The Day Brenda Wanted an Afro

It was the "Black is Beautiful" '70s, and the only hairstyle her sister wanted for senior picture day was a power-to-the-people afro. 

by Valerie Lee • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

 I remember how badly my older sister, Brenda, the one with the wavy hair, wanted a power-to-the-people, 1970s afro. She begged my mother to make it happen for her senior high-school picture. So, of course, mom vowed that she would have the best ‘fro this side of Oakland, the home of the Black Panthers. 

So mom washed and set Brenda’s hair on perm rods, what we called “white girl rollers.” She wore those rods in her hair for three days straight while constantly asking my mother, “Is this going to work Mommy?” To which, my mom replied confidently, “Of course child.” But I saw the look of concern on her face. I imagined her praying to God: “Please God help me give Brenda the best afro in the world.”     

The day of the photo, my mother delicately removed each roller as if it were top-grade nitroglycerine. I’m sure she was praying for God not to let her down as each curl was freed from the roller and snapped back against Brenda’s head. Once all the rollers were out, mommy grabbed the afro pick with real metal teeth and the obligatory black-power fist and slowly approached the mop of curls in front of her. Just as the pick was about to grab that first curl, Brenda grabbed mommy’s wrist and said, “Mommy, do it right.” To which mommy replied, “I’m going to do it right Brenda. Now let go of my wrist.” 

Mommy picked that hair like there was no tomorrow. It seemed like she picked for 15 minutes, but I’m sure it wasn’t that long. I’m sure it was just the stress of watching each curl being freed and allowed to join its sibling curls in Brenda’s quest to be like all the other black girls at Stamford High School in 1971. Being Native American and black gave Brenda the appearance of a brown-skinned girl with “good hair.” The last look she wanted since everyone at some point in their lives wants to be like everyone else — especially during the intoxicating, “Black Is Beautiful” 1970’s.

The final phase of Operation Brenda’s Afro was ready to be implemented — the spraying of the hair. Mom grabbed the bottle of Afro Sheen hairspray and commenced with solidifying the masterpiece that was her eldest daughter’s afro. She sprayed, and sprayed some more, and sprayed still more sheen onto that ‘fro until the entire living room was foggy. We all held our breath until Brenda looked in the mirror. She was grinning so hard I thought she was going to break her cheeks. Obviously the goal had been achieved. Brenda had the perfect afro.    

Next step in Operation Afro: get her to the photo studio. My stepdad James pulled the car up to the backstairs, and Brenda gingerly walked down each step. She stood beside the Ford Country Squire station wagon trying to figure out if the roof was going to smash her perfect ‘fro.  Mommy assured her that she would be fine because there was so much spray on her hair that nothing was going to crush it. She slid onto the front seat as if she were in labor and made James roll all the windows up and drive so slow I had to look twice to make sure the car was moving.

When they returned from the studio, the Angela-Davis-Power-to-the-People ‘fro was gone, but Brenda was still grinning from cheek to cheek. It seems her ‘fro was perfect until three minutes after the photographer shot his last frame of film. Then it just deflated. But Brenda didn’t care because for all eternity her yearbook picture would be of her sporting an afro. My mother hugged her and looked heavenward, thanking God. 

That picture hung on my mother’s living room wall until about five years ago. When Brenda was 51, my mother had the apartment painted and liked the way the wall looked without pictures. And Brenda is still asking why it’s not up on the wall for all to see that she did indeed wear an afro for one day.

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