The Rich History of Braids
Braiding has been weaved into the DNA of Black culture for generations. For many Black women, getting their hair braided serves as a right of passage. Countless Saturdays have been spent by young girls sitting nestled between their mother’s legs watching movies, as curls transformed into beautiful braids. And we all know how crucial finding a great braider is for all of our exquisite braiding, twists, and lock styles. While braids may have gained more popularity and visibility in recent years, the style has a rich history spanning generations and continents.
Braids have been utilized for thousands of years around the world, dating back as early as 3500 BCE. The cornrow specifically 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. Another Nigerian clay sculpture from 500 BCE showed a figure from the Nok civilization with cornrows etched onto its head. Certain looks and styles could indicate the clan you belonged to, religion, marital status, or age. Hairstyles would be passed down through the matriarchs of each generation.
In order to understand the history of braids and Black American hair culture specifically, it is necessary to look at the impact of slavery on African women. Slavery brought not only physical and psychological trauma, but it also brought erasure. In an attempt to strip them of their humanity and culture, traffickers would shave the heads of women. Colonizers effectively attempted to take away the women’s lifeline to their homeland. Braids were also 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 women endured the hardships of slavery, there was no longer time to create intricate styles. Sunday, which offered somewhat of a relief from the harsh conditions, became the only day women could prep their hair. Since hairstyles needed to last the entire week, African-American women began to wear their hair in more simplistic styles. They chose to wear styles like single plaits that were easier to manage, and used the oils available to them, like kerosene, to condition them.
Remarkably, Black women used braids for another important use: a secret messaging system for slaves to communicate with one another. People used braids as a map to freedom. For example the number of plaits worn could indicate how many roads to walk or where to meet someone to help them escape bondage. Similarly in the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba. Hair was an important piece of a complex language system, in which it communicated the identity of the person wearing the braids.
African-American women did everything they could to hold on to their ancestral tradition of wearing intricately braided styles. Nevertheless, when Emancipation took place in 1865, it brought along a desire to leave all things which recalled the horrific time of slavery behind. During the Great Migration, Black women began to migrate and flock to cities like Chicago and New York. They usually took on jobs as domestics, one of the few positions open to them. But braids quickly became synonymous with backwardness. Plaits and cornrows were increasingly traded in for chemically straightened or pressed hair.
Perceptions of hair began to shift with the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. With it came the affirmation of Black people and the rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty. During this time a deep desire developed to honor African roots, and the styles came to reflect that. Braids became an expression of self-acceptance and self-love. Cicely Tyson was famously known for wearing the first cornrows on television in 1962 on the CBS series East Side, West Side. More recently in the 90s and early 2000s more braided styles were seen in mainstream media with Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, Queen Latifah in Set It Off and Brandy in Moesha. According to celebrity hairstylist Vernon François, braids reached new heights during this time. Alicia Keys’ look solidified this notion, showing that you could be a successful artists with braids. Beyoncé later also began donning traditional African hairstyles like in her Formation video wearing Fulani braids, and most recently in her Black Is King project.
Hair braiding trends have come full circle with the re-emergence of various protective styles popular to various African tribes such as Bantu Knots and Fulani braids. In spite of the history Black people have endured, braids have consistently been an inseparable part of Black history. They have carried on from Africa, to southern plantations, to the inner-cites of the North, and beyond until today where Black women continue to proudly wear and reclaim the hairstyle of their ancestors.