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The Evolution of African Braids, An Interesting History of a Timeless Style

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Braids are a timeless hairstyle that has been around for ages. African braids have a remarkable history that dates back thousands of years.

Cover - "A Queens Beauty" by Melanoidink

Throughout history, braiding has been used for a variety of purposes, including distinguishing tribes, social standing, and other societal designations, as well as mapping slave escape routes. This technique of delicately interweaving strands of hair has been passed down through centuries and has become an intrinsic element of Black and African civilizations. Braids are now utilized to commemorate and appreciate one's ancestral heritage, as well as to reflect one's individuality and style. As a result, braiding has been woven into the DNA of Black culture for decades. Braiding was more than simply a hairstyle in ancient Africa, for Black slaves, and even for most women in the African diaspora today. We essentially wear our braids to communicate with the rest of the world.

A History of African Braids

Historically, braid designs and hairstyles were used to indicate one's wealth, marital status, ethnicity, age, and religion. These distinct styles served as a means of distinguishing tribes from one another and were an essential aspect of their linguistic system. Braids' history and significance for the African Diaspora are inextricably linked to the fortitude and bodily pain of colonialism and trans-Atlantic enslavement. Hair was frequently shaved from the heads of slaves in an effort to deprive them of their identity and culture. The appropriation of these rituals from one continent resulted in the formation of new cultural traditions on another. Laws were even enacted to prohibit black women from wearing braids in public, so they had to disguise their hair and make it clear that they were not wearing braids.

As slavery endured, braids were also reported to be used to conceal grains or seeds in their hair, allowing them to eat while traveling through the Middle Passage. Once in the Americas, slaves used braids as a practical technique, such as keeping hair out of the way while working, to last a long time without needing constant maintenance, and to communicate important information, such as the path to freedom from bondage.  There was little time for sophisticated styling while women experienced the horrors of enslavement. Sunday, which provided some escape from the brutal circumstances, became the sole day for ladies to prepare their hair. Because hairstyles had to endure for long stretches of time, African-American women began to wear their hair in more simple ways. They decided to wear designs like single plaits that were easier to handle, and they utilized the oils available to them to cure them, such as kerosene.

Black people did everything they could to keep their ancestors' tradition of wearing elegantly braided fashions alive. Nonetheless, it carried with it a desire to leave behind all that reminded people of the tragedies of slavery during the Reconstruction Era following the end of The Civil War. During the Great Migration, black women began to travel to cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Because of the placement of newly freed slaves in the labor force at the time, braids quickly became linked with poverty and inferiority. They generally worked as domestic workers, one of the few employment options open to them. Plaits and cornrows were increasingly giving way to hair that was chemically straightened or pressed.

Braids' history and significance for the African Diaspora are inextricably linked to the fortitude and bodily pain of colonialism and trans-Atlantic enslavement

Black woman with African-braided hairstyle

The Rise of African Braids in Pop Culture and Their Bright Future

It wasn't until the 1960s' Black Power Movement that our perspective of African-braided hairstyles began to change. The movement validated African and black identity while rejecting the Eurocentric aesthetic framework. Black Americans were developing a strong desire to commemorate their African ancestry, and their current fashion choices reflected this. Cicely Tyson made television history in 1962 by sporting the first cornrows on the CBS show East Side, West Side. Later, she wore cornrows and a headscarf in the 1972 Depression-era film Sounder. She sported upward and crisscrossed gravity-defying strands that floated about her crown during the Oscar-nominated film's promotion. On the cover of Jet magazine, the actress wore an equally famous look.

Cecily Tyson on the cover of Jet Magazine, March 1973

More braided styles were featured in popular culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, Queen Latifah in Set It Off, and Brandy in Moesha. Beyoncé also began adopting traditional African hairstyles, such as Fulani braids in her Formation video and most recently in her Black Is King project. However, many people of color are still discriminated against in corporate environments or even in school because of the texture of their hair and/or the braid styles they use. Far too often,  black people are penalized socially or professionally for sporting braids or locs. It is crucial that everyone learns about the history of braids and understands that they are more than simply a nice fashion trend. Braids are a protective hairstyle for many people, and they have a meaningful meaning for many. Your hair is your crown: a source of strength and a symbol of the creativity that you show to the world.


Follow Your Orí

Follow Your Orí is a blog space dedicated to providing knowledge about natural hair growth, holistic health, mental and physical wellbeing, and other things that can help you live a better life. Orí, which translates to "head" in Yoruba, alludes to one's spiritual intuition and destiny. It is the reflected spark of human awareness buried inside our human essence, and as such, it is frequently personified as an Orisha, or deity in its own right. The Yoruba religion believes that through working with the Orishas to establish a balanced character or iwa-pele, one may cure themselves both spiritually and physically. When one's character is balanced, one achieves alignment with one's Orí or divine self.

Follow your Orí now and purchase Orisha Drip, our all-natural hair oil formulated to awaken your ashé. Learn more by clicking here.

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