Growing up as the only African American kid in a mostly-white suburb was a very hair-centric experience. Every time I came to school with a new hairstyle—whether it was straightened, chemically relaxed, or in lots of long individual braids—I was a walking target for compliments, questions, and some unwelcomed petting. It wasn’t until a couple months ago that I stopped wrestling with my natural curls and just let them be what they are: a really big, effortlessly fabulous ‘fro. So it seemed like a fitting time to check out Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair at the Northwest African American Museum.
Back in the day, an African American wearing their natural hair as an Afro could commonly be viewed as an act of defiance, or the bold claiming of one’s true identity. While that description still rings true to many, the contemporary afro is worn more casually, and in a much looser form. That’s the exact observation that inspired Michael July to travel across the U.S. and photograph the flyest afro-wearing individuals of many ethnicities and ages. The result is a stunning collection: 35 photographs of fierce and attractive 'fro-sporting subjects, each one framed as a style icon for natural hair and beauty. July was also interested in what the hairstyle means to its unique owners, so he asked his models to submit a personal quote that illustrates their perspective.
The first photo subject welcomes you to the exhibit from the front door; it’s Aevin Dugas, a social worker and natural hair blogger who set the Guinness World Record for the largest afro in 2012. Her explanation about why she keeps it (her hair) real is simple:
“I wear my hair in a ‘fro because it is how I was born. Meaning, this is how my Creator made me. I was not born with straight hair, so why would I permanently alter my hair? It’s one thing to change your look, but at the end of the day this is who I am. Naturally me, kinky hair and all. I wouldn’t change it for the world!”
As responses like these continued to pile up in July's inbox, he came to realize his collection was worthy of a book (one that shares the exhibition's name). The Afros collection does a satisfactory job of including a diverse collection of people and backgrounds, but what was more stirring was that all of the subjects have shared feelings of heightened self-acceptance and confidence in common.
In keeping with the theme of collecting individual experiences, there’s also a small portion of the wall dedicated to print-outs of Instagrammed photos of Afro-wearing museum-viewers who use the hashtag #AfrosAtNAAM. Like the museum itself, the display is smaller than you would expect, and there is still lots of room for contributions.
I left the NAAM with an uplifting feeling that made me grateful for the existence of the museum. As an African American and lifelong resident of the Northwest, it definitely felt good to support the project and to see the fruits of the museum's struggle.
Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair
Thru Sept 8, Northwest African American Museum, $7