Braids Guided Our Ancestors to Freedom—They Can Bring Our Children Freedom, Too

From Colombia to Congo, braids communicated important messages for those who wore them. Here's why that history matters.

A child having her hair braided

Adobe Stock/Kindred by Parents

Growing up, many Black women have fond memories of sitting between the legs of mothers and aunties, head tilted to one side as our hair was tightly braided. It’s almost a rite of passage–sitting for hours; a sore scalp; the soothing feeling of cool gel running between the neatly parted braids at the end.

Despite being framed as nappy and unruly, Black hair has always had a definitive magic about it. The texture, the versatility, the strength–it holds so much power and significance. From locs to cornrows, Black hair is rooted in identity, tribes, and culture, and within a specific part of history, some of those hairstyles also tell stories of courageousness and resistance in the face of unimaginable duress.

When enslaved African people were kidnapped and forcibly brought to South America in the early 1500s, their hair took on an unexpected role. Having been violently torn from their roots and condemned to a life of forced labor in deplorable conditions, instinctively many enslaved people tried to escape. In Colombia, they would use their hair to create intricate braids that would communicate codes to each other regarding their surroundings. 

As maps were too risky to use, different hairstyles and braid patterns relayed different messages and routes for escaping captivity. For example, a particular braided style called “departes” (styled as thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp, and tied into buns on the top) would signal that the person wanted to escape. A river or trail was represented by a winding pattern. Bantu knots meant a mountain. Thick braids signified Spanish troops were nearby.

The braided escape routes were used in Colombia to help guide the enslaved people to a new free community called Palenque de San Basilio and the people within this community dedicated themselves to liberating others. A similar community existed in Brazil–Africans who escaped slavery established communities called Quilombo (also called Mocambo).

Some braids were even plaited in a way that would enable seeds, grains, and rice to be woven into their hair for safekeeping after escaping. This type of braiding allowed the hair to hold enough seeds to be planted in their new destination to help their community survive.

We spoke to Professor Jasmine Cobb, author of New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair, “in carrying seeds or grains like rice in their hair, women of African descent also helped bring new foodways to the Americas via the Middle Passage.”

While only oral accounts of these historical instances managed to survive the test of time and hardship, they serve as important tales of the human ingenuity of enslaved people. “I think our willingness to believe the anecdotal speaks to our collective sense that Black hair can do many things—protect us, guide our freedom pursuits. We can’t prove this idea but we still think it’s plausible (myself included),” says Professor Cobb.

Of course, the creative styling and braiding of afro hair have been part of African identities and culture long before the slave trade began. Hair was more than just choosing a style that complemented your face or outfit. For instance, in countries such as Senegal and Namibia, hairstyles were dependent on your tribe, wealth, occupation, social position, and marital status.

In Congo, Edamburu was a popular hairstyle that consisted of braids woven into a crown. In Nigeria, Koroba, a basket-shaped cornrowed hairstyle that is braided downwards from the middle on all sides, was popular among Yoruba people. These styles were unique and protective, and well-maintained hair was seen as an essential part of also maintaining a woman’s headspace spiritually.

Unfortunately, it goes without saying that Black people, especially women, have faced an exceptional level of injustice and prejudice surrounding the "taboo" of their hair. Whether in its natural afro or creatively braided, it has always been policed and politicized. As mentioned by Dr. Elizabeth Johnson in her 2013 book, "no other group of women comes close to paying such stiff prices for the choices they make regarding their hair-care compared to the historically specific conditioning of Black women since slavery.”

This has trickled down into a negative self-perception among Black children who are often judged, ridiculed, and criticized for their natural hairstyles. Despite being frequently condemned by mainstream media, it’s important to teach Black children to love their hair and not to feel forced to conform to western beauty ideals, especially at such a young age.

“Relatedly, many Black women had their heads shaved as part of sexual violence during slavery. Such abusive practices might inform a commitment to long hair among older generations of people of African descent since long hair was a signal of freedom,” highlights Professor Cobb.

Afro hair and its plethora of braided styles have a powerful history that is sadly full of violence, suffering, and loss of identity. Braids form an essential part of our ancestral past, and through understanding the context of its history, they should not be trivialized as trendy or exploited for fashion. Braided hair is a cultural and generational connection to the motherland–where ancestry has been broken with missing links in family trees, the sacred significance of braids remains.

Braids should be viewed as a form of self-expression for the Black community, a way to celebrate and take pride in the uniqueness of Black hair, its beauty, and its symbolism. This is the message that should be passed down to Black children when they find themselves questioning their hair and feeling insecure.

“I think children should learn a history of Black hair just like they learn about Civil Rights activism for example,” Professor Cobb concludes. “I think the history can help hair become a point of pride and inspire earlier acceptance and appreciation of textured hair.”

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