For many, an Afro isn’t just a hairstyle

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

How a quarantine Afro helped me explore my Blackness and identity

By the time you read this, it will have been about a year since I’ve gotten a haircut.

That Black male ritual of going to the barbershop — that quintessential male space where so many of us grew up and where I visited about every two weeks — is now but a distant memory.

COVID-19 makes a man do strange things.

My tight fade and deep waves are gone.

Atop my head now sits an Afro. A bit unruly at times, but glorious, nonetheless.

What I have rediscovered about my hair over the last year, figured out by Black men over a century ago and reaffirmed by Black women every day, is that every strand of my hair is tied to issues around class, masculinity, aging, fear and sometimes rage.

And while the pandemic has forced me as a 53-year-old man to grow an Afro, I am getting a clearer picture of how my hair is intrinsically linked to a tradition of struggle and cultural pride. As well as to a stark existence now, where younger people — facing the same struggles that saw to the rise of the style — are reclaiming who they are.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

People are embracing who they are, from head to toe,” said Nekesa Smith, who will probably be my new stylist at some point. “I always look at our hair as a crown. If you wear your hair the way it grows out of our scalp, that is our crown.”

A lifetime of influences

The story of my crown is in no way unique.

The coronavirus, and the fear of getting it have clearly changed how we live. The little things we took for granted, like eating in a restaurant or the logistics involved in visiting relatives, have been greatly altered.

Like many men, growing my hair out was one of those shifts.

I never learned how to cut my own hair. So, while I can shave and trim my mustache when I feel like it, my hair keeps growing.

Credit: John Spink/AJC and National Archives

Credit: John Spink/AJC and National Archives

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the Afro was always present in my life.

I remember the towering “fros” that the hustlers and brothers on the block wore. All of my cousins had them and so did I, even when I didn’t really realize how common they were.

So common that I vividly remember asking my mother every time I went to the barbershop if I was getting a “haircut” or an “edge-up.”

I was always pleased when the answer was “edge-up,” which meant I would get to keep my glorious Afro.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

It was also a time when Black heroes wore an Afro, less a remnant of the radical 1960s and more of a natural, aesthetic progression that represented style as well as Black Power.

Through the blaxploitation movies that I used to sneak into like “Black Belt Jones,” “Shaft” and “Blacula,” I witnessed the Afro become a cultural symbol worn by people like “Soul Train’s” Don Cornelius, whose hair teemed with Afro Sheen;

Richard Pryor, whose Afro became a symbol of rage, while Julius Erving’s became a symbol of grace;

Pam Grier, whose Afro was so big and bad that she could hide a gun in it to kill “The Man”;

And my favorite group, the Jackson 5, who sported Afros atop their perfectly round heads.

Black Power became “Black Is Beautiful.”

Credit: AP file

Credit: AP file

Tito Jackson told me each of his brothers — Michael, Marlon, Jermaine and Jackie — would compete to see who could grow the biggest Afro. Jermaine and Jackie always won.

“Mine was always kind of in the middle,” Tito said. “And it was a little lopsided. Like I slept on one side of my face. But it was cool, because it was our natural hair. We just fell into it.”

The influence of the Jackson 5 came on the heels of the Golden Age of Motown and every Black kid in America with four friends wanted to be them. We couldn’t afford the fancy threads, but we could grow their Afros.

Tito and his brothers were just emulating adults who had migrated from “processing,” or using chemicals or a heated comb to straighten hair.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

“We came through at a time period where James Brown was screaming, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’ Nobody wanted to represent that (processed) style anymore,” Tito said. “So for us, wearing our Afros was an extension of the civil rights movement and what people like Angela Davis were doing. We wanted to be a part of that.”

But my biggest influence was right at home. My mom.

Brooklyn and the Politics of Respectability

As long as I can remember, my mother always wore her hair natural, and usually opted for a short Afro that she went to the barbershop to maintain. As a kid, I didn’t really understand it, especially when other mothers wore chemically straightened perms.

But as I got older, it started to make sense.

