The Afro

by Cynthia C. Scott
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During the late sixties, fashions changed with the times, reflecting the independence and identity of a young generation determined to break free from their parents' values and mores. One reflection of this trend was the Afro, a natural hairstyle worn by African Americans that reflected the growing political and cultural progressiveness and self-esteem among black people during the 1960s.

The Afro, also known as the natural, became more than a hairstyle or fashion trend but a political statement that allowed black people to express their cultural and historical identity. The hairstyle emerged out of the Black Power movement, which rejected Dr. Martin Luther King's emphasis on non-violence as a form of political struggle.

The Black Power Movement, both politically and culturally, offered black people greater expression that moved away from the subservience of their forebearers. Natural hairstyles were considered ugly or offensive and therefore black people would process or conk their hairs to attain a texture that was similar to or mimicked white hair. Wigs were also popular among black women. Only members of the Nation of Islam rejected processing and straightening, believing that to do so was to embrace notions of white superiority and that the natural attributes of black people were unattractive.

Yet even the Muslims wore their hair in short and neat hairstyles. But by the late sixties, as the civil rights movement and political protests had given way to the Black Power Movement, more young African Americans stopped processing their hair and allowed it to grow out naturally, affecting a halo-shaped hairstyle which was dubbed the Afro.

In the beginning, the Afro was not popular in the black community, particularly by older black people who were still driven by older values that the young people were rejecting. By the end of the decade the hairstyle grew more prominent as people such as Stokely Carmichael and members of the Black Panthers began wearing the hairstyle. Women, such as Angela Davis, whose Afro was an iconographic image of the late sixties and early seventies, let their hair grow out as well, fashioning them in large naturals or in Afro puffs, two ponytails tied together by ribbons.

But one person who would make the Afro more acceptable was James Brown. Throughout most of Brown's early career he conked his hair, but by the time he recorded "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud," Brown let his hair grow out naturally as a statement of Black pride and self-sufficiency. His song and the Afro came to define Black America during the 1960s fashions and political and cultural statements.

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