We Hid Escape Routes in Our Roots: Honoring the History of Hair Braiding in the Black Community

I keep having dreams where I am a few years older than I am now with long box braids grazing my waist. In these dreams, I am always in a blazer and trousers, either giving a lecture in a classroom or tending to a public speaking engagement, grazing shoulders with key decision-makers in our country. Without fail, I have these long braids. I grew curious if this is a vision of how I will claim space as a Black woman, scholar, and activist as society’s perception of my youth wanes.

Solange gave us a song for it, articles have been written about it, Coachella season has come synonymous with appropriation season. Black hair holds a sort of tension, one where many will demand to touch, tease, assault the follicles. If the hair isn’t being touched without permission, then it is often free reign and cultural appropriation – meaning, the co-opting of black hair styles with no respect nor knowledge of the history of the hair styles – is prevalent.

I found myself intrigued. Why did I see visions of myself wearing braids when I dreamt of situations where I would be claiming space and stepping into a power dynamic weighted in my favor? I believe in no stone being unturned and rebuke the notion of coincidence. Braids seemed to creep into my dreams when I was standing in my full purpose, and thus my inquiry turned to an investigation. In this investigation, I began to research how braids were used in ancient African communities and during slavery, tracing the deep lineage to the present day.

Black hair, whether brushed out in a natural fro, braided tightly to the scalp, or shaped into rope-like locs, is a symbol of dignity. It was common in ancient African countries for hair politics to be status signifiers – for example, a person who belonged to a particular tribe or held a status of some sort would have a specific braid design that would symbolize this differentiation. However, when Africans were enslaved, they often had their heads shaved by their masters to appear more “sanitary.” This was a gross erasing of culture, where Africans were forced to discover modes of hair care and using hair as a signifier under inhumane circumstances. Reclaiming autonomy while appeasing the master’s deviant demands meant braiding the hair close to the scalp, tucking away curls with the goal of keeping them and crafting hair styles that would last through a week of laboring. Thus, during slavery, headwraps and cornrows were common ways of caring for black hair, giving the term protective styles true meaning. The below documentary produced by Elle is a fantastic primer on the history of braids and provides even more the reason to not appropriate, should you be deliberating if braids are something you should pursue even if it is outside of your own cultural practices.

In looking at how braids were used as a means of survival in the black community, I found the below video, originally posted on Essence by way of @knowyourcaribbean on Instagram, that showed the practice of braiding rice into hair. The post explains that African woman did this while undertaking the Middle Passage journey, a treacherous facet of slavery that millions didn’t even survive. In caring for their own, mothers would also braid rice or seeds into braids before suspected separation due to slave auctions.

Slaves would also braid escape routes into their hair. The source for this data falls back on an Afro-Colombian woman named Ziomara Asprilla Garcia who shares about the ancestral practice of escape routes being braided into hairstyles in her home country of Columbia. As mentioned earlier, Asprilla Garcia also spoke on how hairstyles were a mode of communication within communities, with matriarchal figures having a different style of braids, a symbol that slipped under slave owner’s noses while communicating to the community of enslaved people.

This information illuminates the power of oral history and how Black folk held traditions and transferred information to the greater community. Braids communicating slave routes and holding essential nourishment like rice and seeds – these are pieces of information that still have yet to be widely documented outside of the Black community. It is not heavily indoctrinated into academia, and when I posted about this on Instagram, I was actually met with doubt and chastised for not having “reputable sources.” This harkens to the gatekeeping of information that thrives within our society. A practice that had to be whispered for safety grew into a practice for convenience and communication that today lives as an intersection of style, power, honor, and self-care. I share this information as an invitation to imagine the vast realm of things not tethered into dominant society’s formal modes of gathering information, how the foundation of hushed networks illustrating paths to freedom lead to the survival of black folk. None of what I share in this post is likely to be news to black folk – however it may be news to those outside of the community.

Yes, I had a dream, but it was simply a reminder from my ancestors: Power lies in the even the smallest of details. Claim your roots.

All images sourced via Tumblr.