The Afro Strikes Back

Rocker Lenny Kravitz sported one, round and full, on a recent cover of Ebony magazine. Basketball player Ben Wallace has been known to tie his up like a pineapple stalk, much to the amusement of his fans in Detroit.

The Afro, a hairstyle that shouted "black is beautiful" back in the day, is popular again. Students, young professionals and celebrities are wearing it — many of them black, others not.

For those born well after the civil rights movement, the decision to go naturally curly, and sometimes big and bold, is often more about being trendy than any big political or social statement. The trend fits right in with other popular "retro" styles from the 1960s and '70s, from bell bottoms to mutton chop sideburns.

But having an Afro can also be about self-expression, says William Humphrey, a master stylist at Loop Styles salon in suburban St. Louis. Today's Afros come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes incorporate braids, twists and beads.

"It's more of an accepted thing, but it's also kind of rebellious. It's, 'Now you're letting me do it, so I'm going to go all out with it,"' says Humphrey, who's getting more requests for Afros lately.

Several football players and even a few cheerleaders at Ferrum College in Virginia arrived at school last fall with Afros. And at a recent talk given by poet and activist Nikki Giovanni in Chicago, many young, black audience members had Afros and other hairstyles — like braids and dreadlocks — that don't require hair to be chemically straightened.

Jennifer Coates, a 23-year-old Chicagoan, says the trend made it easier for her to get a short Afro — and finally make peace with hair that, she believes, didn't look good long and straightened.

It's a decision that is an especially big deal for black women, she says. Many spend hundreds of dollars a month to get their hair straightened and softened — a ritual that some say is a misguided attempt to fit a white "ideal" of beauty.

"We accept that our bodies don't look the same. We accept that our facial features are often different. But our hair has been a hard thing," says Coates, a marketing professional who has given talks on images of black women in popular culture.

New Yorker Cheryl Bronson says that despite pressure from her family to blend in with straight hair, she opted last month to have about six inches of straightened hair cut off. Now she has an Afro, and says the decision has been very freeing.

"Not necessarily from societal restraints," she says, "but from my own personal hang-ups of what I should look like that were passed on to me from my family."

Even men sometimes feel the pressure.

Dante Dottin, who lives in Orange County, Calif., says he still gets grief from his wife about his Afro, but proclaims himself "happy to be nappy."

Humphrey says black people aren't the only ones who like the style. He has white and Hispanic customers, too.

And down in Houston, Ted Beam, who is white, sports a head of curly, six-inch locks. Many of his friends call his hair an Afro, though he thinks it's more "Afro-esque."

"It's not the classic eight-ball shape," says Beam, a fourth-grade teacher and musician who wears it loud, proud and bushy after school and on weekends.

He tries to keep his mane slicked back at school and has even gotten compliments on his hair from the principal.

His students aren't so kind.

"One asked if I was going to get a haircut," Beam says, chuckling. "I told him I wasn't planning on it."