“Let your ‘fro grow, bro!”: More than just an aesthetic, in a racist society, Afro-Brazilian men wearing large afros is “a fight for a greater cause”

CAPA

Note from BW of Brazil: Na impressive transformation. That’s how I would describe the evolution of how pretos (black men) and pardos (brown men) have developed not only acceptance, but the desire and courage to grow out their naturally kinky/curly hair and rock these ‘fros in public. “So, what’s the big deal?”, some might ask. I mean, is there any reason to celebrate when people simply wear the hair they were born with? Well, when one lives in a country in which a European aesthetic of beauty was imposed upon the population and people were made to feel ashamed of the physical features that didn’t fit into this standard, it IS a big deal when people boldly decide to adapt these belittled attributes as a badge of honor. 

Of course, we know that this happened in the United States as well, but in Brazil, in my view, it seems that this imposition of the European aesthetic was much more brutal in terms of its destruction of a positive black identity. This is one of the reasons for which I believe that, in many ways, racism and white supremacy was more effective than in Brazil than in the US. I say this because, in the US, a segregated society allowed African-Americans to develop their own aesthetic standards within the larger society. Thus, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we saw a movement that promoted a certain pride in one’s African features. Out of this movement for pride came the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ and the enormous afro was one of the main features representing this new pride. 

In Brazil, on the other hand, any celebration of one’s African ancestry and appearance was frowned upon and even suppressed. Afro textured hair was and continues to be one of the physical indicators of African ancestry that was perhaps the most rejected by society in general. If one wanted to appear ‘presentable’, not only in everyday social interactions or when seeking employment opportunities, it was considered unacceptable to allow oneself to be seen walking the streets with ‘untamed’ kinks and curls. In fact, as we  learned in one article, during Brazil’s brutal 21-year military dictatorship 1964-1985, it was a common occurence to see police soldiers snatch black men off of the streets and shave their heads. In February of this year, we saw how long afro-textured black hair still causes discomfort when photos caught a Military Police assault on a 16-year old young black male specifically because of his hair. 

This rejection of afro textured hair has a long legacy, going back to the slavery era. Documenting how kinky/curly hair was in some ways viewed as being an attribute considered worse than dark skin, in 1940s Bahia, anthropologist Donald Pierson noted how it was quite common to hear the phrase, ‘ele é um pouco escuro, mas o cabelo é bom‘, meaning, ‘he’s a little dark, but his hair is good.’  The phrase seems to suggest that the ‘sin’ of having dark skin can be somewhat ‘forgiven’ if the person’s hair is straight or close to it. 

Due to this idea of cabelo crespo (kinky/curly) hair being ‘bad’, Afro-Brazilian women have long resorted to all sorts of techniques to ‘fix’ their hair, from hot combs and chemicals such as henê, to creams, relaxers and the escova progressiva (Brazilian Keratine Hair Treatment). For black men, the only alternative was to wear their hair shaved bald or extremely close to the scalp, a cut barbers refer to as “maquina 0 alto”. 

But in the past few decades, going back to the nineties, but particularly in the past 10 years, we’ve seen a phenomenal rise in the Afro-Brazilian population developing a love and pride of their natural kinks and curls. I would argue that liberation from the dictatorship of white standards in recent years started with masses of black women deciding to accept their hair as it was meant to bemasses of black women deciding to accept their hair as it was meant to be. With black women leading the way, it was only natural that black men would soon follow suit.

When I began regularly visiting the city of São Paulo and its black-oriented hair salons back in 2008, I could perceive a change was in the air. It would be a few more years before this “return to the source” movement was fully underway but it was impossible to miss this changing tide when one visited the yearly Feira Preta (Black Expo) event and later other events targeted specifically at the black population (see here or here).  

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Nowadays, all over Brazil, there is a wide variety of hairstyles that young Afro-Brazilian males are wearing

Today, you’re likely to see almost any sort hairstyle on the heads of Afro-Brazilian men. In the streets or in events targeted at the black community, you’re likely to see it all: blacks (short for black power, which is what Afro-Brazilians call the afro), braids, dreadlocks. When the film Black Panther (translated as Pantera Negra in Brazil) was released in Brazil, it became somewhat common to see black men walking the streets with the short twisties swept to the front ala the Killmonger character.

