By Simon Doonan
She was the baddest one-chick hit squad to ever hit town. The freak with the ’fro. I’m talkin’ ’bout Miss Sweet Brown Sugar With a Touch of Spice. A sistah with drive who don’t take no jive. I am talking about the Vanessa-muthafuckin’-Redgrave of Blaxsploitation movies. Have no fear, Pam Grier is here.
You’ll have to excuse my profanity. I recently spent an entire week YouTube-ing Pam Grier’s ’70s oeuvre. By the time I was done, my brain had absorbed the raw rhythms and bad-ass expletives of ’70s black street culture. Now it’s virtually impossible for me to engage in conversation without suddenly calling someone, anyone, a dumb-ass jive turkey, and such.
My Grier research had a purpose. I scored an interview with Miss Grier at the opening of last month’s Pam Grier retrospective at the New York Film Society, and I really wanted to have my shit together, man. You dig? So I made my way through Black Mama, White Mama; Greased Lightning; Foxy Brown; and the rest. It was a life-changing experience. Miss Grier, the first blacktress to headline as an action star, was a taboo-busting screen goddess. Her specialty? Thanks to her outdoorsy Huck Finn childhood, the fearless Pam could fire a gun without blinking. I also have to admit that I came away with a rabid and renewed appreciation for that luscious afro.
In Scream, Blacula, Scream, Pam’s ’fro is short and tight and neat as a pin. In Coffy, it’s longer and more dandelion-shaped. In both instances it is an object of beauty, even when there are razor blades nestling in its recesses.
As I watched Pam machine-gunning her way to cult superstardom, I recalled the other afro-queens of yore: Remember Marsha Hunt—the original cast member of Hair, the icon of playbills and posters, and the co-creator, with Mick Jagger, of a child she named Karis? And then there were the Black Panther afro-activists like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. Kathleen, wife of Eldridge, was a loud and proud afro-advocate, who accessorized her ’fro with hoop earrings and giant sunglasses.
I remembered fash-fro queens like Pat Cleveland and stylish songbirds like Minnie Ripperton (mother of Maya Rudolph), whose signature flourish was to augment her teased hairdo with sprigs of baby’s breath.
The afro had it all: It was natural, symbolic, regal, unisex, and glamorous. Liberated from the costly and time-consuming burden of trying to make their hair resemble that of white folk, black chicks—and dudes—had found the perfect marriage of style and practicality. And yet … styles change, and fashion evolves, and the afro has—with the exception of occasional retro-hipster sighting on Broadway below Eighth Street—become as rare as a dodo.
It is impossible to imagine Beyoncé or Kerry Washington or Michelle Obama rocking a Pam Grier afro today (though Beyoncé paid a retro-camp tribute to the style in the 2002 Austin Powers movie). The alternatives—$2,000 weaves, time-consuming blowouts, and scalp-searing chemical processing—seem infinitely less desirable, and yet, African-Americans have largely turned their backs on the freaky ’fro. But what does this honky know?
During the course of my on-stage conversation with the inspirational Pam, the subject of coiffures came up repeatedly. La Grier, who on this gala occasion was wearing her hair in a silky high-lit, marcel-waved waterfall, was more than happy to talk wigs and weaves. When I expressed my longing for the return of the afro, Pam was quick to splash a little reality on my nostalgic longings. According to Lady Grier, it’s not as low-maintenance as it looks.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
The most difficult challenge occurs upon waking. The act of sleeping wreaks havoc on the dandelion perfection of that carefully picked afro. As Pam pointed out, “You go to sleep looking gorgeous, and you wake up and it’s all flattened on one side like a brick wall.” According to Pam, “No amount of picking is going to pull it out. You need to take a garden rake to that shit.”
Also, the weather is not your friend: “You are walking down the street thinking you be looking so fly, so cool, and the wind comes up and suddenly you all flat up the backside of your head, lookin’ like a crazy person.”
Pam’s words did nothing to dampen my afro-ardor. I take comfort from the fact that style is a cyclical mutha and that everything comes back into fashion, eventually. The current global obsession with pin-straight hair will run its course, and the afro, and maybe even the jewfro, will return in all its glory.
Thanks to the current unpopularity of the afro, afro picks can be purchased at rock-bottom prices. I recently paid $10 for a box of a 50 from a beauty supply store in Harlem. These objets d’art make great gifts and can be used to tweak and tease non-afro coiffures. The grooviest picks have a Black Power fist in place of a handle. The revolution is coming, and it will be YouTubed. So get your pick now and start practicing.