Braids in Tangled History of Slavery

Slavery stands as a dark chapter in human history, characterized by the oppression and exploitation of millions of African people.

  • Braids served as a form of cultural expression and identity for enslaved Africans.
  • The adoption of European hairstyles during slavery resulted in the suppression and erasure of African hairstyles, including braids.
  • Enslaved Africans utilized braiding as a means of resistance and cultural preservation.
  • Braids became a symbol of unity and community among enslaved African communities. Braided hairstyles played a role in maintaining a sense of cultural resilience and pride within African diaspora communities.
  • Braids might have carried hidden messages and conveyed secret information, potentially including escape routes or other important details.
  • The significance of braids in the context of slavery underscores the enduring legacy of African cultural traditions and the strength of those who endured slavery.

Amidst the brutality and dehumanization, various aspects of African culture managed to survive and resist. This article delves into the historical context of slavery and the profound cultural importance of braids.

Slavery and Cultural Erasure

During slavery, the oppressive systems sought to erase African cultural practices, including hairstyles. Enslaved Africans were forced to adopt European standards of appearance, which involved the suppression and denigration of their natural hair.

European hairstyles like braids were imposed as a means to strip enslaved Africans of their cultural identity and assert dominance. This erasure of African hairstyles contributed to a larger assault on African culture and the devaluation of the enslaved individuals.

The book "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America" by Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps , updated in 2014, shared many stories about the history of "Black Hair" including the impact of slavery on Black hair culture and the ongoing struggle for self-acceptance and empowerment.

One of the profound impacts of "Hair Story" is its ability to challenge Eurocentric beauty standards and expose the discrimination that Black individuals face in various spheres, including the workplace. The book sheds light on the struggles and injustices that arise due to biases against natural Black hairstyles, creating a heightened awareness of these issues among a broader audience.

Have you ever wondered about the history of braids in Europe? Braids have been a popular hairstyle for centuries, but where did they originate from and how have they evolved over time?

In another article, we will delve into the history of braids in Europe. We will explore the various styles and trends that have emerged over the centuries, and how braids have reflected the cultural and social changes of their time. Whether you are a braid enthusiast or simply curious about the origins of this timeless hairstyle, this article is sure to provide a fascinating insight into the history of braids in Europe.

Slavery Maps in African Slavery Culture

Patricia Turner, folklorist and professor of African American studies at University of California Los Angeles said, “When fugitive slaves figured out how to get themselves from place to place, they were incredibly brave and heroic people. That’s the core message and that's true.”

In their quest for liberation, it was believed that the enslaved ingeniously encoded escape routes and information in various ways, including within their braided hairstyles.

  • These hidden maps provided crucial guidance and directions for those seeking to escape to freedom.
  • While specific examples of slave escape maps encoded in braids are not widely documented, there are historical instances of enslaved individuals utilizing secret messages and symbols within their braids to aid their journeys.
  • It is important to note that the use of braids as escape maps was just one of the many creative methods employed by enslaved individuals in their pursuit of freedom. Other methods included messages encoded in quilts and building communities where slaves thrived.

Cornrows: From Forced Shaving to Symbol of Survival in Slavery

Some slaves were forced by their slave masters to shave their hair so that they would be more "sanitary," but not all slaves would shave their heads, and this is how cornrows became popular among the enslaved Africans. As such, slaves adopted cornrow to maintain a neat and tidy hairstyle.

Besides using braids to convey information, it was also used to hide seeds or rice as food. The practice of hiding seeds in hair was mentioned in the book “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,” by Judith Carney, a professor of geography at UCLA.

In the area of Cayenne where a French agronomist found the Baga varieties, the Djuka maroons maintain that rice originally came from Africa, brought by female slaves who smuggled in their hair grains from the slave ships that transported them to the New World.

Braids as Symbols of Unity and Identity

Braided hairstyles fostered a sense of unity and identity within enslaved African communities. The act of braiding often took place in communal settings, creating spaces for social interaction and cultural exchange. Through braiding rituals, knowledge, and traditions were transmitted from one generation to another. Braids became symbols of resilience, solidarity, and cultural continuity, connecting individuals to their shared heritage and collective identity.

Did all enslaved Africans participate in braiding rituals?

Approximately 70% of enslaved African women wore braided hairstyles during the era of slavery. Braids were a prevalent and practical choice due to their durability and manageability. Some were forced to shave their heads by their slave masters, while others opted for cornrows. Even those who did partake in braiding rituals may have done so at different levels of intensity and complexity depending on individual circumstances.

Legacy and Cultural Resilience

The legacy of braiding within African diaspora communities endures to this day. Despite the horrors of slavery, braided hairstyles continue to hold cultural significance, serving as symbols of identity, empowerment, and cultural resilience. In contemporary culture, braids are celebrated as a way to honor African heritage, express individuality, and reclaim the beauty and pride of African traditions.


Braids in the context of slavery represent a powerful testament to the enduring spirit of enslaved Africans. Despite attempts to erase their culture, braided hairstyles served as symbols of resistance, unity, and cultural resilience. Understanding the historical significance of braids allows us to appreciate the strength and beauty that emerged amidst the sorrow and oppression of slavery. Braids were not mere hairstyles; they carried stories, traditions, and a deep connection to African roots.

In conclusion, braids in the context of slavery encompass a profound story of cultural survival and resistance. Despite the oppressive conditions, braided hairstyles became a powerful expression of identity, unity, and resilience for enslaved African communities. By understanding and honoring the significance of braids, we can recognize the strength and enduring legacy of those who endured slavery and celebrate the rich cultural heritage they preserved.

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Sky Hoon
Hair Lover, Idea Starter. He started HairQueenie, which is ranked #27 in the FeedSpot Top 40 Hair Care Blogs and mentions in ManeAddicts and Tempest. Hair is not everything but something. He started Hairqueenie to share great hair products. Over time, he found there are more value to share answers to hair problems that cannot be found easily.
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