This year, we’re honoring Black History Month by celebrating black hair and the long and complicated history of a few popular black hairstyles. Some of these styles were popularized during the Black Power movement of the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Others have been worn for millennia, but are undergoing a resurgence in popularity and representation in the past few decades. These are styles that embody the creativity and style of their wearers, as well as the skill of black hair stylists around the world.
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Cornrows are a traditional African hairstyle that dates back to at least 3,000 BCE for women and became popular in the 19th century for men, according to Ebony. Ancient North African stone paintings depict figures with braids, and in many communities, the design and direction of the braids communicated information about the wearer. Cornrows could convey a person’s religion, family ties, relationship status, age, and other information, according to Culturally Situated Design Tools.
The hairstyle is still popular in the African countries of Sudan, West Africa, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, and in many places they’re still used to communicate information about the wearer, according to Ebony.
Cornrows in American Culture
Cornrows, and braids more generally, were popular among American slaves as they navigated the heinous conditions of slavery, according to professor Lori L. Tharps in an interview for Essence magazine. The hairstyle remained popular with agricultural laborers after slavery was abolished, and for that reason, was often disparaged or completely omitted from mainstream white media outlets.
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The Black Power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s saw a resurgence of cornrows, with actress Cicely Tyson wearing the hairstyle in the 1972 film Sounder and while promoting the film, according to Essence magazine. Musicians Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder have worn cornrows, and more recently, musician D’Angelo and basketball star Allen Iverson have embraced the hairstyle as their signature look.
Also known as dreadlocks, locs “are a style in which hair is sectioned into small segments and twisted” according to the Black Hair Information glossary. The hair is then “left to grow without combing out or re-twisting the sections,” which over time causes each segment to lock into itself. The result are thick, rope-like segments of hair that can be styled in a variety of ways, according to Byrdie, including in braids, twists, updos, and with coloring. Some loc wearers even adorn their hair with jewelry.
The Ancient History of Locs
While historians can’t pinpoint the exact origins of the hairstyle, descriptions of locs date as far back as 2,500 BCE, when they appear in India’s Vedic scriptures in descriptions of the deity Shiva, according to Tyler Bryant for Refinery 29. Egypt holds the first archaeological evidence of locs, with mummies discovered there that still have their locs intact today. And the first African tribe known to wear locs was the Masai of Kenya, according to Jamaicans.com.
Locs are important to the Rasafarian religion, a variation of Christianity that developed in Kingston, Jamaica, according to the BBC. Adherents grow their hair long and wear it in locs based on a belief in the spiritual qualities of the hairstyle, although the history of locs in Jamaica goes back much further. Today, around one million people practice the religion, so it comprises a very narrow percentage of the many people who wear the hairstyle.
The Afro, sometimes abbreviated as the fro, is a hairstyle in which tightly curled hair is worn loose, so that the hair curls out from the head in a rounded shape like a halo. Some wearers use a comb to tease the hair straight up in a perfectly-rounded coiff, while others let the curls fall where they want to naturally.
The hairstyle received attention in the 1950s, when a handful of black women jazz singers and dancers began cutting their hair and wearing it unstraightened. The hairstyle didn’t have a name at the time, and was often referred to as “close-cropped” in the press, according to Love to Know.
The Afro and the Black Power Movement
Black Americans were expected to straighten their hair in order to comply with Western beauty standards, and their hair was often still disparaged by the predominantly white media, according to Ebony. By the early 1960s, the Black Power movement emerged to combat this racist narrative, with the Black is Beautiful movement celebrating a variety of features and elevating black beauty that was ignored or disrespected in the media.
The Afro became an important symbol of the Black Power movement. “The Afro was Black beauty personified without White validation, and it did not care about critics. For many Black men, it was about cool poise and hyper-masculinity in the face of police brutality and constant oppression,” explained Professor Chad Dion Lassiter in an interview with Ebony. Political activists Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson wore Afros, as did musicians like the Jackson 5, Jimi Hendrix, and members of Sly & the Family Stone.