Since the ‘60s, the Afro has been a symbol of power, purpose, and pride. Now, with the resurgence of the natural hair movement, the look is taking center stage again. Four women sporting fabulous ’fros share the deeply personal ways their iconic hairstyle continues to send a message.
DENÉE BENTON, ACTOR
I try to always wear my hair natural on red carpets so black girls can feel represented.
“In high school,” Denée Benton says, “I learned about Eurocentric beauty standards and black self-loathing, and it blew my mind.” The idea of other young black girls feeling less-than because of the images of beauty reflected back at them on TV wasn’t something Benton could abide. Her answer was to proudly, unequivocally embrace her hair’s natural texture. It’s what the Afro has been about for decades. “During the 1960s, the style was a rejection of a traditional European look and a way to embrace one’s African heritage,” says A’Lelia Bundles, hair historian, author, and great-great-granddaughter of haircare pioneer Madam C.J. Walker. “It was about self-love and self-affirmation.”
Benton, who plays Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway production of Hamilton (which gloriously crossed racial boundaries by casting mostly people of color to play key figures in American history), now recognizes the magnitude of her decision to wear her hair natural. “Growing up, I hardly ever got to see a dark-skinned black woman with natural hair at the center of an incredible love story like this.”
The truth is, many young people who wear their hair natural are still marginalized today. In recent years, students sporting certain hairstyles (Afros, braids, twists, locks) have been targeted by school administrations—one young girl was even threatened with expulsion if she didn’t cut off her hair, which was deemed a “distraction” to her classmates. Benton wants better for the next generation and thinks that as more prominent women wear their hair natural, perceptions will change. “I hope tomorrow’s 18-year-olds have an easier time.”
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