Amanda Martin hopes a new exhibit opening Saturday at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will inspire people “to get back to their roots — pun intended.”
The show, “AFROS: A Celebration of Natural Hair,” comprises about 60 images from the book of the same name by Brooklyn photographer Michael July.
Martin, deputy director of administration and programs for the FWMoA, and Charles A. Shepard III, executive director, discovered the photographer's Kickstarter campaign online some time ago.
“He was trying to raise $20,000 to write this book,” Martin said. “We got in touch with him almost a year ago.”
In April 2012, he reached his goal and was able to publish a 450-page coffee table book celebrating natural hair — in particular, the Afro.
Beginning seven years ago, July traveled the country photographing and interviewing people of all ethnicities who wore their hair in Afros. The narratives that go with the photos tell the individuals' “hairstories.”
July says in the seven years he's worked on the book, he's seen the number of people wearing Afros go up three- or fourfold.
“Afros are everywhere,” he said over the phone from Brooklyn, adding, “It depends a lot on where you're at in the country.”
He sees a lot of Afros in Brooklyn and notes an abundance of blogs and YouTube videos devoted to transitioning from chemically straightened hair to natural hair. He describes it as “a whole cultural renaissance.”
Local women Sherry Early-Aden and Clydia Early, who are sisters, remember the days of chemically processing, or relaxing their hair, to straighten it. Early-Aden said sometimes children as young as 5 years old have their hair straightened.
“The longer you leave (the chemicals) on, the straighter your hair will become,” she said. “The problem is the chemical is so strong, oftentimes it burns your scalp.” If it drips onto your forehead, that skin may burn, too.
“That's the price you pay to wear your hair straight for the next three to six months,” she said.
Both women have given up the smelly, painful straightening process and transitioned to natural hair. And they started a local group, Green Hair Revolution, in 2011 to provide information on healthy, natural hair care.
“We're all trying to eat and live healthier,” Early said. “That's the same way we're thinking about our hair.”
But wearing natural hair in the workplace can be risky for African-American women, especially those climbing the corporate ladder, Early said. Some African-American women feel pressure to fit in and look a certain way, and that often doesn't include natural hairstyles.
They stressed that natural hair doesn't just mean Afros. It can be braids, twists, natural curls or dreadlocks.
A short-cropped Afro probably would be more acceptable in the workplace than the one Aevin Dugas wears. She is coming to Fort Wayne on May 4 with July for a gallery talk. Dugas holds the world record for the largest Afro, which was measured at 4 feet 4 inches in circumference.
“Her story is really cool,” Martin said. “After years and years of chemical processing, she had extensive damage to her hair.”
So she quit straightening it more than 12 years ago and let it grow and grow.
“Naturally it forms this big, beautiful Afro shape,” Martin said. It takes Dugas some time to comb the Afro out to its full glory, so she doesn't wear it that way every day.
The Afro was popular in the '60s and '70s, first as a symbol of rebellion and black pride. But then many African-Americans — actually people of all ethnicities — started wearing Afros just because it was the style. Even some people with straight hair got curly permanents so they could wear Afros. Eventually, like most trends, its popularity waned.
Now it's coming back, although many African-American women — first lady Michelle Obama comes to mind — still wear their hair straightened.
“I just think it's part of their culture,” July said of African-American women who straighten their hair. He said they see their mothers and their aunts straightening their hair and do the same. He does not see it as a case of African-American women rejecting their ethnicity or overly admiring white people's hair.
He does note, however, many of the images in the media, including advertisements for hair care products, feature long, luxurious hair.
“Most commercials are the product of white media,” July said. “We grow up seeing that day in, day out.”