A brief history of black hair and braids

Posted by Janine Walker on

Identity can be defined in two ways, from the social perspective and from the personal perspective. The social perspective is how society and the world around you would identify you. Your personal identity is deeper than the surface, it’s how you view yourself and how various aspects of your life have created you. Identity is shaped by your upbringing, hobbies, the foods you eat, the foods you don’t eat. For Black women, we’ve had a host of identity groups throughout our lifetime that gave us a place to connect to one another. One identity that has shaped both my social and personal identity as a Black woman has undoubtedly been my natural hair journey. Going natural and being natural throughout history has been politicized, scrutinized and at times romanticized. 


In the times of American chattel slavery, one of the first experiences by enslaved Africans was the process of
shaving the heads of every man, woman, and child. Hair was a significant identifier amongst the various African groups. The manner in which one’s hair was braided, coiled, or tied created a visual means of identification amongst one another. This process of having their hair shorn, while minuscule in the grand scheme of the Transatlantic slave trade, was just the beginning of the forced cultural erasure of African peoples and the ties to their identity. In various cultures globally, the process of women having their head ceremonially shaved can be representative of someone mourning the loss of a father or husband like in the Ndebele tribe of Zimbabwe as well as in some Polynesian cultural practices.

Many Black women on their journey to natural hair may opt to transition and trim away bits of their chemically treated hair over time, while others go all or nothing with the “big chop”. Some women cry, some feel relief, some feel joy. The big chop is in a sense a reclamation of our autonomy. But the newfound freedom of starting a natural hair journey was no walk in the park. In 1960s the birth of the Black is Beautiful movement shifted the focus of beauty from Eurocentric standards to Afrocentric. This resulted in Afros, African inspired fashion, and makeup styles that accentuated Black skin and features.

I Had a Dream” | sincerely, the 80's

A few decades later in the 1980s we came upon the invention of the Jheri Curl. Black men and women alike began chemically and permanently altering their natural hair and rocking the infamous loose and glossy curls. In the 90s hair styles like finger waves, a swooped bang, and a multitude of updos that required a perm, a hot comb, patience, and lots of Spritz hairspray. Having grown up through the late 90s and early 2000s I had a front row seat to the damage that chemical relaxers and straightening products wreaked on not only my own head, but the heads of Black women across the nation. Our hair was breaking off, heat damaged and the misconception that “black hair just doesn’t grow long” infiltrated our communities and our psyches.

The resurgence of the natural hair movement in the 2010s came up along with the rising popularity of social media. YouTube was instrumental in the formation and fortification of the natural hair movement. YouTubers like Whitney White also known as Naptural85 was a trailblazer in the natural hair YouTube community. Being able to share the highs and lows of natural hair, getting advice, and watching tutorials became an integral aspect of my journey and ultimately my pride in having natural hair.  

The Natural Hair Movement: A Historical Perspective - Nappily Naturals

Now there was criticism from those within and outside of the Black community regarding our hair, raising questions about what is considered professional, and what isn’t? Who the natural hair moment was meant for, and who gets to represent the movement? Which curl type is getting the brand deals and which isn’t? Unfortunately, our identities do not exist in a vacuum, they too are affected by the ‘-isms’ of our society. Colorism, texturism, and classism –just to name a few, all play a role in how your natural identity is experienced. 

Irrespective of the social implications on my natural hair I have a deep pride and respect for women that have opted to go natural. It’s not easy and it’s not always cheap. It takes work and commitment to simply maintain our hair let alone to protect and style it. Thinking back on how my ancestors used hair to identify one another, whenever I see another Black woman wearing her natural hair whether it be in braids, locs, fros, or coils, I see her as one of my own. No matter how we both got to these points on our respective journeys. Transition or big chop, protecting with wigs or crochet styles, teeny weenie afro or waist length, [the history of resistance, power, and transformation is always the same.]*

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