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The History Behind Iconic Black Hairstyles

Two Black women smiling and hugging
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For Black women, hair is never just hair. From the days of colonialism, when Africans who were enslaved had their heads forcibly shaved by their captors, to today when certain hairstyles such as braids or locs are deemed unprofessional in the workplace, Black hair has always been laden with meaning. 

Black hair has been used as a tool of oppression since colonization and choosing to love it is a radical act in and of itself. With that said, there are a number of iconic hairstyles that Black women still rock today, from afros to cornrows, which have a history that dates back to before the Common era. Over the years in different regions across Africa, various hairstyles have held cultural significance and were used to convey one’s marital status, age, wealth, religion and more, to one’s community, according to Cheryl Thompson.

Knowing the history behind some of the most iconic Black hair styles lets us better understand the cultural and spiritual significance of our favourite looks because these styles are much more than a form of self-expression.

Related: 10 times representation happened for Black women and why it matters.

Angela Davis with her signature afro
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Afros

Most of us today would associate afros with The Black Power movement of the 1960s. During that time, The Black Panthers and civil rights activists such as Angela Davis sported the natural style and gave it political meaning as they fought for racial equality. In “Black Hair and Textures of Defensiveness,” Amber Jamilla Mussa writes that Davis’ ‘fro was an important part of her iconicity, because “the link between her politics and her hairdo evokes the same link between protest and unstraightened hair.”

In an article from The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, Robin D. G. Kelley points out that the afro is one of the most powerful symbols of Black power style politics, but it was worn by many Black people in the 1950s before the Black power movement was in full swing. For some, it was worn to achieve un-relaxed, healthy hair, and for others, it was to show solidarity with newly independent countries in Africa, such as Mali, Sudan, Morocco, Ghana and more. Musicians such as Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone whose music amplified liberation for the Black community, also wore the style, helping to popularize it.

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Afros were also worn by Black celebrities during the 1970s including stars such as Grammy-winning singer Diana Ross and actress Pam Grier.

Related: 10 Black Canadians who played a big role in Canadian history.

Rihanna wearing bantu knots and large hoop earrings
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Bantu knots

Bantu knots originated from the Bantu people, who make up over 300 Indigenous ethnic groups primarily in southern and central Africa, according to Yamilex Bencosme. They are also referred to as Zulu knots, as Zulus (one of the Bantu ethnic groups in southern Africa) wore the hairstyle. In The Eight Zulu Kings: From Shaka to Goodwill Zwelithini, John Laband discusses how the style was significant for women, writing that married or senior Zulu women “were crowned with complexly worked topknots of hair and wore pleated leather skirts.”

Related: 10 common phrases you didn’t know were racist.

Woman with dreadlocks on top of her head
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Locs or dreadlocks

When it comes to locs or dreadlocks, most people automatically associate the style with the Jamaican religion of Rastafarianism. However, dreadlocks are associated with other religions as well, and date as far back as 2500 BCE. According to Dr. Bert Ashe, in Hinduism, The Vedas depict the Hindu God Shiva wearing locs or “jaTaa” in Sanskrit.

Locs were also popular in ancient Egypt, as pharaohs wore locked styles and wigs as seen on ancient carvings. Dr. Ashe also adds that the style wasn’t only worn by royalty, as Egyptian commoners also wore dreadlocks in ancient Egypt. In the book Sister Style: The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Political Elites, Danielle Casarez Lemi and Nadia E. Brown write that mummies have been discovered with their locs still intact. They also add that Priests of the Ethiopian Coptic religion also wore locs as far back as 500 BCE.

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Bob Marley and the Wailers performing live
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In his book The Symbolism and Communicative Contents of Dreadlocks in Yorubaland, Augustine Agwuele writes that dreadlocks come from the religion Rastafarianism, adherents of which wash their hair but do not comb it: “They allow their hair to grow as it will in order to engender dread for non-believers.” From the 1930s to the ’50s, Rastafarians began locking their hair to mark their separation from wider society, according to Brown and Lemi.

Kevin Frank adds that dreadlocks symbolize Rastafaris’ Davidic heritage and mark their adherence to Holy Scripture. Shane and Graham White have also explained that for Black people in the West Indies, dreadlocks were a source of pride as they celebrated the texture of Black hair, adding that, like the Afro, locs symbolized political empowerment.

Locs were well known around the world thanks to reggae icons Bob Marley and his bandmate, Peter Tosh, who both practiced Rastafarianism. Marley in particular became synonymous with the iconic style, even after his death in 1981.

Related: How Black women can advocate for themselves in a healthcare system that ignores them.

Woman with long box braids
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Box braids

Box braids are a protective style that is still super popular today, but they’ve also been around for many years; Danielle Casarez Lemi and Nadia E. Brown date Afro box braids back to Egypt in 3100 BCE. 

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Janet Jackson in her role for Poetic Justice with braids and a hat
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Again, box braids have been around forever, but they soared in popularity in the ‘90s, thanks to Janet Jackson. When she starred in Poetic Justice in 1993, it left more and more women wanting the iconic style. The film’s director, John Singleton, took great care in crafting the image of Jackson’s character, and he’s stated that the box braids were the collaborative choice of Jackson, himself, and a dancer and choreographer who he worked with on the music video he directed for Michael Jackson’s song “Remember the Time.”

Related: This is how imposter syndrome affects women of colour differently.

Woman with long, colourful cornrows
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Cornrows

The word “cornrow,” also known as “canerow,” has its origins in agriculture because of its associations with Africans who were enslaved working in the fields during slavery. According to Tameka Ellington, because they would “plow straight rows and sow seeds; they applied the same concept to their hair.” When slavery reached the Caribbean in the 1600s, cornrows emerged as a way for enslaved people to keep their heads cool while they worked. The way the hair was parted and braided worked to stop sweat – the cornrows began at the hairline and went down to the bottom of the neck, which allowed sweat to travel down, according to Felicia P. Johnson’s book A Historical Glimpse About Your Braids.

Some experts have also said they believe that cornrows were used to hide food such as rice and seeds. According to Judith A. Carney’s book Black Rice, the Djuka peoples have said that rice originally came from Africa as a result of women who were enslaved smuggling it in their hair. 

There is also speculation as a result of oral history that the different patterns in cornrows could have potentially been used to relay messages to help the enslaved escape to freedom, although this has not been confirmed by experts.

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Cornrows do, however, predate slavery, as they were worn by different ancient groups in Africa. Ellington explains that artwork such as sculptures and hieroglyphics have depicted Ancient Egyptians wearing cornrows “as far back as the Old Kingdom’s third (2686–2613 BCE) and fourth (2613–2498 BCE) dynasties.” Aside from Egyptians, sculptures from 500 BCE from the ancient Nok civilization in Nigeria have also portrayed people with cornrows.

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