The Misguided Campaign to ‘Bring Back the Afro’

When is a compliment not really a compliment? When is praise not really praise? Here’s a hint: When you’re a white man reminiscing about the good old days, when black people wore Afros. Yeah…no. Talk about reducing something complex to something simple.

Yesterday on Slate, Simon Doonan posted a piece titled “Bring Back the Afro.” He’d recently spent time watching Pam Grier movies on YouTube in advance of interviewing her, and felt a mix of nostalgia, admiration and awe for her hairdo, writing:

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.

Doonan went on to mention ’70s icons like Marsha Hunt, Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, and waxed longingly:

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.

RECORD SCRATCH. Doonan lives in New York, where a veritable ton of people are embracing natural hair, be it a TWA (teeny weeny afro) or a larger, fluffy ‘fro. From Harlem to Clinton Hill and Fort Greene and beyond, natural hair is all over this town. Not to mention being celebrated on NPR and online, on sites like Le Coil, Curly Nikki, Natural Hair Rules, and Black Girl Long Hair. Hell, there was a SXSW panel about natural hair. And if you’re not paying attention to the regular people around you, what about the famous folks?

Fairly well-known: philosopher/academic/activist/author Cornel West, who graduated from Harvard in 1973 and earned his PhD. at Princeton. Grammy-award winning musician Esperanza Spaulding, personally selected by President Obama to play the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Solange, DJ/singer/sister of Beyoncé. Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove, drummer/music journalist/producer who plays with The Roots on TV every damn night. All with afros. Rare as a dodo? The dodo is extinct. So not quite. Doonan also bragged that he’d bought a box of Afro picks. How exotic.

The post generated quite a bit of noise on Twitter, with NPR’s Gene Demby sighing that Doonan was “describing human beings like David Attenborough on [the] Nature channel.” Demby took a few jabs at Doonan, while insisting.

But above and beyond quibbling about how popular natural hair is now (because the answer is: VERY, and there are Afros EVERYWHERE, even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue), the problem with Doonan’s piece is that he genuinely thinks he’s being nice by praising the afro. Is he allowed to think it’s a cool hairstyle? Absolutely. But a white man asking black people to wear their hair in a way that pleases him? That’s not right. Doonan is unaware of his privilege, and not taking into account how deeply political and culturally charged black hair is.

When he writes:

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?

The Misguided Campaign to 'Bring Back the Afro'


Beyoncé wore an Afro wig. And she has done big, curly hair. Kerry Washington had a pseudo-fro in Save the Last Dance. Michelle Obama has been discussed and discussed and discussed, and you know what? It’s fair to doubt that the President would win an election if his wife had an afro. Imagine the headlines, the conservatives, the speculation. She’s been called militant the way she is and her bangs are news. The truth is that hair sends a message. What it comes down to is this: While black people have made great strides, we are still dealing with a lot of deep racism, discrimination and intolerance. Black women have been denied jobs for having dreadlocks. There is still an unspoken consensus that straight hair is seen as more professional. It’s easy and understandable that a man who deals mainly with aesthetics would want to gush about Afros, he’s right: They’re awesome. But what a black woman does with her hair is deeply personal and fraught with meaning.

Ultimately, the problem is that when Simon Doonan wants black people to “bring back the Afro,” he’s ignoring the fact that it never really went away, and also acting as though an Afro is an accessory you can pick up in a boutique, like a turban or some platform heels. It’s not. It’s not even just a hairstyle. It’s so much deeper than that. For many, the process of going natural — from the tough decision to do The Big Chop to transitioning is daunting, especially in a culture that fetishizes long, silky-straight (or ever-so-slightly wavy) tresses. In Western society, our standards of beauty remain rather narrow, and the examples we hold up in magazines and on movie screens generally have straight or straightened hair. Black women who opt for natural hair do so with while being bombarded with messages that straight is better, and that black hair, in its natural state, needs fixing. Let’s not forget how Don Imus infamously called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” making a connection between hair and promiscuity; you’ll also hear stuff like her hair is wild, unruly, she needs to “tame” that frizz, etc. While Gabby Douglas was competing in the Olympics, viewers criticized her hair‘s lack of smoothness. Consciously or unconsciously, black hair is considered savage by those who don’t have it and those who have been taught to hate it. Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair shed some light on how black women have been convinced that their hair is not good enough the way it is. Is it any wonder that blow-outs and flat-irons and weaves are popular when women who are considered the epitome of beauty — Victoria’s Secret models — all have long, shiny hair?

The Misguided Campaign to 'Bring Back the Afro'

It’s fantastic when black women decide to go natural and/or wear an Afro, but Doonan should realize that for many, it’s not simple and it’s not easy. Picking out a fro is not for everyone, and not every hair type can make a good Afro. Even after Pam Grier tells him how difficult the upkeep was for her — “You go to sleep looking gorgeous, and you wake up and it’s all flattened on one side like a brick wall… No amount of picking is going to pull it out. You need to take a garden rake to that shit” — Doonan remains insistent that “the current global obsession with pin-straight hair will run its course.” That would be nice. But you know, in the ’70s, the Afro was a statement, linked to the civil rights movement and a reaction to oppression and the pressure to assimilate. Today’s true ideal situation should not be about one particular style coming back, but about black women (and men) feeling free to do whatever they choose with their hair — and not being pressured to conform or doing it because a white man approves and thinks it’s cool.

Bring Back the Afro [Slate]