The Afro still has the power to turn heads and incite controversy. But, writes Susannah Walker, the Afro style wasn’t just a powerful political symbol for black people tired of being judged by white beauty standards. It also became a big money maker as it became more popular. Did that transformation rob the style of its political meaning?
As a symbol of black pride and struggle, writes Walker, the Afro proved that the personal really was political. At first identified with the avant-garde and elite, the Afro represented a break from beauty standards that demanded that black women undergo expensive, time-consuming, and even dangerous processes to straighten their hair.
Soon, writes Walker, the style began to transcend the handful of women who chose not to process their hair. Despite initial outcries from conservative blacks and owners of salons, the style gained traction alongside the Black Power movement. “Although the decision to ‘go natural’ was no longer such a lonely one,” Walker notes, “it continued to be complicated by long-standing, commercially promoted standards of beauty.”
But as the Afro became more and more popular, it also started to generate more and more money. Beauty businesses quickly recognized the style’s potential, writes Walker, playing off of its associations with youth as a marketing tool. By 1970, writes Walker, the style itself was being questioned by Africans who saw it as a dangerous expression of American popular culture.
“The beauty culture could no longer ignore the Afro. Instead, they responded by commodifying it,” writes Walker. Afro products, Afro-only salons, and advertisements for Afros became ubiquitous. Even traditionally white brands like Avon began to include Afros in their advertisements, implying that their products could serve blacks, too. And the rise of the Afro wig implied that the Afro was a style that could be donned or taken off at will.
Walker concludes that though the Afro’s commodification could be interpreted as robbing the style of its political meaning, it has still retained some of its political significance. Even as it hit the (very profitable) mainstream, she writes, the Afro “leaves us with an important legacy: the widespread and conscious use of hair by many African American men and women to signify political loyalties and commitments.”