Thelma Suggs arrived in New York City from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in the mid-1960s, escaping the oppression of the South and landing in the city just as Black people were starting to assert themselves politically.

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

I took an African American studies class at Harvard University under Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, where she taught “the politics of respectability,” a term she coined in her 1993 book, “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920,to describe social and political changes in the Black community.

Black women, she writes, built schools and provided social welfare services to enhance their respectability and promote their communities. At the same time, they were encouraging their students to integrate themselves into white, middle-class communities in the hopes of motivating and inspiring them to escape racial injustice.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, that theory played a role in how civil rights workers carried themselves. That is why they marched in their Sunday best when they knew there was a strong possibility of getting spat on, beaten, bloodied, jailed or killed.

Credit: Cornell University Marketing Group

Credit: Cornell University Marketing Group

“The way to access power and authority in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was to attire yourself in ways that showed you were equal to them. And to not scare them,” said Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University and author of the book “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women.” Always put on (nice) clothes. Always be well-groomed. Especially in the South. Of all the ways that white people were going to come at you sideways, you didn’t want to give them that one.”

During that period, “respectable” Black women were straightening their hair to look more like Rita Hayworth than Louise Beavers.

Black men, particularly after World War II, as jobs began to open up, kept their hair acceptably short, aside from the daring brother who still “conked” his hair with a volatile mix of lye, eggs and potatoes.

Longer hair wasn’t considered an Afro or even a hairstyle for that matter. It was just considered “unkempt.”

Credit: Charles Kelly

Credit: Charles Kelly

“The short, neat cut was considered acceptable,” Rooks told me. “When men started to wear the Afro, it hit the militancy thing. It triggered an alarm. Long, untamed hair has always set white people’s teeth on edge.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants were always dapper in suits, ties and close, tight haircuts. How they looked was just as much of a political and nonviolence tactic as what they said. Why scare them more when whites were already scared enough with the message?

The only real outlier in their inner circle was a young Jesse Jackson.

Jackson, who was only 27 when King was killed in 1968, told me recently that his Afro was “radical.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

But Jackson was never as radical as the group of activists in King’s wake, like Stokely Carmichael, who had grown tired of the respectability politics that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were preaching.

Carmichael had already wrested power away from John Lewis by taking over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They didn’t believe in King’s way anymore, which they called too accommodating. They believed in taking what they wanted through Black Power. And with it came the Afro.

Organizations like the Black Panthers, a nationalist group founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale — who each wore towering Afros — helped give the style its political weight.

The Afro was not tolerant and compromising. A form of beauty that did not require white validation like a perm or conk. It was anti-establishment. It was Black.

“At that moment,” Rooks said, “hair becomes political.”

On men, the Afro meant seriousness, depth and a full embrace of Black manhood. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jim Brown. Max Robinson, Muhammad Ali. Richard Roundtree. Even James Brown took out his conk for a while to sport an Afro.

Credit: AP file

Credit: AP file

On the Black Woman, the Afro was a commanding symbol of strength and beauty. Angela Davis. Maya Angelou. Minnie Riperton. Aretha Franklin.

Credit: AP and AJC file

Credit: AP and AJC file

Maybe that is why my mother, a single mother who raised her two sons in Brooklyn in a tiny apartment filled with books by Gordon Parks and James Baldwin, and Gladys Knight records, always wore one.

Reagan and the death of the Afro

My mother moved us to her hometown of Rocky Mount in 1980.

As I got older and more in control of my self-presentation, my hair got shorter and shorter.

My Afro became just a short round cut. In barbershop vernacular, “A Number One.”

That is how I walked onto the campus of North Carolina Central University in the fall of 1985.

But my classmates from places like New York, D.C. and Philadelphia were on some other stuff.

It was the Reagan Era and rap music had replaced soul music, at least for our generation. Hi-top fades, shaved heads and even Jheri curls came with it.

Who wanted to look like Peabo Bryson when you could look like Big Daddy Kane? Besides, Tito’s brother, Michael, wasn’t even wearing an Afro anymore.

