Sheen, Mean and Clean

Black men have expressed their style and identity through their hair for centuries. From the leonine mane of Frederick Douglass, to the dipped ‘dos of the Jazz Age, to Michael Vick's braids, take a look at the brothers who have shaved, conked, cornrowed and locked their way through history.

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  • A Testament to Hair

    A Testament to Hair

    Abolitionist, editor and diplomat Frederick Douglass was nicknamed “The Lion of Anacostia.” Douglass surely embodied the moniker’s courage, but his snowy outgrowth gave him the bearing of an Old Testament prophet.

    A photo essay by Bijan C. Bayne

  • All Duked Out

    All Duked Out

    Early in life, Edward Kennedy Ellington’s sartorial flair earned him the nickname “Duke” (as in “all duked out“). The jazz noble favored a smoothed-back coif, a black version of the style worn by the first male matinee idol, Rudolph Valentino.

    Delece Smith-Barrow: Will black salons survive the recession?

  • Fly Guy

    Fly Guy

    By letting it fly, Cab Calloway—the ultimate zoot suiter—presaged the rock ‘n roll head shakes later associated with Little Richard.

  • Sweet Black Style

    Sweet Black Style

    In the 1940s and ‘50s, no man exemplified black style more than boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson. The enduring image of this King of New York is that of a handler combing his process back into place between rounds of grueling brawls.

  • Natural Stars

    Natural Stars

    Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier maintained their superstardom sans chemical additives in the 1960s.

  • "African Hair"

    "African Hair"

    Detroit Red. The street hustler-turned Black Nationalist went from “fried” as a teen to pride in his heritage. As the Nation of Islam grew, thousands of black men ceased attempting to wash, as he put it, “… Africa out of our hair …”

  • Pretty/Pride


    In 1964, during the weigh-in for his first bout with Sonny Liston, 22-year-old Cassius Clay crowed, “I got Sugar Ray with me, and we’re two pretty dancers.” Even as Clay praised the elder statesman, he went on to embrace a faith that eschewed straightened hair in favor of natural black hair and racial pride.

    Paunice Savage: Patience, prayer and “this-to-shall pass” hair specials.

  • The 'Fros of Passion

    The 'Fros of Passion

    The afro, so identified with H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and the leadership of the Black Panther Party, became a shorthand statement aimed at those who wondered why black men had “suddenly” become so angry.

  • 'Round and 'Round

    'Round and 'Round

    Billy Preston, the man who asked the musical question “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles?” had a ‘fro that certainly did. The organist who once toured as “The Fifth Beatle” sported a top that overshadowed the mops.

  • Soul Brother's Strands

    Soul Brother's Strands

    Straight, no chaser. James Brown—and his hair—was all business. Soul Brother No. 1 laid it all on the line, whether with the fines he dispensed to erring band members or the stand he took on black self-reliance. The Godfather made offers you could not refuse. And with hair like that, why would you want to?

  • Soulful Siblings

    Soulful Siblings

    The Jackson 5—Gary, Indiana’s miraculous gift to the world—came with the brown halos that framed the boy band’s faces. These bubble gum princes blew up with blown-out afros—much to the delight of a screaming nation of young admirers struggling with their own blackness.

  • Statement-Making Style

    Statement-Making Style

    In addition to raising our consciousness and introducing a genre of music to the U.S., Bob Marley’s popularity made dreadlocks a statement of both fashion and protest.

    Michel Martin: Sometimes a haircut is just a haircut.

  • Band Brother

    Band Brother

    From braids to lengthy waves, musician Rick James worked his look for all it was worth. Before his self-destructive descent, he topped charts and filled dance floors like few others.

  • Remember the Time?

    Remember the Time?

    The Twin Cities bandleader’s coif was an outrageous outgrowth of the MTV age. Like entertainers before him, Morris Day represented the revolutionary potential of music.

  • Hair-oic


    Carl Lewis’ hair was built for speed. The aerodynamic fade of the Olympic hero fit the fast pace of the Me Generation ‘80s.

  • 'Fro Hawk

    'Fro Hawk

    Self-made entertainer Mr. T rocked the mohawk in his rise from tough-guy contests to top 10 TV. His story is one more of branding than brutishness.

  • Dr. Funkenstein

    Dr. Funkenstein

    His hair was a rainbow coalition before there was a President Clinton. Band leader George Clinton exhorted us to “Paint The White House Black.” In the past election, we followed his edict.

    A’Lelia Bundles: A 5-part manifesto on hair peace. 

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    Bohemian Rhapsody

    Gifted, pensive musician Lenny Kravitz has a style all his own, from his hair to his sound.

  • Being Like Mike

    Being Like Mike

    Minimalists say “less is more.” No stylistic purveyor has been more influential than Michael Jordan. Today, mayors (e.g. New Orleans’ Ray Nagin and Washington’s Adrian Fenty), actors, models, and televangelists have come clean. Even Steve Harvey cut his meticulous taper to be like Mike. If imitation is flattery, Jordan rules.

  • Twisted Perception

    Twisted Perception

    Just as the ‘fro posed a political threat to the mainstream, more recent styles such as dreads and cornrows have come under scrutiny. In the aftermath of the infamous 2004 Pistons/Pacers brawl, America pondered the connection between ‘rows and rage. Would a largely-white fan base continue to pay big bucks to see then-cornrowed and Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick?

  • Mr. Clean

    Mr. Clean

    Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty embodies clean government. The new face of leadership and change is the product of the Michael Jordan era- stylish yet serious, efficient and inclusive.

  • Comedy King

    Comedy King

    The outspoken Steve Harvey kept every hair in place, until he came clean. Father, husband, fashion statement—he says the things most of us only hear in the barbershop.

    Yodith Dammlash: A candid look at the tangles between black women and their hair.

  • Chris Rocks

    Chris Rocks

    His place in pop culture, secured by the rants of Bill O’Reilly and a role in Crash, Luda provokes thought—like it or not.

  • AI-G


    From his tats to his recently buzzed cornrows, Allen Iverson embodies public discomfort with a hip-hop era sense of expression. The association is intriguing, given his family man status and relatively drama-free career.

  • Lock, Stock and Barrel

    Lock, Stock and Barrel

    Whether sporting locks, or a close-cropped look, rapper Busta Rhymes is an uninhibited spirit—especially in his cartoonish videos.

  • No Drama

    No Drama

    After struggling with his biracial identity as a teen, The Chief keeps a cool head when all others about him are losing theirs.

    RETURN to The Root‘s Twist on Hair. SHARE your hairstory.

Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at She manages and blogs for "Their Eyes Were Watching ..."