An afro, sometimes called a "natural" or shortened to "fro", is a hairstyle in which the hair extends out from the head like a halo, cloud or ball. This may or may not include wearing such afros long, to several times the diameter of the head. An afro requires very curly hair. For many people of African descent, an afro is the way the hair grows naturally. Anyone of any ethnic background is capable of growing an afro if they have very curly hair. For people of African descent, the spiraling, tightly coiled curls can be straightened out somewhat, giving the hair added volume and length, by first braiding the hair, then separating the coils using an "afro pick". The afro pick is an adaptation of a traditional African grooming instrument, which is essentially a narrow comb with long, widely spaced teeth. Similarly, added volume can be achieved using an afro pick in combination with the heat from a hand-held hair dryer. The effect is called a blowout afro.
The origin of this headdress dates back to the time of the Italian occupation of Eritrea, vast networks of rebels organized to resist. The traditional headdress crépue bouffante of these fighters became a model for the Afro style .
In the late nineteenth century a style similar to the Afro was worn by the Circassian beauties, sometimes known as "Moss-haired girls", exhibited by P.T. Barnum, and promoted as “the purest example of the white race” in order to attract white audiences captivated by the "exotic East" and preoccupied with issues of race.
The modern style dates to the 1960s. In 1963, actress Cicely Tyson sported cornrows or a "TWA" (a "teeny, weeny afro") in the popular network television series East Side, West Side. Jimi Hendrix became one of the first popular entertainers to have a large afro. The afro gained popularity during the late 1960s and 1970s, in connection with the growth of the Black Pride and Black Power political movements, and the emergence of blaxploitation films and disco music.
Among Blacks, afros were considered a proclamation of "Black is Beautiful!", a popular slogan of the time. They became symbols of race pride; progressive, often leftist political leanings; and militancy. In northern and western states Afros were seen popularly worn in poor neighborhoods such as Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Watts as early as 1965 and 1966. In the southern United States however, it was not a popular hairstyle until 1969 and 1970. However, during the later half of the 1970s, the style passed into the cultural mainstream and for many people became simply a fashion that sometimes even Caucasian men (and women) with looser, less curly hair adopted.
The term has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s when many prominent figures were described as sporting the hairstyle. The Los Angeles Times called college football star Scott Marcus a flower child with “golden brown hair... in ringlets around his head in what he calls a Jewish afro style”.
The New York Times in a 1971 article on Harvard’s “hairy” basketball team, wrote that Captain Brian Newmark, “hasn’t had a haircut since last May and his friends have suggested his hairdo is a first cousin to the Afro...in the case of the Jewish Junior from Brooklyn, though, the bushy dark hair that is piled high on his head has been called an Isro." Novelist Judith Rossner was described in a Chicago Tribune profile as the “grown-up Wunderkind with an open, oval face framed by a Jewish Afro.
Heeb Magazine, an irreverent Jewish review, published a photo-spread on the "Jewfro" in its first issue and cited Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan as precursors of the style. Other examples of people who have had Jewfro style hair are Art Garfunkel, Brad Delson, and Adam Brody.
Today afros are used in popular culture for comedic effect, especially in comedies from the '90s era due to their unique dimensions. A common joke involves the hiding of objects in the person's hair. In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood, for instance, a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his afro; this scene is a satire of a similar scene in the blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown, in which Pam Grier hides a revolver in her afro. Another Grier film, Coffy (1973) depicted a scene where she plants razor blades in her afro before a catfight scene. One character in the late-1970's The Super Globetrotters animated cartoon series retrieved absurdly large objects from his afro, including the proverbial kitchen sink.
Another kind of afro joke is seen in a '70s flashback sequence of the Leslie Nielsen comedy Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, where Nordberg (played by O.J. Simpson) sports an afro so large that he's unable to walk through a door. One of Victoria Principal's films (Earthquake) featured her character in an "afro", and the James Bond film Moonraker depicted a scene with a member of Drax's master race sporting an "afro". The Scarface remake (1983) featured Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with an Afro. Afros often pop up in anime with characters such as Nabeshin and Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, both of whom seemingly derive mystical powers from their afros. In One Piece, Monkey D. Luffy sports an Afro during his fight with Foxy the Silver Fox. Also the character Brook sports an afro and greatly treasures it. Additionally, Noboru Yamaguchi of the series Cromartie High School sports an afro which seems to change in size and consistency during a scene. This kind of haircut also appears in the anime Sgt. Frog as the main focus of the first ending theme song. Afro Samurai is also a more recent show (adapted from a manga series), notably voiced by famous American actor Samuel L. Jackson.
The first series of UK TV programme Trigger Happy TV often featured a sketch in which Dom Joly wore a ridiculously large afro wig and then stood in such a way that the wig would obscure a member of the public's view of something—London landmarks such as the Palace of Westminster were often chosen. The sketch was also performed in a cinema, where Joly entered and sat in front of someone; making them unable to see the screen. The person was then seen to move to a seat in front of Joly, apparently complaining whilst doing so. As soon as the person sat down, Joly removed the wig to cause further annoyance.