But there were some holdovers from the previous decade. Like Jesse Jackson. The first time I met Rev. Jackson was in 1988 when he brought his Democratic presidential campaign to campus. After King’s death in 1968, Jackson’s hair grew into iconic status. Twenty years later, shorter, but still magnificent.

After Jackson’s speech that afternoon, I presented him with an NCCU jacket. He handed me his jacket as he put on his new one. Then he raised my hand with his as my schoolmates chanted “Win, Jesse, Win.”

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Jackson didn’t get the party nomination for president in 1988. The Reagan era had neutralized both Jesse and the Afro.

My reinvention came in the form of a bald or tapered fade. Tight around the ears and back, darker, but short, on top.

Nothing looked better than a “fresh fade.” And nothing felt better to me than rubbing my palm against the grain to feel that stiff stubble around my neck give way to the smooth hair at the top of my head.

I guess, before I even knew the term, I was practicing a form of respectability politics. Perhaps not to be labeled an “Angry Black Man.”

For a lot of us who grew up in the ’70s, including the first Black man to actually become president, Barack Obama, the Afro was dead.

Good hair, bad words and snapback

Earlier this month, I visited Nekesa Smith at her College Park salon, Nekesa Natural Radiance. A graduate of Spelman College, she specializes in natural hair. Many of her male clients are professional men, generally over 45, who want to grow their hair out and “and do more of a Jay-Z look. Not just that neat shaped Afro, just a little texture.”

I sat down and let Smith run her fingers through my hair. She has been doing hair since she was a child, started her own business in 1999, and I wanted her to give me a consultation.



A little background. I would generally wash my hair every day. Or at least four times a week. Wash and condition. Then, with my trusty pick ― an upright comb with long teeth ― I would pick it out and call it a day. Easy enough.

Too easy, Smith says.

Running her fingers through my hair, she tells me that she likes the gray and shoots down my suggestion that I had “good hair.”

“Good hair is a bad word,” she snaps.

She tells me that my hair is a combination of three textures ― generally coily, looser at the top, with tighter curls around the nape of my neck. It is probably growing about a half-inch a month, but the sides and back grow considerably faster.



My hair consists of two “grades,” a system created in 1997 by Oprah’s hairstylist to best match hair to particular products. I am a 3B, which are curly tight curls. And I am a 3C, which consists of curly corkscrews.

I told her that I was kind of frustrated that my hair has been growing for a year and has not exploded out of my head. I was expecting to look more like Daveed Diggs than Cornel West.

“Snapback,” she says, laughing at my ignorance. It is just like it sounds. At times, I can pull a strand of hair out at least 6 inches, only to watch it shrink back into my head.

Smith pulls out a ruler.

My hair is 4 inches on the top, 3 inches on the sides and about 4 1/2 inches in the back.

“People think natural hair is just getting up and combing it. People think natural hair is cheaper,” she said. “But it takes work. Hair can be hard to manage.”



She asks me what my goal is.

I don’t have a real answer.

I felt comfortable with her, in her shop. She took my temperature as soon as I walked in, and everyone was wearing masks. But when will I feel comfortable going back to a barbershop? Will I even want to go back?

I tell her my original plan was to get a haircut after this article ran.

‘Why must you be so Black?’

Then I met Aevin Dugas, a 45-year-old social worker from outside of New Orleans who works at her parents’ group home for women with developmental needs. Between 2012 and 2019, she was in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the biggest Afro in the world, measuring about 4 feet 7 inches around.

In a word, she is stunning.

Credit: Courtesy Aevin Dugas

Credit: Courtesy Aevin Dugas

Our hair just wants to be left alone. It was freedom and it really got me to love myself,” she tells me. “I love how I felt when I went natural and I didn’t care what anyone thought. When I went natural, I really figured out who I was. When I wear my Afro out, that is when I feel the sexiest.”

Harkening back to the ’60s and ’70s, people like her mother and Angela Davis might have inspired her, but wearing the Afro is not a form of protest, she says.

She has traveled all over the world to talk about hair and has started her own line of hair care products, Chemhairstry. White people are intrigued by it and most Black people love it.

