Shaft wore one, and so did Black Panther leader Angela Davis. As black pride took to the streets, African-Americans not only reclaimed an affection for African dress and accessories, but many stopped processing and relaxing their hair in an attempt to conform to white standards of beauty. They shouted ‘Black is Beautiful’ and let the natural kinky state grow into a hair halo called the afro.
The afro made its first stand as racial rebellion in the 1950’s. Malcom X preached about the ‘whitening’ of black hair by having it chemically relaxed and tamed. Followers of the militant leader agreed, growing out their afros as a slight to ‘whitey.’ The Blackstone Rangers, an African-American street gang, cultivated the ‘ranger bush’: a tall, compact afro which helped soften the blows received to the head from police billy clubs. The idea was that the solidarity of the African people in a western dominated world helped to protect blacks against brutality, whether physical or psychological. And the afro was the crowning glory of the fight.
During the racially expressive 60’s, the afro moved from militant mane to counterculture coif. Hippies opened their arms to their fellow man, and whites with naturally curly and kinky hair cultivated their own fros in a show of racial harmony. Marsha Hunt’s glorious afro turned her into the poster girl for the musical Hair, and her afro became as symbolic of the 60’s as the peace sign.
The ghetto fascination of the 70’s brought the afro mainstream. Funk all-stars Sly and the Family Stone sported wicked fros with bedazzled jumpsuits and platform boots, inspiring blacks and whites to get their groove on. Michael Jackson’s afro jived from the early days of the Jackson 5 until his Off the Wall album of 1982 (Michael would then propel another hair trend with his relaxed jheri curl). Blaxploitation films hustled the afro from symbol of black pride to symbol of black power. Richard Roundtree’s superfly fro in Shaft and Pam Grier’s foxy fro in Coffy proved that you could look fresh and still fight evil!
A true afro was much more than letting the hair grow in a carefree style like the straight and uncut hippie look. An afro needed meticulous care to create the balance of a perfectly symmetrical ‘fro.’ Careful afro tending included a liberal spraying of glossy Afro Sheen and meticulous raking with a big hair pick, or Afro rake, that resided permanently in the back pocket of flared leg jeans.
Afros could be cropped-close to the head or grown to such wide dimensions that it was hard to get through the door. Whatever the size, having a perfectly symmetrical crown of glory was the ultimate. For those that had less-than-foxy fros, or for white fashion victims who desired to emulate their favorite black entertainers, you could buy a perfectly shaped synthetic wig version. Made of 100% Dynel, this curled coif guaranteed you a look to rival that of Jimmy Hendrix or Parliament’s George Clinton. Funk had never been so easy.