Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Changing Shape Of Women's Afro Hair Styles

Edited by Azizi Powell

An "afro" (also known as "fro") is an African American term for a natural hairstyle that is worn or was worn by some Black females and Black males. For centuries people in some Black African nations, and Black people in other part of the world such as the Fiji Islands and Australia have been sporting what Americans would consider to be "afros". However, since the early 20th century, with the development & marketing of hair care products for Black people by Madame C. Walker and other Black hair care entrepreneurs, until the mid 1960s or so few African American adults-especially few African American women- would have even considered wearing their hair naturally out in public.

The emergence of the afro and other Black natural hairstyles in the United States during the 1960s was closely tied to the "Black is beautiful" movement. That Black pride movement was fueled by the large number of African nations that became politically independent from Europe rule in the 1960s. The hey day of afros for African Americans was in the 1970s. It appears to me that particularly in large urban US cities, more Black people-including teenage females & males-wore their hair in afros during the 1970s than in any previous time or to date. Check out this Soul Train television show video from the 1970s for an example of the different ways African American males & females wore their hair:

Soul Train Line Dance to Curtis Mayfield Get Down

Uploaded by bysolo65 on May 3, 2011


In the 1960 & the 1970s, the wider & bigger the afros the more they were highly valued by afro-centric (African cultural centered) Black folks. Indeed, because of the wide and also sometimes "wild" appearance of many afros, one vernacular nickname for the afro that Black folks used was "bush". Calling someone's fro a "bush" could be positive, negative, or neutral depending on who said it, and when & how it was said.

For many Black people, afros are just a hairstyle. I started wearing my hair in an afro in 1966 and I've consistently worn my hair in an afro style ever since then. For me, the afro is much more than a hair style - it's a statement of Black pride. I remember when some Black males and females started wearing their hair in afros, a lot of Black folks were incensed that we would show the world our "back to Africa" roots. And many non-Black folks thought that everyone wearing their hair in a fro was a radical who hated White people. That of course wasn't true then and it isn't true now. Furthermore, lots of people who didn't wear afros- including some Black people - thought and still think that people who wore/wear their hair in afros didn't wash or comb or style or nourish their afro hair. That is also untrue.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, it seemed that very few African American adults chose to wear their hair in an afro. For example, during that time period the only women I saw wearing afros in my adopted city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were a few Black women over the age of 40. I purposely wrote "adults" because even in the 1960s and 1970s, and also today it seems to me that very few African American children under 18 years old wear their hair in afros-although this may be slightly changing now with the attention being paid to more natural hairstyles for Black folks such as cornrolls & dreads (dreadlocks).

Nowadays there appears to be more styles for afros than I remember in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the early 2000s or so, I've been seeing younger Black women wearing closely cropped (very short) afros, or moderatedly short but styled 'fros. And this year (2011), I've been seeing more young African American women (and African American men) sportin' large Angela Davis style afros. I think that there are many reasons, including the recyling of fashion trends, for the (still moderately)increase in Black folks wearing their hair in afros. In addition to the reasons I have already mentioned, some females who wear their hair in afros indicate that they do so because that style is easier to take care of than relaxed (straigtened) hairstyles and/or the belief (which I think is fact) that natural hairstyles are usually healthier for the hair.

"A natural" is another term for an "afro" and other hair styles (such as dreadlocks) for tightly curled* hair that are typical of people of Black African descent when that hair is not hot combed or chemically treated. Person who have natural hairstyles (i.e. afros, twists, locks etc) shampoo and condition their hair. Females or males may highlight their hair with colors and may put beads or cowrie shells in their twists or dreadlocks. Furthermore, afros may be texturized (chemical treatment may be added for a shorter time period)to loosen some of the hair's natural curl. If this happened in the 1960s - 1980s I didn't know about it. Also, females & males may choose to have their afros cut & styled in beauty parlors or barber shops. That said, there is a trend nowadays for some big afros to be worn seemingly unstyled - or maybe I should say that the seemingly unstyled wide afro is a current style.

I attended an event this week (August 2012) and saw a Black woman who was probably in her forties with a very short closely cropped afro that was probably texturized and also dyed blond. I also saw another Black woman around the same age who wore her natural hair (not a wig or hair pieces known as "extensions") in an unstyled wide afro. Her hair was dyed brown with red tinges. Those colors were almost certainly the result of a beauty parlor or barber shop treatment. Furthermore, her hair may have also been chemically treated as it wasn't tightly curled but somewhat straight. Instead of the hair in her afro being tightly curly and close to her head, and big (meaning touching her shoulders in length), her hair was away from her head and went every which way. But she (like me and other Black people) may have some portions of her hair that are naturally straighter than other hair portions, and therefore her wide somewhat straight afro might have been all natural except for the hair colors. Also, there are some Black people who have naturally brown hair or other non-black hair color but in that woman's case her afro hair colors probably weren't "natural". I should also note that these women were very attractive.

