The Afro is not a trend. It is not a fad to be followed or a fashion statement to be critiqued. It is a very natural way for Black people (really, anyone with coarse or curly locks that grow upward and outward) to wear their hair, and it has been since we’ve had hair. But an uptick in articles analyzing the Afro suggest otherwise: that the hairstyle is an enthralling thing to behold, to be explained away, cut up into small, digestible pieces for mainstream consumption. These stories don’t seek to elevate or normalize Black beauty. Rather, they serve as simplistic, user-friendly accounts of blackness through white lenses.
Recently, in the New York Times’ Thursday Styles section, writer Ruth La Ferla penned “The Afro as a Natural Expression of Self,” a tone-deaf article in which she distinguishes between the Afro of the ’60s and the present-day Afro by describing the latter as “friendly enough, even downright disarming — a kinder, gentler ‘natural’ pretty much shorn of its militancy.” I immediately had questions. To whom had my hair been friendly? What person had my kind and gentle ’fro disarmed? And who the hell snatched my wig’s militancy?
La Ferla stops short of declaring the Afro safe for White people (to touch? to ogle? to ride with in the elevator?), but the meaning behind her words is obvious. As a dear, similarly outraged friend put it, “What a relief that Black people’s hair is no longer an act of violence!”
La Ferla’s musings on Black hair struck a chord with me, principally because I have an Afro, and secondly because the decision to let my hair grow into an Afro was largely predicated on the belief that it is an entirely normal and acceptable way to wear my hair. Being able to go to my corporate magazine job (where I was one of two Black women) and feel that my nappy hair is as natural as my skin is brown was an invaluable reassurance.
I appreciated my coworker’s compliments most when they didn’t attribute my hair’s texture to some grandiose, otherworldly miracle. When someone said simply, “Your hair looks great today,” without a follow-up deliberation on genes and the physics of hair fibers, it meant a lot. And though La Ferla quotes a source who agrees that wearing an Afro isn’t a radical act, the very fact that Black hair in its natural state is a thing that made the front page of the New York Times’ fashion and style section reaffirms its place in society as “other.”
In “My Afro, Myself” another excruciating piece on the Afro published by the Times, writer Bruce Handy takes a different approach—aligning himself with the hairstyle by saying he wore a ’fro in his youth, and then, after establishing his unique privilege as the White person (not even Jewish!) with authoritative knowledge on the Afro, condemning it. He offers paternalistic advice to Dante de Blasio—the of-the-moment, Afro-wearing darling of mainstream media and son of New York City mayoral candidate Bill—telling the 16-year-old, “it’s time to move on when your hair or… whatever affectation becomes bigger than you.”
It is my sincere hope that Dante never reads Handy’s essay—where an Afro is described as something that needs to be chopped off in order to secure a summer job, and where wearing one is deemed as having a “hair-driven existential crisis.” Though he may be a unicorn to some, Dante is a regular Black boy, wearing his regular Black hair, going about his regular Black business. His Afro is not a gimmick, a statement, or a contrived accessory. The media’s current fixation on his hair will pass, and it’s important that the teen remains intact and self-assured for the duration of it.
Opinions like Handy’s, ones that exoticize the Afro, are some of the main reasons that, despite my hair’s versatility (neat buns, sleek ponytails, funky updos), I have made it a point to wear it out in an Afro on every job interview that I’ve been on since I’ve gone natural. It is paramount to me that employers know that I am not “playing around with [my] ‘look,’” as Handy was—this is my look. And it’s going to be my look in church, at next week’s staff meeting, at weddings, at the mall, and at the corporate holiday party. The sooner people put their fascinations aside and acknowledge Afros as typical, not alien, the closer we’ll all be to a wider understanding of cultural normativeness.
Lauren N. Williams is an Afro-wearing magazine editor and writer from Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @laurnwilliams.