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The Afro represents cultural change within Black Diaspora

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “There was some early blow-back resulting from the Afro. Beside the fact that many Black parents then frowned on the new expression of Black pride—and often prohibiting younger children from donning this haircut—White society was uncertain what to make of this outward and unapologetic show of African American pride and independence.”

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A once ‘defiant’ hairstyle remains mired on controversy

By Merdies Hayes, Editor, Our Weekly News

“How ya doin’? Good to see ya. Have a seat.”

O.D. Threatt makes way for the barber chair. You feel at home as he affixes the bib over your chest. He takes your glasses. He asks the usual question: “Cut it short?” He hasn’t needed to boost the chair upward for at least 50 years.

Between the chit-chat about the Dodgers or Lakers—there’s very little political talk—the subject of the Afro (or “natural”) comes up, of which he is a font of knowledge. O.D., by his estimate, has probably given 50,000 haircuts over the past 60 years. Of those, there’s a good chance that half have been Afros since his days at the legendary Upright Barber Shop at 58th Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. Back then, in the late 1960s, it was the place to go to wear that distinctive style that marked a new era of Black social consciousness.

Wanting to make a statement

“I was thinking about that just the other day,” he said. “You know, before the natural, Black teenagers generally kept their hair relatively short. Much more conservative, often with a “Kennedy part” on the left side. That all changed with the natural. The kids wanted to make a statement. They wanted a separate identity from White America.”

There was some early blow-back resulting from the Afro. Beside the fact that many Black parents then frowned on the new expression of Black pride—and often prohibiting younger children from donning this haircut—White society was uncertain what to make of this outward and unapologetic show of African American pride and independence.

“No, a good many parents would not let their little kids have a natural,” O.D. explained. “That was a little too daring—a little too ‘militant’—for the generation who moved from the South after World War II. It was different for the teenagers. They saw people like James Brown, Angela Davis or the Black Panthers wearing a natural, and this expression was part of new generation of kids who were exposed more to their history going back to slavery and further back to Africa.”

Turning tables on ‘nappy,’ ‘woolly’ hair

In the 1960s, Black people said, essentially, “to hell with that” and turned the tables on the familiar and unflattering tropes of “nappy,” “woolly” and “unruly” hair in liberating themselves from any and everything originally associated with White “acceptance.” After generations of subjecting themselves to European beauty standards, African Americans decided to take back their hair. This newfound acceptance was widely known as the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, which sprang from the Black Power movement.

With political activists such as Davis, Huey P. Newton and Jesse Jackson proudly rocking Afros while fighting oppression, the hairstyle quickly emerged as a symbol of Black beauty, liberation and pride.

Black activists were agitated by White supremacy and Jim Crow laws. As well, they wanted to show an outward sign of their frustration toward Dr. Martin Luther’s King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence. The Afro would become Black beauty personified—and done without White validation. The Afro did not care about critics. It did not care about
disapproving looks. For many Black men, it was about “cool pose” and, to a degree, about hyper-masculinity in the face of police brutality and constant oppression.

What may be most interesting about the Afro is its cultural trajectory. In the 1970s, for instance, the Afro was perceived as a major political statement that, beforehand, would have never appeared in the pages of a mainstream publication, or graced the motion picture or television screens. The Afro originated in both a political and emotional climate. The style would fit with a broader generational rejection of artifice but, more importantly, it expressed defiance of racist beauty norms, rejection of middle-class conventions (much like the hippie movement of the mid-60s) and demonstrated pride in Black beauty. The unstraightened hair of the Afro was simultaneously a way to celebrate the cultural and physical distinctiveness of the Black race, and to fully reject practices associated with any emulation of Whites.

An ‘in-your-face’ style for Black youth

“You didn’t see Black celebrities or athletes wearing the natural. Willie Mays didn’t have one. Neither did Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali in their early days,” O.D. said. He explained that the Martin Luther King generation would have said the Afro was a little too “in-your-face” and that it would do more to instigate White America rather than attracting them to the subject of Black equality.

“The young people saw it differently,” O.D. noted. “This was their time to speak. It was their time of self-expression. The Black teenagers wore the Afro with pride and distinction because it was theirs…and no White person could take it away from them.”

Black hair has been an integral feature of Black history, from African tribal styles to Caribbean dreadlocks. In early African civilizations, for instance, hairstyles could indicate a person’s family background, tribe and social status. As an example, when men from the Wolof tribe (in modern Senegal and Gambia) went to war, they wore a braided style, while women in mourning—in other words a widow—would either not “do” her hair or adopt a subdued style.

