Lori L. Traps, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roosts of Black Hair in America is talking braids.
From interdisciplinary artist Shani Crowe’s captivating crown for Solange Knowles’ SNL performance last November to London-based stylist Cyndia Harvey’s filmic homage to naturalistas This Hair of Mine, the power, virtue and elegance of traditional African braiding has taken center stage. But today’s love affair with intricately braided ‘dos wasn’t always the case. Tharps, an associate professor at Temple University, sheds light on our journey of falling in and out of (and back in) love with treditional hairstyles for Black women.
Shed some light on the early origins of braids in Africa.
The earliest depiction of braids looked like cornrows and were found thousands of years ago in the region now known as Nigeria. There are ancient statues that resemble styles we currently see, such as the braided crown.
Talk about the communal aspect of traditional braiding and how we see signs of this today.
Many of the traditional styles were very intricate, and people would spend a lot of time with their braiders. Bonding and storytelling occurred during the process. This took place not only between women but also between men since traditional African societies wore hairstyles that were culturally significant.
Early braiding spoke to social identifiers such as tribal affiliation, age, religion and wealth among Africans.
People could determine familial ties by the way one’s hair was worn. Some men would wear a specific braided style when going off to war, or certain styles might signify that one was in mourning.
Cultural expression through braids was taken away from African slaves. How did this impact cultural identity among Blacks?
Once you were enslaved, there was no longer time to spend on intricate hairstyles for Black women; creating these complex styles waned because we were in survival mode. The love affair we once had with our hair would evolve into a badge of shame as White standards of beauty would be pushed upon us. But despite efforts made to rid us of our traditions, braids did not disappear.
Many people are not aware that braids played a crucial role in escape efforts for enslaved Blacks.
The path to freedom had to be subversive, and braiding was a way to do that. Escape routes were often carved into elaborate cornrow designs. Four rows might signify needing to travel four miles. Perhaps a looser braid might signify meeting at a cotton field, whereas a tighter plait might refer to a cornfield. Sometimes the owners would shave their slaves’ hair or forbid them to wear certain styles; they saw these as a form of defiance.
Discuss the evolution of braids post slavery.
Once emancipation happened and we moved into the early 1900s, people such as Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone provided tools to create “nice, neat hair.” The thinking was that if you could tame this hair and create a look that was deemed less “country,” doors would open. We were taught to “get those braids out of your head. Straighten your hair. Look polished.”
Tell us how celebrities played a role in bringing braids into popular culture.
The Black Is Beautiful movement got people into reclaiming their native Blackness. It started with loose ‘fros and wearing hair in its natural state. In the 1960s and 1970s, you saw outliers such as Nina Simone and Cicely Tyson who embraced braids. In the 1980s and 1990s, celebrities such as Janet Jackson popularized braid extensions. [We also] saw the beginning of the new Afrocentric braided ‘dos, which were creative takes on the more traditional styles.