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Estêvão says that, as a child, his hair was straight. Years later when his hair began to curl up and grew it out (middle photo), he received endless criticisms suggesting that he should cut his hair

Between the years 2017 and 2019, I even began to see the late 80s/early 90s high top fade that was popular in the African-American community of the time making a slight comeback among Afro-Brazilian men in cities such as São Paulo. All in all, I would say that the famous fade, which, when the term in English isn’t used, is called the degradê, continues to be the most popular haircut these days.  

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Afro-Brazilian barbers such as Agno represent a new pride in having afro-textured hair and experimenting with a wide range of possibilities

Considering the diversity of hair textures among men and women of African descent in Brazil today, I must say that if you have an interest in gauging a culture according to its hairstyles and analyzing what these creative ‘dos say about the mentality and growing pride within the Afro-Brazilian comunity, this is an exciting time to be in Brazil. In any one city with a large Afro-Brazilian population, with all of the cuts/styles from the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, you might feel like you’te taking a hip trip back to that particular era in time in black America. 

franklinarruda
For Franklin Arruda, the question of hair is more than just aesthetic: “We are fighting for a greater cause”

Let your ‘fro grow, bro!

Few question the capillary standard pushed upon black men. With the excuse of “boa aparência” (good appearance), our culture continues to struggle its cabelos crespos (kinky/curly hair). Not by chance, we experienced a social phenomenon of black men with shaved heads

By Jarid Arraes

Although there were few black women with natural hair, they exist – mainly in the movements for the enhancement of natural hair, like Meninas Black Power, and among black beauty bloggers who strive to promote crespos femininos (feminine kinky/curly hairstyles). However, black men who have cabelos crespos are still invisible, forgotten due to Brazilian racism.

Culturally, even human hair is separated according to gender: on women, society imposes long hair, as it is supposed to be a symbol of femininity. For this reason, it is common for men to have short hair, so that they don’t fail to transmit a male image. In the case of black men, however, the required short hair goes further, since the shaved head is often the only socially acceptable alternative.

It is not by chance that few question this capillary standard pushed upon black men. With the cynical excuse of “boa aparência” (good appearance), our culture continues to struggle to hide any black characteristics. In fact, many racists believe that black features could never be beautiful and that, therefore, it is better that they be omitted.

It can be uncomfortable to be confronted about the racism of your “aesthetic preferences”. Fortunately, there are black men with long, natural hair who point out the problem. It is necessary to review opinions, because nobody is born racist. It’s not by chance that the black man with natural hair, braided or with dreads, is always portrayed as a dangerous figure, as a bandit or vagabond; throughout life we receive an enormous load of biased teachings, spread by the media, the beauty industry and even at school. The name of this is, indeed, racism.

Let your ‘fro grow!

Literature student Franklin Arruda had a very simple dream: he wanted to tie down his hair. To this end, he grew up after having access to the movimento negro (black movement) and starting to identify himself as black. Recognizing his own blackness, Arruda understood much more about his relationship with his hair and what it implies in society.

“In a way, black men have no relation to afro hair,” says Arruda. “Historical influence has its role in shortening male afro male, like it has an influence on female hair, straightening it”, he says. For him, the question is much more than aesthetic: “We are fighting for a greater cause”, he explains.

Press officer Diogo Oliveira, who also displays his beautiful natural curls, shares similar postures. He comments on the social phenomenon of meeting black men with shaved heads: “The large number of black men with very short or shaved hair is definitely a reflection of racism. We learned that nosso cabelo é ruim (our hair is bad), that our hair is ugly and that shaving is the only cutting option; at most we leave a little hair on the top of the head and shave the sides. Vanity is denied to the black man and even when there is some movement in search of recovering it, such as those designs on the head, graphics or discoloring the strands, even so these changes are seen as reasons for mockery or are marginalized.”

It is interesting that the straigthening or relaxation processes, so present in the relationship of women with their curly hair, were also part of Oliveira’s history. “I, like many black men, wore a shaved head for a long time. Before that, in childhood and adolescence, I tried to ‘fix’ my hair in different ways, such as relaxation, different cuts, hydrations, but all trying to mask my cabelo crespo, with the desire to make it straighter, more within the standards of the magazines and what was considered ‘beautiful’”, he explains.

