Did you know there is a World Afro Day? A day of celebration when people of African heritage, all over the world, rejoice and take pride in their natural hair. Since 2017, the annual event has received official endorsement from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Now in its fourth year, World Afro Day® 2020 successfully took place on 15th September, as a virtual live event with viewers and judges tuning in from all over the diaspora including Belgium, Brazil, USA, the Caribbean, South Africa and the UK.
Though the pandemic prevented the physical staging of the show, it provided an opportunity for participants to be united globally, tackling issues of hair equality while celebrating their natural hair. The programme took the form of a global panel with international guests and culminated in the announcement of the winners of the Top Ten Model competition. The winners were children and young people, who showed off their crowning glories in all manner of natural styles and discussed their personal hair journeys. The winners were invited to become ‘Supermodels’ and enjoy a day of coaching, beauty and hair transformations delivered by international models, stylists and photographers.
The prizes included magazine features. The proud Mums and Dads were given the honour of awarding their sons or daughters goody bags on the day with gifts from various donors including Cantu, the sponsors of the event.
For Michelle De Leon, the founder of World Afro Day, the realisation of the fourth edition marked another milestone in her journey to raise awareness and end discrimination of African textured hair in public spaces, especially in schools and workplaces. Reflecting on her journey, Michelle said. “Now that the ‘crazy dream’ of a celebration day is established; the much harder work of equality has begun. We want to end hair discrimination in schools and everywhere! Anti discrimination laws are moving fast in the US but the UK is lagging behind.”
Professor Wendy Greene from the US, gave an update on the Federal C.R.O.W.N act, (an act Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). It has already been passed in 7 States. Professor Greene said the piece of legislation symbolised, ‘the end of centuries of natural hair discrimination in US’. She urged other countries to adopt the same path of ‘legislation and litigation’ to achieve equality. Since then the federal act has been passed in the House of Representatives and will progress to the Senate.
Ana Paula Medeiros from Brazil commented on how Covid 19 had particularly affected her country. It put on hold the ‘Afro Hair Pride March’ she had planned for 2020. Instead her organisation had been ‘taking care of each other ‘ and holding African hair care and headwrap workshops in the community. Medeiros explained that in Brazil, African culture had been ‘whitewashed for centuries leaving many Black people unwilling to identify with their African heritage.
Nomvuyo Treffers from South Africa recounted how an advertising campaign for Tresemme sparked uproar amongst South Africans for suggesting that natural African hair looked damaged or frizzy versus ‘’smooth’ normal Caucasian hair. The outrage forced Tresemme to apologise and the advertisement was removed.
Special guest, Dee Ann Kentish-Rogers, a former Miss Universe for Great Britain; a Commonwealth athlete, and now a practicing barrister and government minister for Anguilla, revealed that her natural hair, worn in dreadlocks had never held her back. Though she faced subtle racism. For example, she was forced to do her own hair and makeup as a beauty queen because stylists were not confident to do her hair. Ms Kentish-Rogers now uses her platform to speak out and encourage young people to embrace ‘who we are.’
This was also the message of Scottish supermodel Eunice Olumide, the catwalk coach for the young models. Inspiring them to accentuate their natural beauty, Ms Olumide urged the young people “to put on an armour of confidence and go out into the world and conquer.”
Misan Harriman, the first black photographer to have a September British Vogue front cover, talked of his experiences of putting up with dehumanising jokes and people playing with his hair as a child. Something that we can all relate to. His work to change perceptions of black people, through his images, is helping to change the narrative and inspire a new generation. “We are what we see, “ he said. “When young people see images that look like themselves, it removes the stigma and allows their self esteem to flourish.”
One of the youngest judges on the panel was Ruby Williams. At only 18, Ruby was repeatedly sent home from school for wearing Afro hairstyles. This is still a common practice in many UK schools. Yet Ruby and her family did not stay silent. They challenged the rule against natural African hair and received an out of court settlement from the Diocese. Ruby was proud to tell her ‘hair story’ of triumph and acceptance and inspire others as a judge at World Afro Day.
Co-Director Denise Chikwendu reminded the audience that the World Afro Day is an education platform, offering workshops, free resources and undertaking research on developments such as the Hair Equality Report.
But the last word went to the Founder, Michelle De Leon. She stressed that “World Afro Day was a multicultural organisation that can be celebrated throughout the year.” Though much of what has been achieved is ‘a mere drop in the ocean’, Michelle said that the ripple effects of the last four years had been far reaching – bringing empowerment to young lives and achieving greater freedom and equality for everyone.
You can still watch the free show at www.worldafrodaylive.com.