For Many, an Afro isn’t Just a HairstyleHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, black power, hair
By the time you read this, it will have been about a year since I’ve gotten a haircut.
That Black male ritual of going to the barbershop — that quintessential male space where so many of us grew up and where I visited about every two weeks — is now but a distant memory.
COVID-19 makes a man do strange things.
My tight fade and deep waves are gone.
Atop my head now sits an Afro. A bit unruly at times, but glorious, nonetheless.
What I have rediscovered about my hair over the last year, figured out by Black men over a century ago and reaffirmed by Black women every day, is that every strand of my hair is tied to issues around class, masculinity, aging, fear and sometimes rage.
And while the pandemic has forced me as a 53-year-old man to grow an Afro, I am getting a clearer picture of how my hair is intrinsically linked to a tradition of struggle and cultural pride. As well as to a stark existence now, where younger people — facing the same struggles that saw to the rise of the style — are reclaiming who they are.
As long as I can remember, my mother always wore her hair natural, and usually opted for a short Afro that she went to the barbershop to maintain. As a kid, I didn’t really understand it, especially when other mothers wore chemically straightened perms.
But as I got older, it started to make sense.
Thelma Suggs arrived in New York City from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in the mid-1960s, escaping the oppression of the South and landing in the city just as Black people were starting to assert themselves politically.
I took an African American studies class at Harvard University under Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, where she taught “the politics of respectability,” a term she coined in her 1993 book, “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920,” to describe social and political changes in the Black community.
Black women, she writes, built schools and provided social welfare services to enhance their respectability and promote their communities. At the same time, they were encouraging their students to integrate themselves into white, middle-class communities in the hopes of motivating and inspiring them to escape racial injustice.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, that theory played a role in how civil rights workers carried themselves. That is why they marched in their Sunday best when they knew there was a strong possibility of getting spat on, beaten, bloodied, jailed or killed.
“The way to access power and authority in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was to attire yourself in ways that showed you were equal to them. And to not scare them,” said Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University and author of the book “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women.” “Always put on (nice) clothes. Always be well-groomed. Especially in the South. Of all the ways that white people were going to come at you sideways, you didn’t want to give them that one.”
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