Fluffy, nappy, kinky, twists, curls, Afros. Natural black hair is back. Actually, it never went anywhere. It was always there underneath the perms, extensions and weaves. Rather, wearing black hair naturally is back.
You see it around Oakland. Young black women downtown, walking around the lake, eating at the city's new restaurants, wearing short Afros, cascades of natural hair, inventive hairstyles that combine braids, cornrows, twists and French rolls.
There are blogs, vlogs, websites and YouTube demonstrations dedicated to natural black hairstyles. There is even a natural hair community engaged in a debate about whether going natural necessarily implies cultural and ethnic pride. Or is it simply a hairstyle choice?
And it's not only African-American women. I see more young African-American men wearing their natural hair longer, as sported by Dante de Blasio, the son of New York City's new mayor. His large Afro attracted quite a bit of media attention during his father's campaign.
Another popular style is what I'll call a knobby Afro. Those wearing it aren't going for the evenly round, combed-out Afros of the '60s and '70s, but a more textured, jagged look. I have to admit, it's a style I'm still getting used to, maybe because I came of age with the '60s and '70s style. (Looking at an old picture of myself, however, I was shocked to discover my 'fro wasn't as evenly round as I had imagined. Shaggy would be a more accurate description.)
Whatever the individual's motivation, choosing a natural black hairstyle often has consequences. New hair rules released by the Army just last week have been criticized by some African-American women soldiers for being racially biased and anti-natural hair styles. A number of hairstyles -- braids, twists and cornrows -- popular with black women soldiers are listed as unauthorized. The women point out that natural hairstyles are easier to maintain when they are in the field.
Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist at a Shreveport, La., television station was fired in 2012 after she responded to a viewer's Facebook post criticizing her short natural hairstyle. She said it was part of her heritage and she was proud of it. The station's management claimed she was fired for violating a policy not to respond to Facebook postings, but Lee said she never saw the policy.
Going back a bit, we had our own black hairstyle television station controversy in the Bay Area. In 1981, award-winning reporter Dorothy Reed was suspended by KGO-TV for two weeks for wearing cornrows. That was particularly ironic, or galling, because at the time the white actress Bo Derek was praised for her beauty after appearing in the movie "10" -- wearing cornrows.
The very talented actor Viola Davis made a splash at the 2012 Oscars when she chose to wear her natural hair in an Afro rather than one of the wigs she customarily wore. She said her husband encouraged her to wear her natural hair in her life, "to step into who you are."
The black women of my generation have gone from pressed to permed to Afro and then on to texturized, locks or very short natural cuts. For some, the power of wearing an Afro in the '60s and '70s was transforming, and they would never think of straightening their hair again. For others, modern styles were an attractive choice.
Personally, I've worn my hair in many styles, natural and straightened. The main criterion for me is a style that is extremely low-maintenance.
Mostly I agree with the sisters who say a hairstyle is just a hairstyle. I don't think a woman who straightens her hair necessarily rejects her ethnic heritage, and I don't think a woman who wears her hair natural necessarily embraces her heritage. Still, it's impossible not to recognize the power of Davis' self-affirmation when she left the wig at home and wore her natural hair at the Oscars.
With the popularity of weaves made from long, silky, imported hair, I'm glad to see another standard of beauty -- natural black beauty -- gain approval.
And the new ways young women are styling their natural hair are fascinating. There is a lot more variety than when we all wore the huge Afro popularized by Angela Davis. The various styles illustrate the array of hair textures among African-Americans and their versatility. If some of us grew up thinking natural black hair was limited in how it could be styled, the young people are disproving that idea, illustrating the unique creative possibilities of black hair. It's another means of self-expression.
I was sitting in a beauty shop in downtown Oakland, and a young African-American woman came in. "I cut off my perm," she announced. Her short Afro framed her chestnut-brown face, showing off her pretty, almond-shaped eyes. I couldn't imagine her with straightened hair. "I'm going to wear it natural," she said.