VanCoug Voices: “Afroman”

Racial differences are not always manifested through overt displays of outright discrimination. Austin Anderson, a junior at Washington State University Vancouver, lived his formative years as the “token black friend” of his social group. Amongst his peers, he was best known by a single physical point of fascination — his afro.

The following essay, written from Anderson’s point of view, depicts the fallacy of his perceived popularity and welcomeness to a community that accepted him based on his appearance. The underlying roots of others’ interest in Anderson lay in the fact that he was an object, something to be toted around, rather than another person.

As such, this is the viewpoint of a student who actively dealt with the repercussions of the expectations that accompanied being “the token black friend.”


“Everyone is against me,” I used to say when I was a kid. The memory of Alex, Jezkiah, Landen and I playing basketball feels as fresh as the stinging wounds I would obtain playing against them.

The gym’s open environment allowed a rough, unfair advantage, and even though they would cheat each chance they could, I still went to play with them. As a matter of fact, I would put myself through the pushes, slaps and yanks when we played just so I felt like I belonged somewhere.

At first, the three were hostile towards me. “Dude, just go away,” Alex would say, but I never did. Eventually, after enduring the worst of their aggression, they warmed up to me; even though I was still the outcast, I felt like I belonged, so I continued hanging out with them.

The only reason they had accepted me was because of my skin color. For as verbal as my friends were about it, I realized I was just “that one black guy” or the “token black person” within the group, but I embraced the fact. I used my blackness as a crutch for the next two and a half years to define who I was as a person.

The story of my development began at the end of seventh grade, when I first saw the movie “My Baby’s Daddy.” Throughout my childhood, I always wanted what I thought of as white person hair, but after the movie I was so inspired by Eddie Griffith’s afro that I began the slow and popularizing process of growing my own afro to be the hippest I could be, abiding to the piece of black culture with which I had become familiarized.

By eighth grade, I had become much more comfortable around the popular people. By then, I guess I was more accepted due to my embracing of this black culture. I began branching out to other classmates.

During the cold winter that year, I received my first pick from my old barber, at a local shop in Kelso. The pick was a chrome, glistening cake cutter. The handle was glossed over the soothing color of cocoa with golden cream highlights.

The pick — a symbol, though I was not aware of it then — was the most beautiful tool I had ever seen in my life, and it became a part of my being and soul.

I made immediate use of the pick the day after purchasing it. I experienced having a hairstyle in a circular ball illuminated in sunlight that was as soft as a newborn. After admiring my infant afro, I proceeded to put the pick in my hair, and headed off to school filled with new excitement.

The responses of my classmates rocked me.

They ranged from hollers of “I love your afro,” to the hesitant “can I touch it,” to being called “Afroman.” The wild responses to my hair inflated my ego. It made me feel as if I were somebody important in my peers’ eyes. It subsequently became an essential part of my life.

There was not a single day where you could see me not combing it out or talking about it. My classmates and the people I thought of as my best friends had a ball with it. However, there was one person who didn’t appreciate it in the slightest: my father.

“It’s time for a haircut, if yo’ grandmother saw that we would never hear the end of it,” he would say. Every day, he would make his argument about it. I grew anxious on returning home with his disapproving gaze combing over me. “Kid, you better take care of that hair better, or I’ll cut it.”

I argued, “No. It’s my hair, and I can do what I want with it!”

The highlight of my life in those days were the hours in which I attended school. My afro, the source of the outstanding attention I was receiving, was my pride and joy. As time passed and the afro grew larger, my popularity followed suit and was suddenly how I defined myself as a person.

Eventually it was long enough for me to have cornrows. My mother’s friend Tiffany would braid my hair every now and then, but I didn’t prefer it. My father, however, enjoyed it. There were times when he would force me to get it braided before going to church events.

“You’re going over to your mother’s house to braid your hair before the meeting tomorrow,” he said.

I was exceptionally stubborn, for obvious reasons. “I don’t want to get it braided!” I said.

“Your hair is a mess,” he responded. “Either get it braided or I’ll cut it. There’s no way I’ll let you go to the hall like that. The way you present yourself represents the way I look to people, and I won’t look bad.”

“I have nothing to do with how you look, and I won’t cut my hair. I don’t even want to go tomorrow. You can’t make me.”
Whenever I made my dad angry, his expression would contort into a ferocious glare. I was not allowed to deny him. So I ended up getting my cornrows done.

I went to my mom’s, where Tiffany braided my afro once again. After a couple weeks when the tension between my father and I calmed, I took them out and let my afro breathe and let my peers flock to me to admire it. Instances like this with my father continued throughout the eighth grade, but it ebbed and flowed.

Nearing the end of the year, my afro was quite imposing, nearing a diameter of six inches. A large body of the middle school students I attended with knew me now, coinciding with my skyrocketing social media presence. The amount of attention I received on a daily basis was considerable. Cute girls would actually run up, talk to me and ask for a picture with them so often that there was rarely a time I was not happy at school. I felt like a celebrity.

None of this was meant to last. In the winter of my freshman year of high school, my dad announced that he was cutting my precious locks.

“Your hair is a mess, you know the deal,” he said as he pulled out a chair in the kitchen.

“I’ve been taking care of it, though.”

“Son, you have split ends all over. I’ll only cut a couple inches.”

With that, he pulled out his ancient clippers and began buzzing. It rang in my ears, as little by little, I watched my beloved puffs fall to the floor. After about ten minutes, I felt around at my head, trying to touch the newly clipped ’do. Shocked at the air in my palm, I looked in the mirror mid-buzz and saw that my dad was cutting more than “just a couple of inches.”

“Just keep still, it has to be done,” he chastised me as I panicked. “Just stop fidgeting and let me finish.”

My eyes watered upon examining in the mirror as the last of my puffs fell to the floor. In about an hour, my afro was as big as it was when I first started, nearly three inches in diameter. It was a disappointment that I would have to come school the following Monday. I promised my friends a comeback that never happened.

About a year later, I stopped talking to most of my supposed friends from the middle school. I still had my close ones, like Alex and Landen (Jezkiah moved), but most of them vanished. I did not connect the dots until later, but even after the haircut, the friends that stuck around still viewed me as the wonderful Afroman.

I guess a person could say I grew up. Losing the afro meant the veil fell away. I will not be viewed as a token to any one person because of my embracing black culture. The inevitability of this in some circumstances reveals, to me, an issue that maybe should be considered. I have become proud of myself as a person.

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