When African peoples were brutally kidnapped and arrived in unfamiliar lands in 1619, they were stripped of their traditional garb, practices and rituals unique to their ethnic groups. The theft of these customs from one continent evolved into new cultural traditions on another.
Hair braiding has a long history of innovation and adaption in Black America. Because of this, it’s pertinent that white people not only understand that cornrows are not just a pop culture fad but they must come to realize how deep the roots of hair braiding is in the Black community.
Black hair has been ridiculed, mocked, discriminated against, and policed since the first colonizers arrived on the continent of Africa. When we talk about the cultural appropriation of our braided hairstyles, whether its boxer braids or Bo Derek braids, we are simply pointing out the historical context and ancestral significance that comes with our hairstyles.
Black hair isn’t a trend as soon as it’s on a white head.
Our hair is our crown: a source of strength and a symbol of the creativity that we show to the world. Braiding wasn’t just a hairstyle in ancient Africa, to Black slaves or even to women in the African diaspora today. We quite literally use our braids to communicate with the world.
Here’s a brief history of how braided hairstyles adapted over time and contributed to a new culture in early America.
Various tribes throughout the continent of Africa had unique braiding styles to set them apart. From warriors and kings in Ethiopia to young women coming of age in West Africa, braided styles were significant to where you came from and where you were going in life, according to the book entitled Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps.
In this book, they describe the primary reason behind braiding patterns in Africa, especially West Africa, and how different braids were an indicator of particular regions:
“In the early fifteenth century, hair functioned as a carrier of messages in most West African societies. The citizens of these societies- including the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba-were the people who filled the slave ships that sailed to the ‘New World.’ Within these cultures, hair was an integral part of a complex language system. Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community. In some cultures, a person’s surname could be ascertained simply by examining the hair because each clan had its own unique hairstyle. The hairstyle also served as an indicator of a person’s geographic origins.”
“One of the first things the slave traders did to their new cargo was shave their heads if they had not already been shorn by their captors,” Byrd and Tharps explain. “Presumably the slave traders shaved the heads of their new slaves for what they considered sanitary reasons, but the effect was much more insidious. The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair… Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel.”
In order to further dehumanize and dictate the practices that slaves were forced to endure, laws were set in place around colonized regions in the states and the islands in order to strip slaves of their cultural traditions they were accustomed to before arriving in the New World.
The Tignon Laws in Louisiana were created in order to enforce the false narrative that Black women were a threat to White women’s status, constantly seducing White men and disrupting the social order. Charles III of Spain demanded the colonial governor of Louisiana, Don Esteban Miró, establish order in the streets of Louisiana after seeing Creole women wearing elaborate hairstyles, embellishing their braids with jewels and feathers, much like we do today.
According to Vice, in 1786, the governor of Louisiana introduced the Edict of Good Government, or the Tignon Laws, that “prohibited Creole women of color from displaying ‘excessive attention to dress’ in the streets of New Orleans.” They were then forced to wear a tignon, a.k.a. a headscarf, to conceal their hair and make it known that they were slaves.
In the era of slavery, braiding also shifted from intricate designs to practical plats due to the lack of both time and proper tools. The term “cornrows” was introduced as slaves created the term because the hairstyles looked like corn on a field. Cornrows were also a sign of resistance as Emma Dabiri describes in her book, Don’t Touch My Hair, that slaves hid signals and maps in plain sight of the slaveholders in their braided hairstyles.
According to Know Your Caribbean on Instagram, braids were also used in order to hide rice or seeds into their hair before their Middle Passage journey.
With the re-emergence of various protective styles in recent years, hair-braiding trends have come full circle and popular styles specific to various African tribes, such as bantu knots or Fulani braids, are being fully embraced by Black girls everywhere.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, America experienced its first natural hair movement when the Black Power Movement started to rock picked out afros as well as cornrows in an effort to reject the Euro-centric beauty standards, as Emma Dabiri wrote. Cicely Tyson is famously known as rocking the first cornrows on television on the CBS series East Side, West Side in 1962. Slowly but surely, Black people in America began to embrace their roots and braids were no longer seen as an “unsophisticated” style. Then the '90s and early 2000s brought us braided styles being celebrated in mainstream media: from Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice to Queen Latifah in Set It Off to Brandy in Moesha.
Even though there are laws being passed in order to protect us from discriminatory practices concerning our hairstyles, Black people still have to deal with the imitation, appropriation and lack of understanding coming from white people who chose to ignore the constant alienation and otherness that Black people have felt when it comes to our natural hair and protective styles over centuries.
Dr. Tia Tyree, a professor of communications at Howard University, is a media scholar who focuses on images of Black women in mainstream media. Dr. Tyree exclusively told BET why it's so frustrating when Black women's appropriation claims are brushed off by White perpetrators.
"Throughout history, Black women have struggled to be respected and have worked to create spaces in our lives where we can show who we are and what we can do. Some of this involves how we showcase our beauty, including braiding our hair and creating certain styles. So, it is very difficult for Black women to sit quietly when we see others taking from what we have worked so hard to accomplish or minimizing what we have done, merely for their personal or commercial gain. For some, it may seem frivolous, but for Black women, understanding our plight in the United States means understanding our need to be protective of who we are and what we do."
When White people simply adopt our hair as a trend and refuse to take on any guilt, we remember when the LA Times said that White celebrities like Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne had moved cornrows “from urban, hip-hop to chic and edgy,” stating that cornrows had to be “on the right person with the right clothing.” The problem with crediting White women for braided hair trends is reiterating the fact that our culture is “ghetto” or “urban” until a White girl decides to adopt it. This not only ignores the years of tradition and then trauma associated with braided hairstyles, but it continues the cycle of discrediting Black people for trends that White people decide are worth imitating, or as Emma Dabiri puts it, “The appropriation of Black hairstyles behaves as a microcosm for the continued extraction of resources, both cultural and physical, from African people. Sometimes it can feel as though black people are not allowed to keep anything.”
In 2019, the media is flooded with positive imagery of Black women embracing our hair practices as a norm as opposed to a taboo and, to Dr. Tyree, this is a step in the right direction.
"There are more opportunities for our stories to be told, and thankfully, we have more Black women in positions to not only impact what happens behind and in front of the screen, but in the entire media industry. Whether it is Issa Rae wearing her natural hair and braids on HBO's 'Insecure,' Beyoncé choosing to wear finger wave braids while walking the red carpet for the 'Lion King' premiere or one of 'Real Housewives' allowing a camera crew to film her in a nightcap, it is about Black women showing and celebrating their true selves, and letting the world accept them for who they are. There should be no more free passes for disrespect and misunderstanding in 2019. We must get past it, and Black women can surely be the ones to help the world do it. "
Editor's note: Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
(Photos from Left to Right: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)