Braids are in now- you’ll see them on anyone; white people, black people, hispanic people, etc. Wearing braids, especially in America, has because a topic of controversy. Braids seemed to come into mainstream fashion as white women began wearing them for magazine shoots and movies, but what about their cultural significance? It seems that people enjoy the look that they get while wearing braids, but what are braids really about? Trying to understand the controversy, as a white woman, I found a documentary that laid out a lot of history behind braiding.
We’ve all seen really cool braid styles from pop-culture to just seeing people on the street. Corn rows, box braids, and french braiding techniques have become a part of our hair culture in America, the problem is, there is no emphasis on where the styles hail from and the significance of their origins.
There are documented cornrows depicted on statues from Nigeria dating back to 500 BC, and even evidence of weaves made up of different materials in ancient societies throughout West Africa. Different hairstyles represented things like social status, where your from, what tribe you were apart of, even marital status could be defined by hairstyle.
As many Africans were enslaved and brought to America, there heads were also shaved. This brought on a totally new braiding culture in America, without access to tools and time for hair care. Enslaved Africans were forced to recreate a braiding culture where they used whatever tools and materials they had access to, and whatever time they had to take care of their hair before being put back to work. Often times you only had one day out of the week to have your hair done, which meant whatever style your hair was braided in would have to last a whole week- because of this, many women began cornrowing their hair and wearing head rags.
Until the late 60s and early 70s, braids weren’t necessarily a popular hairstyle. Braids were mostly worn by black women and seen as a low-class hairstyle. Many black women, like Janet Jackson in Good Times, began wearing braids on TV. With more black representation on TV, the social acceptability of them began to rise. And with the rise of hip-hop, braids even became popular. Artists, basketball players, and schoolgirls alike were embracing braids by the 90s.
As braids became more and more stylish, people began to pick up on the trend. Kim Kardashian specifically comes to mind for me. Almost all of the Kardashian girls have been pictured wearing braids- and theres always controversy. The significance of braids is so much deeper than just a trend. Braids are a part of an ancient tradition that a lot of us have never even tried to understand. Braids in some West African cultures were a part of your identity- a statement of who you are and where you are from. When African people were brutally abused and taken from there home to be enslaved by white settlers, part of their connection to Africa and their identities were stolen. Braided hairstyles today are a representation of strength and resilience that other groups cannot claim or relate to. The appropriation of braids in American pop-culture are a great example of how whiteness sustains ignorance.