SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Untangling the Naps: The Afro Talks Back – SVA MA Design Research

Michele Washington

Untangling the Naps: The Afro Talks Back

“They call her ‘Coffy’ and she’ll cream you!” Detail from the film poster for Coffy (1973), written and directed by Jack Hill

American International Pictures

Jet Magazine, April 1968

Such blockbuster films as ShaftCoffy and Cleopatra Jones made virtual superheroes of the men and sex-godesses-with-super-Afros.

If the 1960s was all about the transformation of Black self-identity—the  “we” generation—then the 1970s can be called the “me” generation, a time when everyone turned their attention to conspicuous consumption. At this time, the ideal of cultural authenticity engendered by the Black Power Movement had made an impact on most cultural and sociopolitical elements of Black American life, and the changes that emerged were clearly realized in the images used in advertisements, films, television programs and fashion, many of which were directed towards the new Black consumer market.


Black Magazines Support the Acceptance of the Afro

By the 1970s, just about all the Black lifestyle magazines displayed images of men, women and youngsters who wore Afros. Leading the pack was Ebony, Jet, Sepia, and The Urbanite magazines, which informed readers about the latest word on the changing lifestyles of prominent Black artists, writers, celebrities and political figures. Ebony publisher John H. Johnson realized the power of his Black middle-class readership, the kind of power that came with increased spending dollars. He also knew the power of positive visual images, and based the design and editorial content of Ebony on such popular mainstream magazines as Life and Look.

Using sophisticated images of Black people who sported an Afro, Johnson was able to plumb three entities: An allegiant Black middle-class readership; a new Black consumer market; and a nascent culture intent on changing stereotypical attitudes and discarding old cultural myths about Black people.

In the previous decades, the groups in our society that controlled both language and the media decided the “meaning” of popular visual culture. With the growing understanding of Black Power and the introduction of Black magazines into the marketplace, the control shifted to Black authorship. By the 1970s Black visual artists, writers, political activists, performers and entrepreneurs were fully defining their own visual culture, language, and signifiers.

The design and photographic direction of advertisements directed toward Black Americans would quickly change as a result of political demands for equality epitomized by the Afro. There was a sudden proliferation of hip-looking Black models wearing the latest fashions and sporting Afros. In cities heavily populated with Black people, huge billboards plastered with new images beckoned to passersby, offering goods and services that were specifically targeted to African-Americans, from hair-care products to cigarettes, to liquor and much more.

The first issue of Essence magazine featured a beautiful Black woman with a huge sculpted Afro, photographed by Tomas. The groundbreaking magazine was started by a group of Black businessmen, including Jonathan Blount, Cecil Hollingsworth, Edward Lewis and Clarence O. Smith. They came together to create a publication that would be aimed at the new, young, urban middle-class Black woman between the ages of 18 and 34. The owners convinced photographer Gordon Parks to come aboard as the editorial director, to oversee the look and editorial content. As a writer, composer and filmmaker, Parks was the embodiment of creativity, and added a kind of legitimacy to the editorial choices.

The Essence formula included chronicling the dreams and aspirations of a diverse, contemporary group of women who sought advice on everything from relationships to politics, to beauty tips. It featured dynamic photography that illustrated how these women lived and saw themselves. Essence fought hard to get White advertisers to rethink beauty, to go beyond just using Black female models paired with White women, all of them with flowing straight hair. The magazine’s creators delivered a clear message to Madison Avenue advertising executives who would need an attitude adjustment in their perception of Black beauty.


Soul Marketing Revolutionizes Nappy Hair

In the design of Black hair products in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Black advertising agencies clearly took advantage of the Black aesthetic created by the Black Arts Movement. In Chicago, Vince Cullers, of Vince Cullers Advertisements, realized the monetary value of the Black aesthetic in creating product brands. He coined the term “Soul Marketing,” which actively sought to “speak” to Black consumers.

The Vince Cullers agency created a niche-within-a-niche market with his ethnic ad campaigns and packaging for Afro Sheen hair care products. He played off of the strident words of activist Stokely Carmichael in his statement that Blacks should stop being ashamed of their broad noses, thick lips and nappy hair. Culler’s designs referenced the ideology of Black pride by featuring Blacks of varying ages and skin tones, in regal or loving contexts. Incorporating Afrocentric symbols and African languages, he created a distinct look that set Afro Sheen apart. He also used copy in both Swahili and English that read: “A beautiful new product for a beautiful new people.” This new approach attracted the attention of a growing urban middle-class community interested in embracing Black identity.

