One of the first things you notice about someone is the hair. How people wear hair can say a lot about their politics, religion and even their health.

A photo exhibit currently on display in Seattle focuses entirely on individuals who choose to wear their hair in one type of hairstyle: the afro. This halo of high hair has gone from a symbol of black power to a fashion choice that challenges conventional ideas of beauty.

(Courtesy of Michael July)

(Courtesy of Michael July)

It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning’

The first image you see when you walk into the photo exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum is a portrait of a toddler wearing a white onesie. Lelani Lewis, the museum’s marketing director, says this is her favorite picture.

“He’s smiling so big and he has this wonderful grin, and [there’s] this lovely kinky, curly hair poking out of his head,” Lewis said. “And I think, ‘Ah, this joy!’ It’s a celebration.”

Visitors are surrounded by more than 30 large portraits of artists, students, kids, mothers and social workers all sporting some version of an afro. Most of the subjects are black, but there are also white people, as well as people from Mexico and even someone from Japan with big, poufy hair.

“It’s a light, fun exhibit, but it has a deeper meaning,” Lewis said. ” It’s celebrating natural beauty — your natural beauty and collectively — and that’s a powerful message.”

Hair as a political statement

Brooklyn-based Michael July is the photographer behind the photos, which are also featured in a hefty coffee table book titled “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair.” The title hints at the pressure African Americans and other minorities feel to conform to the standards of white beauty. According to author Ayana Byrd, it’s a message that dates back to slavery.

“African-textured hair was bad, and hair that was closer to European texture was good,” said Byrd, co-author of “Hair Story, Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”

Plantations gave birth to that perception, says Byrd. Slaves who were multi-racial as a result of plantation rape often had lighter skin and straight hair, and were usually given more opportunities.

“If you were lighter-skinned with straighter hair, you were working in the house as opposed to in the fields, and you might also have had the chance to buy your freedom or buy the freedom of someone in your family,” she said.

Michael July, left, wears his hair in dreadlocks that drape down to his waist. (Courtesy of Michael July)

Michael July, left, wears his hair in dreadlocks that drape down to his waist. (Courtesy of Michael July)

Straight hair stayed the ideal for decades, and remains favored by many even today. Even Malcolm X straightened his hair until he declared the painful, dangerous process “black self-degradation” in his autobiography.

African Americans started using their hairstyle to speak out against years of oppression in the 1960s when the afro became embraced as a symbol of black power. But there’s earlier evidence of using hair as a political statement. Black women’s magazines in the early 1900s urged women to stop straightening their hair if they didn’t want a colonized mind.

These same feelings are expressed in July’s book, which Byrd calls the first of its kind. Almost every portrait is accompanied by text written by the subject explaining why they choose to wear their hair naturally.

A passage written by Moira Griffin, a film producer in Canada, captures the emotion many express in the 443-page volume: “After a lifetime of braids, relaxers, nightmare hairdressers and one failed attempt to look like Janet Jackson, I went to natural. My hair is my statement to the world that I am free of the constraints that bind so many women to follow a trend.”

‘I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair’

July says these thoughtful, personal statements that appeared in his email box after the fun photo shoots inspired him to turn them into a book.

“When I started getting quotes back from people, it was so powerful because I didn’t realize how passionate people are about their hair. People would talk about their relationship with their parents, or about people making fun of them, or just how beautiful they felt once they let their hair grow out after being chemically processed all their lives and how liberating that was for them,” July said.

July’s photos document what is happening with the natural hair movement. It’s more acceptable than ever for people with curly hair that defies gravity to go chemical-free. Today, 60 percent of African-American women relax their hair — an all-time low since relaxers have been available, says Byrd.

“Now all of us — regardless of how we wear out hair and regardless of what race we are or where we live in the country — can now turn on music videos and see someone like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, and see books like the afro book and recognize what black people’s hair looks like. And it’s just a normal thing to think of as beautiful,” she said.

Byrd thinks it’s a shame it’s taken hundreds of years to start to embrace the beauty of something that is literally just growing out of someone’s head.

The exhibit “Afros: A Celebration Of Natural Hair” will remain in Seattle through Sept. 8.