*"tightly curled" is the term I prefer for various textures of hair that is considered typical of the hair texture for people of Black African descent although it isn't hair textures of all Black people and isn't hair textures which are exclusive to Black people. I say "textures" because there are a range of tightly curled hair textures. Other terms for "tightly curled" hair such as kinky, nappy, frizzy, coarse, wooly often have negative connotations and can therefore lead to negative consequences by those who use them.

This post showcases several music videos of Black women wearing their hair in an afro. Videos are presented of featured vocalists from four African nations and from the United States. I've also included a video from the Fiji islands to show examples of what Americans would consider to be afros in that Melanesian nation.

Each featured video is presented with my subjective description of the length and style of the afro given in parenthesis*. By no means is this a comprehensive presentation of the ways that Black women wear afros or the nations of the world where females wear afros.

*I'm not a beautician. My apologies if these descriptions of afros are subjective and simplistic.

Without further comment, here are the featured videos of female afro styles from very closely cropped to very wide:

Angelique Kidjo –“Mallaikka” (Benin, West Africa)

Uploaded by equinoxrox on Apr 28, 2007

African singer Angelique Kidjo from Benin sings love song ballad in Swahil at the Africa Rollback Malaria Concert. English subtitles. On March 12 and 13 in 2005, some of Africa's greatest musical talents got together to play for two nights in downtown Dakar while trying to spread the message about combating malaria.

[a very closely cropped afro which has been dyed blond; Since about the 1990s, a small number of African American women also began to dye their straightened hair blond and dye their (usually) closely cropped or relatively short afro blond.]

Laura Mvula -"She"- (In South Africa) - by Damian Weilers

Laura Mvula, Published on Nov 17, 2012

Shot by South African director Damian Weilers in Montagu, Western Cape.
'She' is taken from Laura Mvula's debut EP available now
Vocalist Laura Mvula was born in South Africa but grew up in the United Kingdom. Her hair is worn in a closely cropped afro.

Hat tip to for alerting me to this video.

Cesaria Evora - "Mar de Canal" (Cape Verde, West Africa)

Uploaded by alcom34 on Jun 8, 2007

Voz d'Amor - 2003

[a short afro which appears to be "texturized" (slightly chemically treated?)]

Odetta - "Waterboy" (United States)

Uploaded by elisabethbmw on Jun 5, 2010

This clip is taken from Bob Dylan's 'No Direction Home.'

[a moderately short afro]

Aretha Franklin – “Rock Steady” (1971) (United States)

Uploaded by DAVIDEMME on Dec 17, 2008

[Aretha Franklin's afro is in a style I would call a moderately large "box" (an afro which is high on the top and narrow on the sides); Note the middle background singer with moderately short afro, and the background singer with afro puffsl

Rebecca Malope - “Hamba Lenquola” (South Africa)

Uploaded by MAURA MACIVER on Apr 13, 2008

[moderately short, styled afro]

Aretha Franklin - Jump (Soul Train 70's) (United States)

MyRhythm NSoulTV, Published on Apr 10, 2014

[moderately big/wide afro dyed light brown]

Fiji Music (Fiji)

Alexey Bekmuratov on Nov 18, 2009

Vinaka Vakaniu Collection-2

[moderatively big afros]

Also, click for other photographs of Fijian females and males with what Americans would all "afros".

Ethiopian Music Kassahun Taye (sora ye wello bahlawi)

[long style with partially braided hair on top; Americans would call this look a natural hairstyle which if worn out might be called "afros". That said, Ethiopians are unlikely to consider this style an afro.]

Natalie Cole - This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) 1975 (United States)

Uploaded by jondbee56 on Aug 8, 2010

[very big/wide afro]

Esperanza Spalding BLACK GOLD- OFFICIAL (credits) (United States)

Uploaded by montunoartists on Feb 5, 2012

Official Site:

...This song is singing to our African American heritage before slavery. Over the decades, so much of the strength in the African American community has seeded from resistance and endurance. I wanted to address the part of our heritage spanning back to pre-colonial Africa and the elements of Black pride that draw from our connection to our ancestors in their own land. I particularly wanted to create something that spoke to young boys.

[very big/wide afro]

RELATED LINK "Videos of African American Males (Music & Natural Hairstyles), Part 1"

That post presents videos of afro hair styles worn by various African American non-religious music performers (from 1969 - 2002). That post also includes an essay that I wrote on "The Psycho-Social Implications For African Americans of Natural Hair Styles".

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  1. Here's a comment that I wrote regarding this sociological images post: "Power and Oprah’s Hair" by Lisa Wade 8/24/2012

    [This comment is reposted with minor text changes.]

