Perusing Gawker this morning, I was made aware of an article about Afros in the New York Times. They presented the article like this: “The New York Times Style section today wrote a story about Black people. The next New York Times Style section story about Black people will return, with Halley’s Comet, in July of 2061.” That should have clued me in that it might be a doozy, but I read on.
The part of the article that hit me hardest was this lovely little nugget:
Resurgent in films and television and the streets, inspired by a galaxy of pop culture idols, the Afro today seems friendly enough, even downright disarming — a kinder, gentler “natural” pretty much shorn of its militancy.
“Seems friendly enough”?? This is a joke, right? Is the Afro a sinister monster that’s been known to attack white people from under their beds? “A kinder, gentler Afro”? It’s as if the NYT has reformed this beast that’s been groomed just enough to be unleashed unto society, while they hold it’s hand and encourage people on the streets to befriend it. “It’s OK! It won’t harm anyone! It’s nice now, I promise!”
The rest of the article discusses celebs that have made the style en vogue (“Even the customarily conventional Oprah Winfrey”!!!), the history of the Afro and talks to a few people with ‘fros to ask why they have them. That’s nice and wonderful, but that part just kept nagging me. It wasn’t until after I uneasily read the article that I peeked in on the title (sidebar: as a writer, I’m horrible with titles. It’s always the last part of my writing process which is likely why I often glaze over titles). “The Afro As A Natural Expression Of Self.” And then everything clicked.
The article is posing the “new, nice” Afro as simply a different way for Black people to express themselves versus the “old, bad” ‘fro that was a militant symbol of opposition. What the author fails to realize is that the Afro has ALWAYS been a natural expression of self. Yes, even during the civil rights era of the Big Bad Fro. People were expressing themselves as what they naturally were. The lens of dominant culture viewed it as an opposition because it didn’t fit the status quo. The whole point was to say, “This is what I naturally look like and this is my status quo–this should be part of dominant culture as much as straight hair.” So now, because you’re finally coming around to accepting it, it’s allowed to be what it always was? Thank you, NYT Style section, for legitimizing Afros for us!!
The article opened up with a vignette about NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s son, who has a really dope Afro.
As 16-year-old Dante implied in an interview with DNAInfo.com, an online local news source, hair is just hair. “Some people want to take photos and I’m really just happy,” he said. Others want to reach out and touch it, and some did at last week’s fund-raiser, their enthusiastic petting prompting the elder de Blasio to joke that he might have to call security.
He should have. Dante’s hair is not a petting zoo. The mysticism of the Afro to the uninitiated is, frankly, irritating. What would happen if we suddenly started pulling blonde ponytails in wonderment and asking if it was hard to clean? It would be weird, right? So why is it not weird here? Because kinky, curly hair has not been accepted by dominant discourse. Maybe this piece is the first clumsy stumble into Afros being inducted into dominant culture as the naturally occurring, beautiful hair it is versus the impetus of white fear and curiosity that it has been heretofore. Let’s hope so.