eyes on the U.S.

The Afro Is Back

A return to what is considered "natural" hair for African-American women is also showing up on Europe's top fashion runways. The afro used to be a political statement, today it's more likely a fashion statement.

Back to your (hair) roots? From activist Angela Davis to singer Erykah Badu (Bundesarchiv/Yancho Sabev)
Back to your (hair) roots? From activist Angela Davis to singer Erykah Badu (Bundesarchiv/Yancho Sabev)
Albertine Bourget

Solange Knowles is a DJ, singer, composer --and a mother. She is also Beyoncé"s sister. But lately the public has only been interested in one thing: her hair. The 26-year-old decided to start keeping her hair natural, Afro-style, rather than straightening it. It's a "transition" --that's the term used by African-Americans-- that she talked about on Oprah Winfrey's show. Since then she has become the ambassador of the "transitioning movement" for a range of beauty products for natural-style hair.

African-American women have long tried to erase their blackness. They abandoned the plaits and the braids that reminded them of the years of segregation and adopted straight, permed blow-dried hair. A flourishing cosmetics industry developed around the treatment of black hair. The return to a more natural hairdo is therefore welcomed with fascination. The topic is debated on media outlets geared towards the African-American community, with explanatory YouTube videos on how to progressively revert to your natural hair.

Opinions are split on how this movement started. Charing Ball, columnist for online magazine Madame Noire, says some credit the influence of Chris Rock's 2009 movie Good Hair that denounced black women's dependence on chemical straightening treatments. "I think it has more to do with the apogee of the "neo-soul" movement in the early 2000s, which brought forward artists opposed to those usually in black music," says Ball, citing such stars as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott or India Arie, and Maxwell for men.

"These artists rekindled the interest for natural hairdos like Afros, dreadlocks or bantu knots," says Ball. "It helped show another aspect of black life but it also made frizzy hair more culturally acceptable." The Afro haircut is still linked to the political liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and to its icon, activist Angela Davis. At the time, many followed in her steps and rejected straightening as a norm, affirming their freedom and their heritage. In the movies, Pam Grier embodied the black woman's pride. Others made their hairdo a symbol, like writer Toni Morrison. Today her thick, grey dreadlocks are an integral part of her public image, but the author of Beloved once bore a straight-up Afro.

But the return of big, free hair doesn't automatically underline a political message. The connection is being made a bit too fast, according to Brian, from the specialized website Treasured Locks. "It's more of an individual choice more than an identification with a movement," he says. "Women have become aware of the toxic ingredients in their hair products and they don't want to use them anymore. Besides, the term "natural" applies both to hair that isn't transformed as it does to hair that was straightened by the heat. There are even women who use keratin treatments and call it natural…"

An opinion shared by Charing Ball. "Before, choices were limited to the social or political message you wanted to share. In the 1980s, dreadlocks systematically classified you as a Rastafari or as another alternative movement, whereas a neater appearance made you more socially acceptable. Today, I have the feeling that there are fewer political undertones. You can get an Afro one day and straighten your hair the next without making it anything else than an aesthetic choice."

But the columnist is quick to point out the exceptions. "When Malia, the Obamas' oldest, had her hair braided, there were outraged reactions on conservative forums. Similarly, when a picture of Michelle Obama (already at the center of a controversy in France) with an Afro hairdo was published, it was hailed and admired throughout the black community, even though it was a photomontage. This shows that we are still in a country with racism and that skin color is still a polarizing theme. I would say that many women send out a political message with their return to natural hair without even being aware of it."

What about in Europe? British über-model Naomi Campbell was photographed with an Afro several times, but it was a wig. Since the 1990s, model Noémie Lenoir or German-Nigerian singer Ayo bear their frizzy hair. According to Geneviève Desclous, from the Afro 2000 African hair salon in Geneva, "everybody wants volume. Here too, many women are coming back to natural!" The reason? "Simply a return to the 1960s, which you can also see in fashion, clothes and shoes. Even Europeans are picking up on the trend and have frizzy hair during fashion shows."

Several days ago, Solange Knowles decided to dot the i's and cross the t's. Hotly criticized for the small amount of care she gave her hair, she took to Twitter to say that her own hair didn't interest her that much. The musician Erykah Badu sighed that "for a black woman, almost everything is a political choice."

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - Bundesarchiv/Yancho Sabev

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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