Not by chance, Oliveira came to these reflections through female discussions about the valorization of afro hair. “My process of accepting my cabelos crespos started thanks to the feminism carried out by black women, it was by reading some authors that I understood that cabelo crespo was beautiful and that black women didn’t need to straighten it to feel more beautiful. At that time, I shaved my hair very short and, finding myself very enlightened, I tried to pass this concept on to friends who straightened their hair. That’s when I realized that shaving my head was like straightening for some people. It was the quest to be accepted, to look whiter,” he says.

Diogo also says that when he decided to let his hair grow, he had no knowledge about the texture of his strands, he didn’t know if they would be of more open or closed curls, or if they would be curly with more volume and no definition of curls. He kept his intention of having his hair grown and natural still hidden, as he was very ashamed. At the beginning, he received several criticisms and offensive comments that brought him moments of low self-esteem. Despite this, Oliveira searched the Internet for a different alternative to derogatory opinions and, through blogs and a Facebook page, found the positive representation he needed. “Today, its been almost two years without cutting my hair and the best thing is that I managed to influence some people around me to accept their curly hair as well,” he says with joy.

Gender and racism

Although long hair is considered a symbol of femininity and is not so common in men, white men with straight hair still face less hostility than black men with curly hair. For whites, there are references like musicians, artists and athletes, people they can be inspired by. “Besides, there is an undeniable appreciation of white, Eurocentric beauty. Even if a white man has curly hair and sports a black power (afro), he will be much more valued and recognized than a black man; it’s what we see with dreads, for example. When researching dreads on the internet, there is a flood of images of homens brancos com dreads (white men with dreads), all in an alternative sex symbol pose and almost no image of black men,” argues Diogo Oliveira.

For him, who is gay, this separation is even more evident. “The gay environment is a racist environment, there are gay men who openly declare that they don’t have relationships with black men and what is worrying is that this is seen in a natural and almost cultural way. There is a new fashion for parties that appropriate black culture and songs aimed at gay audiences, which are very successful and record-breaking; however, black culture is very cool, but blacks, not.”

Diogo Oliveira
Diogo Oliveira (Photo: Personal Archive)

By building the dialogue between racial and gender issues, it is still possible to identify a lot of machismo barring the capillary freedom of black men. For Franklin Arruda, this point has always been very familiar to him: “I can say that I am a great example for this. At home, my hair is seen as ugly for a man, for the simple fact that male hair is short and long hair carries a context, a machista concept. Some family members asked: ‘are you going to tie your hair down like a woman?’, as if looking like a woman were going to lower the level,” he reports. Arruda still leaves three tips for men who don’t have long, natural hair: “First, it is necessary to show that ‘looking like a woman’ is not bad, in the case of hair that looks like long female hair; second, you can have the hair you want, the hair does not define anyone; and third, understand why your hair is like it is and why you can make it big or short.”

Despite the obstacles, Diogo Oliveira is encouraged and says that things can indeed change in the direction of more acceptance and more freedom for male curly hair. “I see that some mothers and fathers started to value their children’s curly hair and this is really cool! I think the main thing is representativeness, which will take a long time to happen in major broadcasters and magazines, but it can be found on the internet and on the streets as well. On one of these days, a lady stopped me on the street and asked me for tips for her son’s hair, that is, another curly one on the street,” he celebrates.

Oliveira also shares his encouraging stance, encouraging other black men to have positive associations with their hair. “Another action I take is to always praise the hair of a brother who is in transition or who is growing out his hair. They will not value us, so we have to value ourselves, taking care of each other, but of course always demanding our space,” he says.

For black men, breaking the barriers of racism and learning to love, care for and exhibit their natural, black characteristics is something that breaks oppressive structures and propagates social transformation. “I usually say that growing my hair was a political decision, not an aesthetic one. In these two years in which I have had big hair, my relationship with black culture, with projects that value black people and also with the main problems that afflict us has become much greater. As my hair grew, I became aware of what it meant to be a young black man in our society,” says Oliveira. “It is the valorization of your beauty, your origin and your political position”.

Source: Aquilombando DFE

 

About Marques Travae 3382 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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