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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A woman with an Afro at the Tribeca Film Festival (2007)

An Afro, sometimes shorted to 'fro and also known as the "natural", is a hairstyle worn by curly haired individuals whereby the hair is combed away from the scalp, allowing the hair to extend out from the head in a large rounded shape, much like a halo, cloud or ball.[1][2][3][4][5] The hairstyle became particularly popular in the African-American community of the mid-to-late 1960s.[3][5]

The hairstyle is often shaped and maintained with the assistance of a gap-toothed comb also known as an Afro pick.[2][3][4]



"Afro" is derived from the term "Afro-American".[2] The hairstyle is also referred to by some as the "natural" — particularly the shorter, less elaborate versions of the Afro — since in most cases the hair is left untreated by relaxers or straightening chemicals and is instead allowed to express its natural curl or kinkiness.[3][5]

History of the hairstyle in the United States

One of Barnum's "Ciracasian Beauties"

In the 1860s a style similar to the Afro was worn by the Circassian beauties, sometimes known as "Moss-haired girls", exhibited in sideshow attractions in the United States by P.T. Barnum and others. These women were claimed to be from the Circassian people in the Northern Caucasus region, and were marketed to white audiences captivated by the "exotic East" as pure examples of the Caucasian white race who were kept as sexual slaves in Turkish harems.[6][7] It has been argued that this portrayal of a white woman as a rescued slave during the American Civil War played on the racial connotations of slavery at the time so that the distinctive hairstyle affiliates the side-show "white" Circassian with African identity, and thus,

resonates oddly yet resoundingly with the rest of her identifying significations: her racial purity, her sexual enslavement, her position as colonial subject; her beauty. The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.[6]

African American hairstyles prior to the 1960s

During the history of slavery in the United States, most African Americans styled their hair in an attempt to mimic the styles of the predominantly white society in which they lived.[2][8] Afro-textured hair, characterized by its tight curls, waves or kinks, has been described (sometimes pejoratively) as being kinky, coarse, cottony, nappy or woolly.[8][9] These characteristics represented the antithesis of the Euro-American standard of beauty and led to a negative view of tightly curled and kinky hair; as a result, the practice of hair braiding and straightening gained popularity among African Americans.[8]

The process of straightening the hair often involved applying caustic substances, such as relaxers containing lye, which needed to be applied by an experienced hairstylist so as to avoid burning the scalp and ears.[3] In the late 1890s/early 1900s, Madam C. J. Walker also popularized the use of the hot comb in the United States.[8][9] Those who chose not to artificially treat their hair would often opt to style it into tight braids or cornrows.[8] With all of these hairstyling methods, if done improperly, one ran the risk of damaging the hair shaft, sometimes resulting in hair loss.[10]

The Afro in the 1960s and 70s

The effect of the African-American Civil Rights Movement brought a renewed sense of identity to the African American community; this also resulted in a redefinition of personal style that included an appreciation of African beauty and aesthetics, as embodied by the Black is beautiful movement.[9][11] This cultural movement also marked a return to a more natural untreated hairstyle; the Afro became a powerful political symbol which reflected black pride and a rejection of notions of assimilation and integration — not unlike the long and untreated hair sported by the mainly Caucasian hippies.[2][8][9] To some, the Afro also represented a reconstitutive link to Africa.[3]

The Afro was adopted by both men and women and was a hairstyle which one could more easily maintain by oneself without having to make the more frequent and costly visits to the hairstylist that were often required of people who chose to braid, straighten or relax their hair. Due to the tight curl pattern prominent in Afro-textured hair, as it grows longer it has a tendency to extend outward from the head, resulting in a domelike hairstyle which is easily molded and sculpted into the desired shape.[2][9] While the Afro was a much less invasive and time consuming hairstyle choice for many African Americans, some chose to achieve a bushier version of the Afro by backcombing or teasing the hair, a practice which can result in damage to the hair and scalp.[1][5]

In the mid-1960s the Afro hairstyle began in a fairly tightly coiffed form — such as the hairstyle that became popular amongst members of the Black Panther Party; as the 1960s progressed towards the 1970s, popular hairstyles — both within and outside of the African-American community — became longer and longer; this resulted in an expansion in the overall size of Afros.[1] Such large Afros were famously sported by African Americans of various social and political spheres, including political activist Angela Davis, actress Pam Grier, and the members of the musical groups The Jackson Five and The Supremes. Into the early-to-mid 1970s the hairstyle also became popular with curly haired people of non-African heritage, such as the hairstyles worn by musicians Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer and Brian May, movie critic Gene Shalit and actor Gabe Kaplan, the star of the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter.[2][10] Afro-type hairstyles worn by non-African Americans have been referred to as "Whitefros", "Wafros", or (when specifically worn by peoples of Jewish decent) "Jewfros".[4]

In contrast, the Afro's popularity among African Americans had already started to wane by the early 1970s;[1][5] the introduction to the Afro to the mainstream and its adoption by people of non-African decent caused the Afro to lose its radical, political edge.[2] The 1970s also saw an increase in the popularity of braided hairstyles such as cornrows among both sexes of African American — hairstyles which up until that time had traditionally been worn by only African American women.[1][12]

The Afro of the 1990s and 2000s

Lauryn Hill wearing an Afro wig, 2005

The Afro saw popular resurgences in both the 1990s and 2000s.[4][11] These Afros would take varied forms — some incorporating elements such as braids, beads or twists — as well as various sizes — from close-cropped natural hairstyles all the way to expansive Afro wigs.[11]

