Hair braiding is a rite of passage for many women of color. They remember being a child, sitting for hours between the knees of their mother, grandmother or another loved one, as they painstakingly weaved together their curly hair. But braids are more than just a hairstyle, the intertwining of three strands of hair. Braiding is a practice that has always bound together people of color; it is an integral part of black culture in the past, present and future.
Text: Naomi Teekens
The braiding of hair has a rich history that spans generations and continents. In its earliest known forms on the African continent, particular styles were passed down from generation to generation by the family matriarch – from grandmother to mother, and from mother to daughter. In this way a specific hairstyle would be closely associated with a family’s identity going back to the distant past. A unique pattern of braiding served to distinguish one tribe from another, but specific styles had a further significance: they said something about the wearer’s age, religion and social position. In addition, the weaving of hair in characteristic patterns also involved a certain form of artistic skill and self-expression. Hair was not only braided, for example; it was also adorned with objects like beads, shells and fresh flowers. The variety that this created accentuated a person’s individuality within a family or tribe.
From rite of passage to the Middle passage
However, this harmonious balance between tradition and self-expression came to an end with the advent of the Atlantic triangle trade. When the enslaved Africans were brought to the unfamiliar shores of the ‘New World’, they were not only torn from their native land; they were also robbed of their traditions and rituals. In an attempt to deprive them of their humanity, dignity and culture, every link to their homeland was severed. Men were segregated from their wives and children, and members of tribes were intentionally kept apart so they could not communicate with each other. Many of the human traffickers also shaved off the enslaved women’s carefully braided hair, erasing their identity and inflicting a colonial wound, with all its attendant cruelties. Yet many women managed to survive the horrors of the Middle Passage, and despite the arduous conditions, their sense of pride in their ancestral traditions remained intact. In the ‘New World’ they grew back their hair, and the rich tradition of the African continent evolved with them in both form and meaning. On the plantations they no longer had time to create complicated hairstyles, and as a result, the enslaved women began to wear their hair in simpler, more manageable styles. In this context braids acquired a key function in the struggle for freedom. The specific patterns these women weaved their hair developed into a complex secret language that enabled the enslaved people to communicate with one another under the very noses of their masters. The number of braids could indicate, for example, the number of roads an enslaved person would have to travel down to escape slavery or to meet someone who could help them further on their way. The new patterns in their braided hair thus became a crucial instrument in their struggle and resistance, as well as a symbol for their creativity and tireless resilience.
A lost tradition
After the abolition of slavery, negative views persisted about the African tradition of braided hair. Many black women were mocked, ridiculed and discriminated against because of the traditions of their ancestors, prompting them to reject braids in favor of chemically straightened hair. In this way they tried to conform to Western standards of beauty, as it was their only chance to be treated equally. For many black women, this is not ancient history, but their daily reality. Many women of color are still looked down on due to the texture of their hair or their braids.
Ode aan de zwarte cultuur
Over the years the African tradition of braiding has increasingly become an outward expression of self-acceptance and self-love. Whether in the form of practical cornrows and Bantu knots or expertly rendered artworks like Fulani braids and Nubian twists, braided hairstyles are, down to the present day, inextricably linked to the social, political and cultural dimension of black identity. They crown the heads of the people of the African diaspora, and thus for many they are an ode to an age-old tradition with deep-rooted significance: these braids symbolize not only the resistance and unbreakable strength of women of color, but also the untamed pride and love for black culture.
Read more about Reclaiming Our Time, a show in which the diverging stories are being told by means of braiding the hair.