    "In my opinion, Black females & males wearing their hair straightened reflects the very old & deeply high value placed in White cultures for certain textures of hair. For females long silky straight hair appears to be the most highly valued texture and lightly curled hair appears to be less valued.

    I believe that initially the main reason why Black females & Black males went through a process by which their naturally tightly curled hair became straightened for as long as that "process" work probably was because doing so was a way to model White people's hair textures & hair styles. Modeling White people's hair texture & hair styles was a critical part of demonstrating that Black people could look, think, and act acceptable (to White people).

    BUT (AND) I also believe that another reason that Black females & males began to wear their hair straightened was that straightened hair was considered to be easier to maintain and straightened hair facilitated the creation of many different hairstyles. I'm referring to aesthetic elements to wearing tightly curled hair straightened and I believe that those aesthetic elements often go beyond or may not include any value placed on "having straight or lightly curled hair like White people.

    I don't believe that all or many Black people historically or all or many Black people today who wear their hair straightened necessarily had/have poor self-esteem and/or poor group esteem. To put it another way, particularly since the Black power movement of the late 1960s in the United States, I don't think that Black people who wear their hair straightened are necessarily trying to look like White people or trying to be White. Also, I don't think that Black people who wear their hair naturally (like I have consistently done since 1966) are necessarily "Blacker" (culturally or politically) than those Black people who don't wear their hair straightened (or who wear their head bald). I make no attempt here to define what I mean by "blacker" beyond to point to books and articles on "Black consciousness".

    I think that some Black females-like some women of other races/ethnicities-enjoy wearing their hair in different ways because doing so is a form of creative expression, fashion accesories that help them evoke different personas. Given the easy availablity of wigs and hair pieces, Black women such as Oprah Winfrey-like women of other races/ethnicities-can wear their hair different ways throughout one day or one week.

    Furthermore, Oprah wearing that big afro wig in that photograph on the cover of her magazine reflects a change in African American aesthetics since 2010 or so. Big (wide) afros are actually a return to one type of natural hairstyle that was quite popular among some African American in the 1970s. But unlike the 1970s those big afros ("naturals")today might be chemically texturized and/or dyed red or brown or blond. In the 1970s, it would have been anathema for afro-centric Black people to chemically treat or color dye their naturals. Whether its size is very short or very wide or in between, the return of the big afro may be a way of saying that "Black is beatiful", but I think it's also a way of saying that when it comes to hair texture & hair styles, it's all good.

  2. Here's a comment that I wrote in response to January 27, 2013 Afro-Europe blog post about a protest in Brazil of a hair product advertisement campaign that ridicules large afros:

    "My interpretation of this protest is the advertisement was making fun of afros by having White women wear a large matted afro wig and hold a sign indicating that anyone with hair that way needs that particular hair product to straighten their hair.

    As a woman who has worn an afro since 1966, I want to share the following information:
    First of all, during the 1970s in the USA, the bigger the afro, the more it was admired. However, the large afros which were admired were those that were taken care of- meaning the hair was washed, conditioned, combed, and further maintained with hair grease or hair oil. Also, some people put oil sheen on their afro to give their hair a shine. In addition, those with large afros usually braided their hair at night and took out the braids in the morning to make the hair easier to comb. Without a doubt, large afros that were admired definitely DID NOT look like those large afro wigs in that Brazil advertisement campaign.

    Also, the afro meant different things to different people. I think that in the heyday of the afro-in the 1970s- many Black people-particularly young Black people- considered afros to be an "in" hairstyle. Check out the hairstyles worn by Soul Train dancers in the 1970s to see how many young Black people wore their hair in afros. Then check out Soul Train in the 1980s to see how that ideas of what was "in" hair styles changed from the afro back to straightened hair styles and to weaves (hair) weaves. This confirms my sense that most Black people considered the afro to be just another hair style choice. I believe that is how Black people think about the much shorter afro or the larger afro hairstyles that are worn today.

    However, in the 1970s I think that the White establishment, some White people, and some Black people thought that anyone who wore an afro was a militant who hated White people. That was NOT what the afro really meant to most Black people then, Nor is it what afros mean now.

    The reason why the afro was so important in the late 1960s and 1970s was that it showed that Black people could accept other forms of beauty besides those sanctioned by or imitative of White culture. In other words, the afro demonstrated that Black people recognized that people could be beautiful without straight hair or straightened hair.

    That said, I think it's important to reinforce the fact that a Black person who doesn't wear their hair in an afro or in any other natural hairstyle can have just as much Black pride as a Black person who doesn't [didn't] wear their hair those ways.

    I hope that the Brazilian protest against that hair product is successful. More power to the protestors!"