Some African-Americans who have been known for sporting Afros during these two decades include NBA basketball players Ben Wallace, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Beasley, as well as musicians Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, Ludacris, Questlove, Cindy Blackman, and Lenny Kravitz. Beyoncé Knowles also donned a large Afro wig for her role as Foxxy Cleopatra in the 2002 film Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Afro hairstyles in countries outside of the United States

A Hadendoa warrior

Variations of the Afro have been worn by one or both sexes in the many disparate cultures of the African continent. The Hadendoa tribe of East Africa were called Fuzzy-Wuzzies by British colonial troops during the Mahdist War of the late 19th century due to their often large and elaborate hairstyles which they shaped with the assistance of butter. Similarly, young males of nomadic tribes in Somalia were known to style their hair into rather large bushes which they would also smooth-out with butter; as they aged and became married they would tend to cut down the size of their Afro and stop the application of butter.[1] In the 1950s and 60s, South African women were also known to wear their hair in an Afro-type style.[2]

Due to the hairstyle's links to members of the African-American Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Afro was seen by several outside cultures as a dangerous symbol of political unrest, including Tanzania where the Afro was banned in the 1970s because it was seen as a symbol of neocolonialism and as part of an American cultural invasion.[1][2][13][14] The hairstyle was also banned in Cuba during the 1960s.[15]

The Afro did not rise to the same level of popularity among the Afro-Caribbean community, in part because of the popularity of dreadlocks, which played an important role in the Rastafari movement.[2] Not unlike the Afro's significance among the members of the American Black Power movement, dreadlocks symbolized black pride and empowerment amongst the Rastafari of the Caribbean.[3][10]

Criticism of the hairstyle's link to Afrocentrism

Although styles similar to the Afro had existed in Africa prior to the colonization of the Americas, some critics have suggested that the Afro hairstyle is not particularly African.[16][3] In his book titled Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, cultural critic Kobena Mercer argued that the contemporary African society of the mid 20th century did not consider either hairstyle to denote any particular "Africanness"; conversely, some Africans felt that these styles signified "First-worldness".[3] Similarly, Brackette F. Williams stated in her book Stains on My Name, War in My Veins: Guyana and the politics of cultural struggle that African nationalists were irritated by the Afro's adoption by African Americans as a symbol of their African heritage; they saw this trend as an example of Western arrogance.[17]

See also

  • Afro-textured hair
  • Jewfro, a hairstyle inspired by the Afro worn by certain people of Jewish descent.
  • Conk, a hairstyle popular among African-American men from the 1920s to the 1960s.
  • Good hair, a colloquial phrase used within the African American community to describe African American hair that most closely resembles the hair of European Americans.
  • Jheri curl, an African American hairstyle which was popular in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
  • Nubian wig, a form of headdress worn by ancient Egyptians which is thought to imitate the thick hairstyles of the Nubian peoples of modern Sudan.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Garland, Phyl, “Is The Afro On Its Way Out?”, Ebony, Feb 1973 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Sherrow, Victoria, Encyclopedia of hair: a cultural history, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, p. 21-23 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mercer, Kobena, Welcome to the jungle: new positions in Black cultural studies, Routledge, 1994, p. 104-113 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  4. ^ a b c d Hair Designing - A Complete Course, by Various, Global Media, 2007, section 2 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  5. ^ a b c d e "Modern Living: Beyond the Afro", Time, Oct 25, 1971 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  6. ^ a b Linda Frost, Never one nation: freaks, savages, and whiteness in U.S. popular culture, 1850-1877, University of Minnesota Press, 2005, p.68-88
  7. ^ The Circassian beauty archive A collection of historic Images - Circassian Beauties
  8. ^ a b c d e f Moore Campbell, Bebe, “What happened to the Afro?”, Ebony, Jun 1982 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  9. ^ a b c d e Boyce Davies, Carole, Encyclopedia of the African diaspora: origins, experiences, and culture, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2008, p. 493-495 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  10. ^ a b c Gittens, Sandra, African-Caribbean Hairdressing, Cengage Learning EMEA, 2002, p. 256 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  11. ^ a b c Irvine, Martha, "The Afro Strikes Back", Associated Press, Mar 8, 2002 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  12. ^ "Modern Living: The Masculine Twist", Time, Dec 24, 1973 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  13. ^ Meisler, Stanley, "Afro Hairdo Riles Africa's Blacks", The Milwaukee Journal, Sep 22, 1970 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  14. ^ "Afro Hairdo Banned by Nation in Africa", The Milwaukee Journal, Aug 27, 1971. Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  15. ^ Sawyer, Mark Q., Racial politics in post-revolutionary Cuba, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 65-66 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  16. ^ Rielly, Edward J., The 1960s, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, p. 86 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010
  17. ^ Williams, Brackette F., Stains on my name, war in my veins: Guyana and the Politics of Cultural Struggle, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 260 Last retrieved Feb 20, 2010

Simple English

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The afro is a type of hairstyle that is noted for its large size. The hair is curled out, forming a ball shape. For some people, this is how their hair grows, because it is naturally curly. Not all beauty salons can offer this hairstyle though.

An afro can be any length, short or long, but it is different for everyone, especially depending on the person's race and ethnicity. Europeans and Asians will tend to have wavier, looser curls, while those of African descent will have stronger, tighter curls. Some Jewish people also can naturally grow afros, because of their curly hair. These hairstyles are often called "Jewfros."

The afro requires more looking after than other hairstyles, but there are many ways to style the afro. There is a special comb called the Afro pick/comb that helps get rid of tangles and smooths the hair's texture.

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