But there have been Blacks who are uneasy with it and wonder, “Why must you be so Black?”

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to make other people comfortable. Our hair has always been an issue,” Dugas said. “You are gonna deal with this hair, whether you like it or not. I am not changing my hair for anyone.”

Protests and the CROWN

Throughout this process, the first time I really became aware of what my Afro meant in this age was during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

So many of the protesters had embraced their hair as part of the “natural hair movement.” It came in floppy, in twists, braided and in dreadlocks. Lots of volume and texture.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

All of it coming at a time when there is a growing national movement to ban racial discrimination against people based on their natural hairstyle.

Last September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act, which “prohibits the denial of employment and educational opportunities based on hair texture, including hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled, Afros, and protective hairstyles, including braids, locs, twists, or Bantu knots. These are hairstyles that have been traditionally worn primarily by people of African descent.” Locally, Clayton County passed its own CROWN ordinance this month.

The looks of Kathleen Cleaver and Bobby Seale, icons of a bygone era, have been replaced by people who look like Questlove, Colin Kaepernick, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker and Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Tito Jackson is even growing dreadlocks during the pandemic.

The reasons for these young advocates and influencers growing their natural styles are likely different from mine. But I could certainly relate as these kids marched through downtown Atlanta chanting the names of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor.

“Young people are using their bodies to say we want to fit in on our own terms,” Rooks said. “They are fighting the idea that only a certain kind of hairstyle is acceptable. They want to be Black on their own terms.”

Black is still beautiful

When I think about that, I go back to Smith’s question, “What is my goal?”

I think ultimately, that is what I want, “to be Black on my own terms.”

It makes me think about Prince.

When his first album, “For You,” came out in 1978, he, like everyone else, debuted with a towering Afro. By his second album, in 1979 as the Afro was fading away, he appeared wearing long, feathered locks, curled away from his face. From there, his hair became progressively more glamorous, from flowing locks to wind-swept curls. He wore it long and short, curly, and straight. There was even a phase when he wore finger waves.

Then, in 2012, at the age of 54, he stopped.

Credit: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Credit: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

He started showing up at concerts, television appearances and on album covers with an Afro. He had gone back to his roots.

Just seven days before he died, on April 14, 2016, I saw Prince for the last time when he came to the Fox Theatre for his Piano and a Microphone tour. In retrospect, he was frailer than I had ever seen him, and I hardly realized that the cane he pimped on stage with was more of a utility than a prop.

But his Afro stood tall and proud. Just as big as it was in 1978, representing decades of Blackness. At the end of the show, he stood at the middle of the stage and gave us the Black Power salute, showing us that Black was still beautiful.

I thought about a lyric from a song of his from 2004 that many of you probably don’t know — “Reflection.”

“Tell me do you like my hair this way?

Remember all the way back in the day?

When we would compare whose Afro was the roundest?”


Midway through this pandemic, I had to admit my mother into a nursing home. The dementia that had been slowly taking her away from us had rendered her helpless. And COVID-19 didn’t help. In August, she contracted it. She beat it, but it only made her condition worse and made it impossible to go visit her.

With her living in a nursing home, we had to visit her by standing outside of her room and looking through her window.

On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, as I stood outside in the freezing rain, her nurse approached me and allowed me a “compassion visit.”

Credit: Ernie Suggs

Credit: Ernie Suggs

I am not clear if that was more for me or for my mom. I was given a new mask, gloves and a full gown and escorted to her room.

At one point, I found myself staring at her. Because of COVID, the hairdressers had stopped coming to the nursing home, so her hair had grown out longer than she usually wore it.

As a child, everyone always said I looked just like my mama. I heard it so much that I accepted it.

But that afternoon, as she lay dying, I noticed for the first time — we have the same hairline.

Thelma Suggs died on Feb. 15.


Throughout February, we shined a spotlight on different African American pioneers ― through new stories and our archive collection ― in our Living and Metro sections Monday through Sunday. Go to to see the full series of subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African American pioneers featured each day.