In the '60s and '70s the Afro was a symbol of black pride, a confident identification with an African heritage and a glorious awareness that Black was Beautiful.

Wearing the Afro epitomized breaking away from feelings of inferiority. The Afro saved my sanity.

I think I share a hair history with many black women. From the day the first strand of tightly curled (nappy, kinky, bushy) hair appeared on my head, I was taught that hair was good if it was long and straight, bad if it didn't grow, and that my kinky hair wasn't acceptable in its natural state.

Like a lot of blacks, I inherited a legacy of shame for African features that both the dominant culture and my own race perpetuated. I accepted the ritual of Dixie Peach and let the straightening comb take me as far away from the Motherland as hot steel could.

Keeping my hair straight took vigilance; humidity and rain were mortal enemies. During my adolescence when the heat from parties made my locks take a quick trip back to the Gold Coast, I wasted many a dance combing frantically in the bathroom. It was crowded in there as black girls tugged combs through a tough trail of African bush.

"Honey, (yank) you got (yank) a scarf (yank)?" The Sisters knew that nappy hair was to be covered or apologized for, never to be proud of.

The Afro, with its cry of "Black is Beautiful" unlocked my cell; for me it represented a joyful, self-affirming philosophy. For the first time, I felt good about my hair. At parties the bathrooms were filled with Sisters who weren't there to fight with Mother Nature, but were busy fluffing up their 'fros and grinning in the mirror.

Instead of bemoaning short hair, black women took voluntary trips to the barbershop. "One inch all over and a V in the back, Brother."

I knew women with naturally straight or curly hair, once the envy of the race, who washed their hair in Ajax and vinegar to make it kink.

Not all black women, of course, adopted the Afro, or identified with it. (My grandmother offered me half of her Social Security checks for a year if I would go to the hairdresser.) But enough women wore the symbol to make a big dent in the inferiority complex that affected so many. And I sure did my part to spread the good news. At one point, half of my body weight was nappy hair.

I began to take the symbol just as seriously as I took the shame. "Sister," I'd say to anyone who'd listen, "why are you still frying your hair? Embrace your true identity." I even harassed my own grandmother, who got in the habit of humming religious music whenever I came around.

I was extremely black and beautiful.

But then, somewhere between Stokely Carmichael's raised fist and the mass-marketing of Afro wigs, the hairdo made a transition. It became a style with blow-out kits and Afro Sheen to keep it fashionable. The day I passed a wig store and saw my symbol on sale for $29.95, I felt like a feminist walking into a wet T-shirt contest.

As a symbol, I reasoned, the Afro was a powerful expression of black solidarity. As a style, it seemed weak and frivolous. Other purists echoed my sentiments, warning me that black pride was slated for extinction. But little by little, I began to realize that the Afro--even as a style--was positive.

Upholding a symbol can weigh down even the truly committed; a style doesn't need a standard-bearer. When "wan-too-wazuri, use Afro Sheen" started playing on the radio, I packed up my soapbox. My true friends came back. I'd felt it my duty to persuade people to adopt a symbol, but not a hairstyle.

When my grandmother started giving me compliments on my hair, I realized that it didn't make any difference whether people started feeling good about themselves with the vanguard, or with the fashion followers.

The symbol had been radical and intense; it had to be. But no group can depend on a symbol to represent -- forever--its original philosophy; a stylized version is inevitable. The only way to end my schizophrenic preoccupation with hair, I decided, was to internalize what the Afro meant to me and move on to some of life's other problems.

Meanwhile, I've begun straightening my hair again, and I'm not alone. "Whatever happened to black pride?" is the question being raised by some dismayed blacks.

I had to ask myself where I was coming from when I plunked down $40 to have a chemistry kit subdue my naps. Being nosey, I questioned black women going through the same transition.

"I just got tired of looking the same old way. I needed a change," said one. "When I get tired of this, I'll wear it natural again."

From another: "Black women have the most versatile hair in the world. We can wear it kinky, straight, curly, braided, or in dreadlocks and look good. Why shouldn't we do it all? This is our time."

During the summer, several women I know cut off their straightened hair and wore it natural, saying that style made sense in Washington's humidity. I see black women wearing their hair natural or processed and feeling good about themselves in a casual, normal way that never would have been possible if the Afro hadn't been a symbol. Or if it still were.

When I was 8, I got my first Afro by accident, the result of a friendly game of "barber." When my grandmother saw my shortened locks, she swooned. Then she did what any sensible black woman who knows the value of shoulder-length plaits would have done. "Girrrlll, don't you ever (whack) let anybody (whack) cut your hair (whack) . . . "

There were no Shirley Temple curls that Easter. For the next year I had a daily scalp massage in some sulfuric hair-grow concoction and I lost a lot of friends. Back in '58, one inch of kinky hair wasn't symbolic or a style. It was unfortunate.

While beauty will forever be in the eye of the beholder, black people's eyes are a lot less jaundiced these days. All praise to the symbol.

Recently, my grandmother suggested that I cut my daughter's hair and style it in "a nice little 'fro." Thank God for the style.

Hair is never going to drive me crazy again. Sometimes I wake up feeling nappy, some days straight. After all these years, I've finally gotten to the point where my crowning glory isn't my shame or my symbol. But my choice.