During the slave trade, these captives took many of their African customs with them to the New World, including their specially-designed combs—not terribly different from the ever-present Afro combs of the 1970s. During the 19th Century, when slavery was abolished throughout much of the world, many Black people felt pressure to “fit in” with mainstream White society and adjusted their hair accordingly.

Emancipation the ‘great oppressor’?

“Black people felt compelled to smooth their hair and [texture it] to fit in easier, and to move in society better (and in camouflage) almost,” said Aaryn Lynch who produced a London exhibition on the history of the Afro comb. “I’ve nicknamed the post-emancipation era ‘the great oppression’ because that’s when Black people had to go through really intensive methods to smooth their hair. Men and women would put their hair in a hot chemical mixture—that would almost burn their scalp—to make it look more European and silky.”

In the 1930s, Rastafari theology developed in Jamaica from the ideas of Marcus Garvey, the legendary political activist who worked to improve the status of Black people. Believers then and today are forbidden to cut their hair and instead twist it into dreadlocks.

While it is not clear when and where the style originated, there are references in the Old Testament. The Hindu deity Shiva is sometimes depicted wearing dreadlocks. Along with the Afro, dreadlocks remain the most distinctive Black hairstyle.

A tumultuous timeline

Black hair—specifically the Afro—can trace a centuries-old timeline:

  • 1444: Europeans trading along the West African coast observe people wearing elaborate hairstyles, including Afros, locks, plaits and twists
  • 1619: The first slaves are brought to Jamestown, VA, many of which have an Afro and/or plaits and twists
  • 1700s: Calling Black hair “wool,” many Whites dehumanized slaves. The more elaborate African hairstyles could not be retained
  • 1800s: Without the traditional combs and herbal treatments, slaves rely on bacon grease, butter and kerosene as hair conditioners and cleaners. Lighter-skinned, straight-haired Blacks would command a higher price than the more “kinky-haired” slaves
  • 1865: Slavery ends, but Whites look upon Black women who adopt a Western coiffure as “well-adjusted” meaning that “good’ hair is a specific White attribute
  • 1880: Metal hot combs, invented by the French in 1845, are used by Blacks to temporarily straighten kinky hair
  • 1900s: Madame C.J. Walker develops a range of hair-care products for Black hair
  • 1954: George E. Johnson launches the Johnson Products Co. with Ultra Wave Hair Culture to be used as a “permanent” hair straightener for both Black men and women
  • 1963: Actress Cicely Tyson wears cornrows on the television drama “East Side/West Side”
  • 1970: Angela Davis becomes an icon of the Black Power movement with her large Afro
  • 1971: Melba Tolliver is fired from the ABC News affiliate in New York for wearing an Afro while covering the marriage of Tricia Nixon
  • 1988: Director Spike Lee exposes the schism between “good-hair/bad-hair” among African Americans in the film “School Daze”
  • 2006: Black hair care becomes a billion-dollar industry
  • 2009: The movie “Good Hair” grosses $4 million

Celebrating Black beauty

At the peak of its popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Afro epitomized the “Black is Beautiful” movement. In those years, the style represented a celebration of Black beauty and repudiation of Eurocentric beauty standards. The Afro also created a sense of commonality among African Americans who saw the style as a mark of a
person who was willing to take a different stand against racial injustice.

Even today, the natural state of Black hair causes debate in the workforce. Because certain African hairstyles may leave White employers baffled and confused, many workplaces still do not tolerate locks or natural hair and require that Black men and women adhere to a style more suited with White fashion norms.

This debate has led to an historic bill introduced by California State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (30th District) making California the first state in the country to ban racial discrimination based on natural hair. Known as the CROWN (“Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”), the bill was signed in early July by Gov. Gavin Newsom to amend the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state Education Code to prohibit employers and schools from enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies that disproportionately impact people of color.

Sen. Holly J. Mitchell’s CROWN Act

“This law protects the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms,” Mitchell said. “I am so excited to see the culture change that will ensue from the law.” Similar legislation has been proposed in New York and in New Jersey, with New York in February banning any form of hair discrimination at school and in the workplace.

History, to an extent, is defined by a simple haircut not simply for one person, but for a generation who came of age during the Black Power Movement.

You see yourself in the hand mirror, just to check if your look remains normal for the times. Everything checks out.

“Everything okay?” O.D. asks. “Looks good O.D. Each time I stop in you seem to trim more gray hair.” “That’s father time for ya,” he replied.

And with that, the bib is removed, and any remaining hair is neatly brushed away until next time.

“Thanks O.D.” “Thank you,” he responds. “See ya next time.”

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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