It’s World Afro Day: Why this celebration is conflicting but important.
Today is World Afro Day. Social media works wonders with spreading the word, because I did not know there was such a thing, until today. I happen to be rocking an afro at this very moment and I am proud to do so. But I can’t help but to question why we had to set aside a day for something that should be naturally appreciated as a form of expression. Just like a bob, or a pixie, the afro is a hairstyle that some choose to wear. It should be viewed and celebrated just like other hairstyles.
Officially founded by Michelle De Leon in 2017, in response to legislation in Alabama allowing companies to deny jobs to those with dreadlocks, World Afro Day was created to celebrate natural and/or afro hair textures. It has since evolved into a movement for hair equity, with a foundation based on education within schools. The United Nations endorsed World Afro Day in 2018.
Our relationship with the afro is at times conflicting and has been historically, as eurocentric views of beauty became the driving force in defining what is actually seen as beautiful, well-groomed and clean. As silky straight styles became the approved norm, curly, coily, and kinky hairstyles that were more associated with Black people and other people of color were ridiculed with offensive and disparaging comments. Often leaving Black people hating their natural hair and taking extreme measures to change it. There was a period where this dramatically changed.
In the 1960s and 1970s the rise of the Black Power Movement gave way to expressions of freedom in ways that had not happened before. As Black people’s pride grew, so did the embrace of elements that were unique identifiers of Black culture. How we wore our hair was one of those things. Instead of using heat or chemicals to straighten our hair, a lot of us gravitated toward braids and/or letting our hair do what it naturally does when it grows out of our scalps. Coil up. Afro picks became the common accessory to our styling and a new feeling of liberation arose.
That empowerment scared people. And things associated with that new found freedom started to be viewed as a threat. However choosing to wear an afro was actually more about self-love than threats to anyone. The 1960s and 1970s brought about a desire to learn and embrace that which made Black people feel more connected as a community. Rejecting European beauty standards was a way of saying “hey, I am beautiful too and that should be celebrated.”
Another misconception was that an afro was an indication of laziness or poor hygiene practices. The truth is achieving the perfect afro requires the opposite. It takes dedication to achieve spherical perfection. And if you have a curly afro like I do, it not only takes work, but time, patience and the investment in quality styling products.
As my mother describes it, perfecting the afro took more than just an afro pick. It had to be shaped, so you needed a reliable barber. If you were a woman with an afro, the right barber was important to ensure you had a feminine shape to your afro. And no one wanted a dry afro that did not shine. If you don’t know anything about hair, optimum shine is achieved through hair care, not just topically applied products. And the real challenge arose when you slept. With some people opting to braid their afro at night to then be forced to recreate that globular shape daily.
Just like the 1970s, wearing our hair in its natural state has become just as much of an illustration of how much we love ourselves, as it is a beauty statement.
Wearing an afro is not just saying that we do not want to conform to generic beauty standards. In many ways it is not about them, but about us. It is about acceptance and embracing that which actually makes us unique. At the same time it is the declaration that we should not have to deny a natural part of who we are to fit into someone else’s expectations of what we should look like.
Although it seems ridiculous that we had to even create a World Afro Day, celebrations are a necessary part of validation and empowerment. We celebrate holidays so that for that moment, someone, or some cause is seen and people are made aware of its relevance to a larger group of people. Coily, curly, kinky and yes even straight hair is something that should be celebrated simply because it is. But if people have a challenge in accepting that, creating a holiday to remind them is a great idea.
© 2021 Evangeline Lawson