Braids: A Brief Cultural History

Growing up in Senegal, my hair was always braided. It was a part of life as much as weaving, family meals, and tea ceremonies. I never thought about braiding as something with cultural significance until I came to America, where the tradition has a long and tumultuous history. Slave traders shaved the heads of men and women as one of the many ways of dehumanizing people. Then later, braids were branded as "unsophisticated." Cornrows and locks have been the subject of several disputes in American workplaces and universities, with some employers and educational institutions banning them in the past, sometimes even terminating employees who didn't comply.

In Senegal and throughout Africa, though, braids have never been controversial. Historically, various tribes braided their hair to signify their background, geographic origin, social status, age, marital status, and a host of other things. Different tribes are known for their unique braiding styles and meaning, some with shells, beads, or coins adorning their locks and others with intricate designs that communicate messages to other tribes.

The significance of braiding in Africa is deeply rooted in tradition. When it is time to braid hair, women come together and spent hours bonding over that shared experience. We love spending that time together, visiting, laughing, and listening to stories about our heritage as those we love twisted and turned our hair into beautiful styles. It is a time to appreciate being a woman and pass on traditions that are as old as time — weaving together the past, present, and future. How fitting is it that hair braiding is a tradition so strong that not even slavery destroyed it throughout the diaspora? It reminds me of one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite poems. "Deep roots are not reached by the frost." J.R.R Tolkien⁠

 Photo by Mousso Paris