The History of the Afro

Perhaps no other hairstyle in history has become such a fixture in pop culture as the Afro. Unlike many hairstyles, the Afro needs no explanation because everyone knows what it is. However, many people know little about the colorful history of this unique hairstyle.

Many people believe that the Afro was first worn by African-American men and women in the 1960’s, when the style became popular thanks to celebrities such as Cicely Tyson and Jimi Hendrix. The “blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s, along with the disco movement, also helped increase the Afro’s popularity. Interestingly, however, the first recorded mention of the hairstyle that would later be called the Afro did not have its roots in Africa at all, but Russia.

As early as 1734, Voltaire wrote of the extraordinary beauty of women from Circassia, which at the time was part of the Ottoman area and now exists as part of modern-day Russia. Circassian women were renowned for their beauty, in particular their dark curly hair, which was often combed out to produce the style which would later be associated with the Afro. Examples of this style were featured in the mid 1800’s in advertisements for beauty products based upon the secrets of Circassian women. The hair worn by these exotic beauties produced such a fervor that P.T. Barnum began to display these women as sideshow attractions in his circus. Originally, Barnum’s “Circassian Beauties” were women of Circassian descent, but since the European slave trade caused Circassian women to be in short supply, Barnum began to substitute light-skinned African women, whose hair could easily be coaxed into the Circassian hairstyle. Known as “moss-haired girls”, these women performed in traveling circuses and sideshows up until the turn of the 20th century.

The Afro hairstyle re-emerged in the 1950’s, most likely as a statement of Black Pride. The Afro, or “Natural” as it was commonly referred to, was adopted by early leaders of the Civil Rights movement as a means of embracing their ethnic heritage. Up until the 1950’s, most black men and women had resorted to “conking” their hair, which was a method of straightening the hair permanently using a lye-based relaxer, in order to make their hair appear similar to Caucasian hair. Even Malcolm X, in his younger years, conked his hair. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, more and more African-Americans stopped conking their hair and began to embrace the Afro as an expression of their own heritage, while participating in a movement so powerful that today the Afro has become an iconic part of American history.