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The history of the afro

Zoe Zebedia, a famous "moss haired girl" from the 19th century
Wikipedia Commons

Few hairstyles throughout history have become as much of a fixture in pop culture as the afro. The afro needs no explanation because everyone knows what it is. However, many people know little about the colorful history of this iconic hairstyle.

Many people believe that the afro originated with African-American men and women in the 1960s, when the style became popular thanks in part to celebrities like Jimi Hendrix and Cicely Tyson. The "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, along with the disco movement, helped further the popularity of the afro. Interestingly, however, the first recorded description of the hairstyle that would later be called the afro did not have its roots in Africa at all-- the hairstyle actually originated in Russia.

As early as 1734, Voltaire wrote of the extraordinary beauty of women from Circassia, which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire and is now part of modern-day Russia. Circassian women were known for their beauty, particularly their dark naturally curly hair, which was often combed out into the style which would later be known as the afro. Examples of this style exist in the mid-1800s advertisements for beauty products "based upon the secrets of Circassian women". The style 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; however, 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 1950s 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 1950s, most black men and women had resorted to "conking"- 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, an increasing number of African-Americans stopped conking their hair and began to embrace the afro as an expression of their own heritage, and thus making the afro an iconic part of American history.