History of African braids

Rédigé le 22/03/2024
Jujue LV

African braids and plaits carry with them an ancestral cultural heritage. Their origins date back to prehistoric times, and they have evolved to become a secret language, a tool of resistance and expression down the centuries.

As far back as prehistoric times, braids reflected a person's identity, expressing age, personality and social status, as shown by statuettes discovered wearing these hair ornaments.

Over time, they evolved into symbols of coquetry and luxury, worn by women and men alike, notably in ancient Egypt and among other African peoples.

In many African cultures, the head is considered sacred, and hair braiding plays a crucial role in defending this part of the body. Braids were often made to envelop the scalp, offering protection against external elements such as intense sun and heat, but also against scalp diseases and parasites. In this way, the practice helped maintain hair health and hygiene. A true collective workshop, it was a way of strengthening community ties.

However, with the transatlantic slave trade, African slaves were stripped of their cultural identity, including their traditional hairstyles. Their hair was often shaved off by slave traders, symbolizing violence aimed at erasing their humanity and heritage. However, hair soon became a vital survival tool for the slaves. In a remarkable act of adaptation, their braids became instruments of concealment and communication. In times of marronage, slaves hid rice and seeds in their braids to avoid starvation, but also precious objects or essential tools for escape. The braids became secret maps, enabling slaves to communicate and plan their escape from the plantations. The patterns and lines of the braids indicated the routes to be taken to minimize the risk of capture.

For many blacks, wearing braids or plaits was more than just a hairstyle. It was a way of staying in touch with their cultural heritage while asserting their independence and resistance to oppression.

Over the course of the 20th century, braids resurfaced in popular culture. The "Black is beautiful" movement in the 70s played a crucial role in the reappropriation of braids and natural hair. Worn with pride by black artists who worked to re-establish the beauty and cultural value of Afro hairstyles, these styles became emblems of independence and pride for the black community.

Yet even today, braids and afro hairstyles are still sometimes stigmatized as unprofessional or frivolous, leading to discrimination in certain professional and educational circles. Laws such as the Crown Act in the USA have been passed to combat this discrimination.

Ultimately, the story of braiding is a powerful testament to resilience, adaptation and the reaffirmation of cultural identity.

These hairstyles continue to be democratized and transcend cultural boundaries, reminding us that their importance goes far beyond mere aesthetics.