The packaging design articulates the cultural expressions of Black pride by borrowing Afrocentric icons and images. These designs incorporate a range of warm hues, including yellows and oranges—colors that mimic earth tones or the wood of African sculpture. The advertising copy slogans use Swahili words that direct the consumer to embrace their African roots. Whether written in Swahili or English, the meaning conveyed is the same: You are beautiful and confident people. The models wear the natural hairstyle as a symbol of pride, and are usually posed in positions of power—head upright, eyes looking forward. These ads not only symbolize Black pride, but also suggest to the consumer that they no longer need look to the subservient icons of the past, such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, or the Gold Dust Twins. Black consumers had already begun to lower their tolerance for these derogatory images way before Madison Avenue advertising agencies figured out that they were outdated and offensive.

Most of these ads already had limited mainstream media placement, and appeared in just a handful of Black magazines. But it is interesting to note that the new wave of advertisements seen were in fact mainly created by White Madison Avenue agencies, who rendered their own view of the savvy Black consumer. This modern marketplace mix would bring together a creative group of people who had seldom crossed paths before, and certainly never worked toward the same ends. White-owned companies were also eager to garner some of the Black consumer dollars and hair and cosmetic companies were ready to take advantage of the Afro trend. Clairol had already produced ads for hair coloring that featured Black women, so it was not such a big leap to promote specific products such as their “Hair So New” creme rinse. One ad features a cartoon illustration that depicts a woman desperately trying to comb her kinky Afro. The caption reads: “Don’t beat around the bush, get Hair So New.”


Reappropriation of the Afro in “Blaxploitation” Films and Television

The 1970s was the decade that would see the re-imaging of Blackness in films and television. A new film genre termed “Blaxploitation” (in an awkward combination of the words “Black” and “exploitation”) would spawn a bevy of films of questionable quality that played on the tragicomedy of ghetto life. The films featured a black hero who was fighting some kind of injustice, and the cinematic images in these movies highlighted newcomers such as actors Jim Kelly, Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, and Tamara Dobson, creating characters that would take on lives of their own. And like everyone else, their characters favored skin-tight leather trousers, balloon Afros and tough-talking dialogue that would disappear almost as fast as it had appeared. Such blockbuster films as Shaft, Coffy, and Cleopatra Jones, made virtual superheroes of the men and sex-goddesses-with-super-Afros.

In reviewing the genre of Blaxploitation films and their construction of Black images, it is interesting to take another look at these films, as well as the 1971 hit, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was written, directed and produced by filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who is credited with launching the independent Black film industry. British filmmaker and visual artist Isaac Julien does just that in a 2002 documentary called BaadAsssss Cinema that reconstructs the entire genre and enlists the help of Van Peebles, Roundtree, Grier and others (including filmmaker Quentin Tarantino).

Julien’s film examines the short-lived, highly commercial and surprisingly influential Blaxploitation films produced for a Black audience. In the documentary, social critic, writer and University of Mississippi professor bell hooks dissects the image of a particular character type—the black female political character often played by Grier. Professor hooks deconstructs the identity of the protagonist, Coffy, in the film of the same name. “I think that she is one of the more meaningful resistance images of a black female to come out of these films,” hooks says, “and it’s important that resistance images begin with the original Coffy film, in 1973.” She describes the 1997 movie, Jackie Brown, by Tarantino, as a “remake” of Coffy. “Tarantino has the capacity and love of the character to bring it into a new generation and time,” she says.

Ultimately, what Tarantino did was to erase all the pornography in Coffy and mold the protagonist’s identity into a multiplicity of characters that represent real women with problems, minus the gun and dagger whipping out of her Afro. But he also stripped away a lot of the political issues that were the foundation of the character.

In contrast, the Black musical variety and dance show, “Soul Train,” created by Chicago producer Don Cornelius, was quickly dubbed the “hippest trip in America.” The TV show featured young Black people who wore the latest fashions and danced to the day’s funkiest soul music. Most of them wore big Afros and were decked out in the most stylish 1970s fashions. The program became the perfect pipeline for advertising the latest Black hair care products that were flooding the beauty market. Much like the new Black magazines, the show’s commercials mainly featured African Americans, whose images prompted young viewers to replicate the hair and fashions worn by the dancers and musical guests. Eventually, Afro Sheen hair care products became the exclusive sponsor of the nationally syndicated show. One Afro Sheen commercial featured the ghost of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lectures a Black youngster about his horrible hair as he gives him a lesson in Black history. The actor playing Frederick Douglass says, “Haven’t you forgotten something?” when the young man is about to walk off-screen. The boy replies, “Say aren’t you Frederick Douglas?” To which Douglass replies, “Are you going out in the world with your hair like that?”