades. Many were showcased at the World Natural Hair Health and Beauty Show in Atlanta. The annual fair, which a half-dozen years ago drew 8,000 visitors, attracted more than 35,000 last April, the organizers said.
For now, though, a few designers are embracing the style. They include Marc Jacobs, who introduced sky-high Afros on his runway in 2009, and Rick Owens, who released a parade of Afro-wreathed models at his show in Paris last week. Mr. Owens said his models — dancers of varying physical types selected from campuses across the country — were pointedly rejecting conventional notions of beauty. “We’re creating our own beauty,” Mr. Owens said.
article by Ruth La Ferla via nytimes.com