Braided hairstyle is a common modern fashion as we have seeing lately among celebrities such as JLo, Gabrielle Union, Zoe Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Cara Delevingne, Evan Rachel Wood, Olivia Wilde, Nicki Minaj, to name a few. It is an art that goes way back to Africa, the middle east, Greece, Rome and other European countries. However, the most common in recent years is the African-style hair braiding.
I remember watching my mother braiding my sister Alana and cousin Judith’s hair the night before church service and during the week for school. However, as my sister and cousin grew older, they rebelled against braided hair-style because of the mockery they experienced on the part of children who were not of African descent. Thus, my mother would use a hot iron comb to straighten their hair.
Braided hairstyle can have simple as well as complex patterns. This artistic African style has been part of many cultures, some even say it can be traced back as far as 3500 BC. According to studies, braided hairstyles were used in Africa to identify tribes, and for special occasions such as wedding, social ceremonies, or war. It was done by older females and taught to younger generation to continue the tradition.
The African-style hair braiding came to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade, and since many Africans from different tribes were mixed intentionally during slavery, hair braids were no longer made to identify tribes. In addition, slave smugglers and owners cut off the hair of Africans to systematically strip them of their honor and cultural identity. To avoid the spread of head lice and to protect their heads from the weather, male and female slaves would wear hair-wraps, later the costume was linked with poverty. Years later, slave owners would allow their slaves to rest and go to church on Sundays, women would take that time to style their hairs.
Hair braiding played an important social role for women, old and young, during slavery by bring them together to converse about events happening around them, preserve oral tradition, etc. Since it was difficult to comb their hair in the style they did back in Africa using palm oil, women became creative by using butter, kerosene and carding combs used for the sheep.
At the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX century, the hot comb technique was introduced to straighten the hair of African American women. This invention was dispersed throughout the Afro-Latino communities. According to historians, the person responsible for introducing this new hair style is Madam CJ Walker. She became the first African American entrepreneur, the first “female self-made millionaire” and a successful business woman of her time. However, Madam CJ Walker was not the inventor of the hot comb, it was first introduced in 1872 by French hair-stylist Francois Marcel Grateau to help women with curly hair obtain a straight look.
The process of straightening hair was commercialized in the 1950’s especially among women and men of African descent. Hair products such as relaxers, Brazilian hair straitening, rollers, shampoo, conditioners, hair gel and others, were very common during this era. One straightening method that spread throughout the United States and became popular among African American women, was the Dominican Blowout, originated in the Dominican Republic. Dominican stylists in the USA were responsible for the promotion of this technique that “allows highly-textured and tightly-curled hair types to be straightened without the use of chemicals, and creates more movement and sleekness on tightly-curled hair types than conventional temporary straightening methods,” according to Wikipedia.
Although African hair braiding has been part of the African and African diaspora’s culture for years, many states created laws to regulate its practice among African American women. These laws stated that anyone doing African hair braiding required to take 1,800 to 2,000 hours unrelated coursework and pay over $20,000 in fees to obtain a cosmetology license to open a business. Utah, South Carolina, Illinois, and Nevada are among the states that have laws on hair braiding. Over 16 states in the US require African hair braiding to obtain a cosmetology license to open a business, according to the Institute for Justice.
The Institute for Justice, a 501 © (3) organization, has been fighting, since it was established in 2014, to abolish these laws and over 12 states have removed their requirements to obtain a cosmetology license, through the organization’s Braiding Freedom initiative.
African hair braiding takes hours and patience to artfully master. It has shifted from tribal identity, necessity — to fashion, among African American and Afro-Latino women. Today many still wear it for special ceremonies or social events. Nonetheless, one thing we know, is that while the African culture continues to live in the hearts and life of its people hair braiding will continue to embellish the hair of Afro-descendant women in the US and Latin America.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Orlando J. Addison is an Episcopal Priest and the Founder & CEO of The Ernesto Gamboa Project, a company that serves as a platform for Afro- Latino community to share the many dynamic aspects of its culture, raise the profile of the Afro-Latino community, and to inspire other Afro-Latinos to celebrate their uniqueness. Born to Jamaican parents in Tela, Honduras, he developed an affinity for literature and embraced Afro-Latino causes from a young age. In January 2015, he published his first bilingual poetry collection — Night Was Afraid to Fall to honor the life of Jeanette Kawas, a Honduran environmentalist assassinated in her hometown Tela. In June 2016, he published his second bilingual poetry book Canto Afrolatino /Afro-Latin Song.
In October 2014, Orlando published the Spanish version of his second novel, Ernesto Gamboa, winner of the International Latino Book Award, an honor bestowed by Latino Literacy Now, founded by James Olmos. The English version of Ernesto Gamboa was published in December 2016.
Orlando has also written for the Nuevo Herald and other Hispanic newspapers. He uses his Afro-Latino experiences as inspiration for his writing. To learn more about Orlando, The Ernesto Gamboa Project and the upcoming Afro Latino Heritage Excellence Summit 2018, please visit: www.thegamboaproject.com