From tribal lineage to class status and individual style, braids have been a fundamental aspect of Black culture for centuries. But the care and keeping of these luscious locks is no small feat.
The maintenance of Black hair is a rewarding yet sacrificial ritual in the lives of Black people. Black hair not only exists in the shape it grows, but it also has the ability to mold into some of the most complex of hairstyles.
Box braids, characterized by their rectangular shape, are a staple style for many Black girls during the summer months. The prevalence of braids is not by accident—the hairstyle has roots that date back 5,000 years. In “Respect Our Roots: A Brief History Of Our Braids,” an article from essence.com, the discovery of stone paintings dated thousands of years ago, depict women with cornrows in North Africa. This reflects more than just a hairstyle choice. Braids were a symbol of status; the hours-long process could only be afforded by the wealthiest women. Along with status, braids signified tribal roots. Specific braiding patterns were often associated with certain clans.
The artistry that braids reflected was soon taken away by the bondage of slavery. Enslaved Black women could no longer afford the luxury of time needed for intricate braiding patterns. Instead, braids became an aspect of survival. They were often simple and installed to last at least a week to decrease maintenance time. The Washington Post reported that braiding patterns served as simple maps and to relay messages. “To signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes.” This transition from creative expression to a means of survival deepened the cultural significance of braids.
After the emancipation of slaves in 1863, braids became a reminder of an enslaved past. They soon developed a reputation of being unkempt or dirty, so Black woman opted to chemically straighten their hair in attempts to assimilate in the face of racist beauty standards. This look maintained its dominance until as late as the 1960s. However, shifts in pop culture and an overall heightened embracement of Black hair allowed for the re-popularization of braiding styles.
In the early 2000s, white women began appropriating various braiding styles. The style that was oppressed for centuries was now being worn and praised by its oppressors. As cultural appropriation becomes a more prevalent topic of discussion, the cultural significance of Black hair as a whole is more understood.
Box braids remain a generational favorite all over, but especially in Miami. Tropical climates require extra care for Black hair because of the increased humidity levels which causes hair to become more dry and frizzy.
The humidity in Miami creates an eager audience inquiring about how to adjust to our campus’ brutal humidity. Hairology, an organization on UM’s campus since January of 2018, aims to answer their questions.
Jonathan Emmanuel, vice president of Hairology, described box braids as “classic” and said they are especially beneficial in protecting natural hair from weather and retaining length. “Depending on how you install your braids, you’ll be hiding your hair away from the elements and keeping your hair in a stretched, detangled state,” he said.
Reina Mitchom, a junior at UM, runs a braiding business through her Instagram account @hon3y.hair. From box braids to locs to sew-in styles, Mitchom’s first-hand experience as a hairstylist provides a glimpse into the proper treatment of Black hair, while understanding the rich culture behind it. Like Emmanuel, she said box braids have a lasting effect on our hair. “Braids allow the hair to be untouched for long periods of time, decreasing the amount of potential heat and manipulation of the hair,” she said. These braids also serve as a cultural keystone that binds generations together. Mitchom said box braids are a “heartwarming experience between myself, my mom and my grandmas when I was younger.” This experience is often communal to young Black girls striving to protect their hair. Box braids, although arguably the centerpiece of protective styling, is just the beginning of the options for styling Black hair. In just this one style resides a cultural impact that lasts generations.
words_nailah edmead. photo_nailah anderson. design_rachel bergeron.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.