The History of Afro-Pick

All Power to the People. Hank Willis Thomas, artist. 2020

In the month of February, the world was set ablaze when Tessica Brown, a Louisiana native, procured Gorilla Spray Adhesive and proceeded to stylize her straight textured hair. However, the problem wasn’t that her hair was straight, but hair, at worse steamed texturized hair, isn’t meant for chemicals made for cardboard wood. So, while think pieces ran amuck on social media and publications, the sociopolitical discussion of black hair is largely embedded towards 1960s Black is Beautiful campaign, and to a larger degree, towards the Black Afro, most importantly the symbolization of the Afro-Pick.

The Afro-Pick, which gained mainstream notoriety in the same decade, was the catalyst for African-American cultural identity in America, as they were living past the Atlantic slave trade, living past racist caricatures (i.e. Sambo, Mammy, Aunt Jemima), and living past, or as I see it, living present in scientific racism and derogative terms such as ‘Nigger’ or ‘Nigga’. In his essay of the subject of Black hair, British art historian and writer Kobena Mercer examined the scientific racism as branching out in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe when White Europeans differentiated Blacks (Brazilian, African, parts of the Caribbean) through “variations in pigmentation, skull and bone formation and hair texture among the species of ‘man’ were seized upon as signs to be identified, named, classified and ordered into a hierarchy of human worth” (Mercer, 35). The word scientific (previously italicized by my own doing) has two root origins, one in French and the other in mid-14th century, respectively: (1) “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge”; (2) “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information; assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty” (Online Etymology). When Mercer describes the science of racism, its prerogative doesn’t variate from another English definition of science, “collective human knowledge (especially that gained by systematic observation, experiment, and reasoning)”. I would like to point out the word systematic, as this is the phrase that tightly glued racism for white Europeans, which in turn integrated towards white Americans, against African slaves, Black Americans, and Freed Blacks. “White fear emanates from knowing that white privilege exists and the anxiety that it might end” (Hayes).* When the Civil War ended and Reconstruction begun, African-Americans weren’t shadowed from the horrors of white Americans, contrary to history texts, Blacks were only victimized for popular consumption (lynches, for more information look into Ida Bell Well-Barnett’s Southern Horrors). Hundred years after Civil War, the emergence of Black unity, Black spirituality, and black freedom coincided with two movements unshackling Black Americans: Black is Beautiful campaign and Black Panther Party.

Black is Beautiful, originating in Harlem, New York, coined by freelance writer Bill Allen, photographed by Kwame Brathwaite, the message of this campaign can be related to Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of returning to Africa, but instead of achieving this feat Black Americans made America their home. In the nineteen-sixties, thinking black, buying black, paying homage to Kanga cloth by decorating their housing or formalizing their attire around this East African cloth, and instead of construing hair in relaxed styles (i.e. perms) Black Americans wore natural hair. “Natural hair was a rare sight in the early 1960s, and that alone made the troupe stand out” (Ford, 65). Natural hair, consisting of dreadlocks (rooted in Afro Creole) and the Afro (derived from Afro-American), prominently entertainers Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix sporting the Afro alongside political leaders Angela Davis and her party Black Panthers, while dreadlocks usually relegated to Afro-Caribbean diaspora, more importantly with Rafastari cultural identity, with Black painter Jean-Michel Basquiat sporting the look while representing his Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage. Dreadlocks, in their long swirls which take months or possible years to acquire, “embody an interpretation of a religious, biblical injunction that forbids the cutting of hair (along the lines of its rationale among Sikhs)” (Mercer 40). The Afro, which takes months to acquire or years in terms of height, was worn as a crown “to the point where it could be assumed that the larger the Afro, the greater the degree of black ‘content’ to one’s consciousness” (Mercer 38). While Mercer said that neither hairstyle were privy to African cultures, be that Africans usually braided or weaved their hair, the sense of pride for one’s culture, negating the myth of mainstream acceptance and pledging their allegiance in building black American culture. To be held in place, the Afro needed an accessory and that was the function of the Afro pick. Standing six inch height with a width of three (at least with my pick), the pick is unlike the regular standardizer comb. A regular comb has a row of teeth, vertical slant, often small, with emphasis on combing through straight hair by its narrow teeth. An afro pick flips this myth of a regular comb and displays spaced out teeth, horizontally slant, with a fist (in some regards) as the holding centerpiece. As Roland Barthes states about myth, “myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion” (Barthes, 128).The Afro, and the Afro-pick, held political authority in the 1960s, however, in proceedings decades the Afro was phased out as other cultures commodified the hairstyle a myth for unity.

In the preceding decades, the Afro, while still in style, was commercialized and commodified as a wig for anyone with spending dollars. In other words, America changed the Afro’s political origin of Black consciousness , America changed the Afro’s political message of Black equality, America changed the Afro’s cultural roots for capitalist intentions. Mercer frankly said “anyone could wear the style” (Mercer 41). “In the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter” (Barthes, 128). When describing looking into Paris-Match’s cover of a Negro boy saluting the French flag, Barthes could’ve looked at the picture through the eyes of a myth-consumer, but he renounced “the reality of the picture” and looked towards a portion of France’s colonization of Africa. Unlike Barthes, consumers bought Afros negating the history of Afros, and ultimately, erasing the history of Afro-American, only seeing the product as the latest commodity. While the Afro pick is used for kinky children, the historical significance cannot go unnoticed, more importantly, the afro pick history cannot be erased.

Bibliography

  • “Anti-Black Imagery.” Anti-Black Imagery — Jim Crow Museum — Ferris State University, www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/antiblack/.
  • Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies, Bréal, 2009, pp. 109–156.
  • Ford, Tanisha C. “Part Three: The Grandassa Models.” Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful, Aperture, 2019, pp. 63–75.
  • Hayes, Christopher. A Colony in a Nation. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/Black Style.” New Formations, vol. 3, 1987, pp. 33–53.
  • “Science (n.).” Index, www.etymonline.com/word/science.

Journalism & Design at The New School.