History of African Hair Braiding
African hair sculpture is what they call it in Africa and to them it is an art. Africans hardly ever leave their hair or their body plain it is all about “natural” state. Africans spend lots of time and energy on grooming and self-admiration. Sounds like it’s the same way there as it is here because I love to “groom.” Ha ha. Even looking at youth today in the African-American community they express themselves just as they feel. Anyway, Africans did spend a lot of time on their hair and looks but special attention to their hair. The “art” of hairdressing was practiced mostly for women and male hairdressers can hardly be found. The skill of hairdressing has been handed down from generation to generation and requires artistry, manual dexterity, and patience because many of their styles are elaborate and time-consuming. For most African women hair is a medium for creative self-expression.
Now their hair is styled for many different reasons. In some parts of Africa, hairstyles help to determine age, in others ceremonial occasions are marked by special styles. The design and construction of hair depends on different factors, some hair styles may need sisal, clay, the bark of trees, or cloth pads; in other cases it could involve intricate knitting, braiding, and threading of the hair. The most complex styles can take up to several hours and sometimes even days. That’s true here also and we got it from them. The slave master’s wife’s would watch the women braid the kids and each other’s hair and would want their hair to be the same as theirs because the styles were so beautiful. Anyway, they found that you could find complex styles only in the interior of the continent where people still live “primitive” and they have time for all that stuff. In urban areas, the styles are simpler where they have adopted western styles.
OK, if you draw a line running from Dakar, Senegal in the west and to Khartoum, Sudan in the east you will see that to the north of the line live the light-skinned, straight-haired Hamites and Semites of North Africa. These would have been the so called “house slaves” or could even be passed of as being white in some cases. Around the dividing line, the people would have been brown-skinned and would have had curly hair because of Semite or Hamite intermixtures. They were in the middle of everything, they were not house slaves and not in the field just there, but doing work nonetheless. South of the line live the dark-skinned, kinky-haired members of the black race. Each region has it’s own traditional styles, and each group of people has it’s own code of aesthetics, which distinguishes it among the multitude of ethnic groups in Africa.
Hieroglyphs and sculptures illustrate the attention Africans have paid to their hair for thousands of years. Some of the earliest Nok and Benin busts from Nigeria show intricate hairstyles. Men and women from all levels of society wore their hair to indicate their place of birth, material status, occupation and wealth. Religious vows, significant events, and symbols could be represented in braid work. In addition to creating a great do, the stylist also transmitted cultural values.
Flamboyant hair sculptures are in the evidence today in African cultural groups. Women from diverse areas of the continent have a common technique of wrapping a section of hair with thick thread from the scalp to the hair ends, which can be made to stand up straight or can be worn down, framing the face. The wrapped sections of hair can be coiled and attached to each other with more thread, yielding very intricate creations suited for special occasions.
Stylistic considerations have become blurred across the boundaries of geography, ethnicity, gender, and time, but contemporary African-inspired hairstyles continue to demonstrate techniques and aesthetics from ancient times. This art survived the middle Passage, the time when slave trading was in full force. Braiding and hair wrapping have been practiced in their most basic forms for as long as there have been African-Americans, nearly five hundred years.
Little girls received their first simple pigtails or braids by their mom or their grandmother. Brushing, oiling, and braiding the hair helped it to grow. Even with the invention of the straitening comb in the early 1900s, little girls had their hair braided with bangs, barrettes, ribbons, or clothespins. Only on Sundays or special occasions did the younger girls wear their hair loose and curled with hot curlers. These hairstyles require daily maintenance unsuited to the activities and schedules of the kid or the parents. (That is exactly how it is at my house. When I was a child my mom always kept my hair braided and now my sisters hair is always braided up so it wont take extra time to get ready in the morning.)
A rebirth of cultural awareness among African-Americans, starting in the 1960s, resulted in the gradual acceptance of cornrows, which filled in for the Afro as a stylish expression of identification with the “Motherland.” The braiding technique was named for neatly planted rows of corn. Cottage industries prospered as African-American women who had been practicing met an increasing demand for the convenient and versatile coiffure. Professional stylists introduced innovations based on old techniques. Variations included extensions-synthetic or human hair woven into the hair top to give it a longer appearance and so you could wear beads. Black print media, especially Essence magazine, acted as cultural agents for the dissemination of creative new braided looks. Television helped performers such as Stevie Wonder gain renown for their elaborate cornrows as well as their artistic achievements.
Now Dreadlocks is the last thing im going to talk about. Dreadlocks are NOT new. This hairstyle is possibly as old as the existence of Africans. Sculptural renderings of some of the Egyptian pharaohs seem to indicate they had dreads in their hair. Rastafarians did not adopt the style to start a new trend; based on a Nazirite vow they have declared to never let a comb or scissors to touch their locks. While the style is sported by some of the ultimate black self-affirmation, and even some whites have successfully adopted it, general acceptance was slow coming and is just now becoming popular here in the U.S.
After reading books on my ancestors I have a deeper understanding of where I come from and that the hairstyles from back then are the same but different. They are the same because people still wrap their hair, braid it up and have dreads. It is different because they are not the same styles per say, their styles back in Africa were all about who they were. Nevertheless, I guess if they saw ours, they would wonder why they are so plain as our upbringing is who we are today in a culture we live in that is not our own. Anyway we are finding our way and teaching ourselves what we have as a culture just looking back.
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