When you look up braids, you get a long definition about the composition of a braiding pattern and women with their hair in a ponytail like Elsa had in ‘Frozen.’ But for the black community, braids are so much more than that.
Our ancestors used their braids for expression, communication, and to establish status. Over the years, the culture behind black women’s braids has been replaced with negative connotations and cultural appropriation. Today, many black women face scrutiny in the workplace because instead of braids being seen as beautiful like anyone else’s hair, they are seen as ghetto and inappropriate for a corporate setting. It is for these reasons that it is important to learn the history behind braids and to share that history with others.
The origin and history of braids dates back thousands of years. Dating back as early as 3500 BCE, the cornrow may be the oldest braiding style. A French ethnologist and his team discovered a Stone Age rock painting in the Sahara depicting a woman with cornrows feeding her child.
The earliest forms of braids in Africa were apart of fashion and cultural tradition used by women’s to indicate the clan they belonged to, their marital status or their age. Fashion came into play in their different patterns and the jewelry used to decorate their hair. Silver discs and beads are just a few of the ways African women would accentuate their hair. Braids also carried messages in most West African societies. Hair was an important piece of a complex language system, in which it communicated the identity of the person wearing the braids.
Sadly, these customs were abruptly and violently ripped away from African women when the slave trade began. As if being brutally taken from your home isn’t traumatic enough, traffickers would shave the heads of the women before they boarded the slave ships. This was a cruel and savage attempt to strip them of their pride, culture, beauty, and humanity. For those whose heads were not shaved, their braids were known to be used to hide rice or seeds in their hair in order to have food to eat on their Middle Passage journey.
As the women began working from sunup to sundown in the plantation fields, braids became more about functionality than fashion. Since Sundays were their only days off, this became the only day women could prep their hair. Although hairstyles needed to last the entire week, there was no longer time to create intricate styles and they didn’t have access to decorative pieces to adorn their hair with. African-American women began to wear their hair in more simplistic styles like single plaits that were easier to manage, and used the oils available to them, like kerosene, to condition them.
African American women used braids for another important use during slavery: a secret messaging system for slaves to communicate with one another. The enslaved used braids as a map to freedom from slavery. For example the number of plaits a woman wore could indicate how many roads to walk or where to meet someone to help them escape bondage. This was one of the most discreet ways to safely help one another without their masters or overseers finding out and violently disciplining them.
Although they held onto their traditions and passed them down for generations during slavery, after the establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation African American women wanted to be free of all degrading things having to do with slavery, including the undesirable hairstyles. After they were freed, Black women began to migrate and settle in northern cities like Chicago and New York. They usually took on jobs as domestics and braids quickly became synonymous with backwardness and undesirability. Plaits and cornrows were increasingly traded in for chemically straightened or pressed hair in order to assimilate.
Perceptions of Black hair in the United States began to shift with the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. Activists like the Black Panther Party emphasized and embrace black beauty. Many began to reject Eurocentric standards of beauty and during this time the Black community found a deep desire to honor their African roots. Braids became an expression of pride, self-acceptance, and self-love.
This allowed braiding hair in the black community to return to being social art and a rite of passage. It can take several hours to braid hair, so often times black women socialize and bond with one another while braiding and having their hair braided. The cycle of keeping this cultural practice alive takes place during this time. It begins with the elders making simple knots and braids for younger children. Then, older children watch their elders and learn from them, start practicing on younger children, and eventually learn the traditional designs. This carries on a tradition of bonding between elders and the new generation.
These moments are what makes hairstyles in the Black community so sacred and important. That is also why it is seen as offensive when other communities appropriate our hair. For so long, Black women were not able to embrace their culture and when they did they were judged and persecuted. Meanwhile, our white counterparts don’t experience the harsh judgement for their natural features because it’s always been the standard. So, it is important that other communities understand there is nothing wrong with admiration but, Black women can’t change their hair when we want to be treated fairly, so our hair has meaning.
Fortunately, black women are getting back to their roots so braids and their various forms have gained more popularity and visibility in the last few years. Braids can be found on red carpets, in shows, in commercials, and even the office. The increased efforts for inclusion and diversity throughout the United States in recent years has allowed people to embrace their cultures, instead of feeling like they have to assimilate to white customs. Of course, there is still so much work to do and nothing can replace what was ripped away from our ancestors and community hundreds of years ago on those slave ships; however, when black women can embrace their beautiful hair in all of its forms it gives us our power back so that we may share our power with the generations of little black girls to come.