Why did slaves wear braids?

For decades, braiding has been woven into the fabric of Black culture. Braiding one's hair is a rite of passage for many Black women. Numerous Saturdays have been spent little girls snuggled between their mother's knees, watching movies, and seeing their curls transform into lovely braids. And we are all aware of how critical it is to find an excellent braider for all of our delicate braiding, twisting, and locking styles. While braided wigs have increased in popularity and prominence in recent years, the style dates back generations and countries.


Braids have been used on a global scale for thousands of years, extending all the way back to 3500 BCE. Cornrow braiding, in particular, may be the oldest braiding style. A French ethnologist and his crew unearthed a Stone Age rock artwork of a mother with cornrows feeding her infant in the Sahara. Another 500 BCE Nigerian clay sculpture depicted a Nok civilization figure with cornrows engraved on its head. Certain appearances and mannerisms may reflect your clan affiliation, religion, marital status, or age. Hairstyles were passed down through each generation's matriarchs.


To comprehend the history of braids and, more especially, Black American hair culture, it is crucial to examine the influence of slavery on African women. Slavery not only resulted in physical and psychological anguish but also in erasure. Women's heads were shaved in an attempt to deprive them of their humanity and culture by traffickers. Colonizers successfully aimed to cut off women's connection to their origin.


Braids were also used to conceal rice or seeds in their hair during their Middle Passage voyage. As women experienced the rigors of slavery, they lacked the time necessary to develop sophisticated styles. Sunday, which provided some respite from the oppressive temperatures, became the only day on which women could prep their hair. Due to the requirement that hairstyles last an entire week, African-American women began wearing their hair in more basic designs. They opted for easier-to-manage designs such as single plaits and maintained their hair with locally accessible oils such as kerosene.



Interestingly, Black women employed braids for another critical purpose: as a covert communications system for slaves to communicate with one another. Braided wigs served as a road map to liberty. For instance, the number of plaits worn may represent the number of roads to traverse or the location of someone who can assist them in escaping bondage. Similarly, hair served as a messenger in the early fifteenth century in the majority of West African societies, including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba. Hair was a critical component of a complex linguistic system, as it transmitted the wearer's identity.


African-American women made every effort to maintain their ancestors' heritage of beautifully braided hairstyles. Nonetheless, when Emancipation occurred in 1865, it brought with it a determination to abandon all relics of the heinous time of slavery. Black women began migrating and congregating in places such as Chicago and New York during the Great Migration. They typically worked as domestics, one of the few positions available to them. However, braids quickly began to be associated with backwardness. Increasingly, plaits and cornrows were being replaced by chemically straightened or pressed hair.







Hair perceptions began to evolve in the 1960s with the Black Power Movement. It brought affirmation for Black people and a rejection of Eurocentric beauty norms. During this historical period, a strong desire to recognize African heritage developed, and the styles evolved to reflect this. Braids evolved into a means of expressing 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 braided styles were seen in mainstream culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, with Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, Queen Latifah in Set It Off, and Brandy in Moesha.


Knotless braided wigs achieved new heights during this time period, according to celebrity hairstylist Vernon François. Alicia Keys' appearance reinforced this concept, demonstrating that one can be a famous performer while wearing 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.


With the resurgence of numerous protective designs popular among many African tribes, such as Bantu Knots and Fulani braids, hair braiding trends have come full circle. Regardless of the hardships, Black people have faced throughout history, braids have remained an intrinsic element of Black culture. They have carried on from Africa to southern plantations, to the inner-cities of the North, and beyond until today, where Black women continue to proudly wear and reclaim the hairstyle of their ancestors.


Braids remain a popular style choice for many Black folks. From knotless braids, which we like for their painless and long-lasting beauty, to Black guys sporting cornrows and reviving the '90s and '00s, braids preserve our hair from the scorching heat and bitter cold. With the ongoing pandemic, many of us rely on braids to avoid daily hair manipulation, which causes more damage and undue stress to our tresses. Pregnant Black women are well-known for braiding their hair weeks before giving birth. On the first day of school, little Black girls sport their braids. While dominant culture continues to stigmatize braided wigs and cultural hairstyles as untidy, Black people embrace the beauty and agility of our braids wholeheartedly. Braids are suitable for every occasion.





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