For centuries black communities around the world have created hairstyles that are uniquely their own. These hairstyles span all the way back to the ancient world and continue to weave their way through the social, political and cultural conversations surrounding black identity today.
From box braids to dreadlocks and afro shape-ups, many of the most iconic black hairstyles can be found in drawings, engravings and hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt. When the painted sandstone bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti was rediscovered in 1913, her regal beauty—accentuated by a towering hairstyle— was undeniable and she quickly became a global icon of feminine power.
Often used in place of headdresses, wigs symbolized one’s rank and were essential to royal and wealthy Egyptians, male and female alike. The 2050 B.C. sarcophagus of princess Kawit portrays the princess having her hair done by a servant during breakfast. Wigs such as this were often styled with braided pieces of human hair, wool, palm fibers and other materials set on a thick skullcap. Egyptian law prohibited slaves and servants from wearing wigs.
Twisted Locks/Dread locks
Dreadlocks have often been perceived as a hairstyle associated with 20th century Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, but according to Dr. Bert Ashe’s book, Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, one of the earliest known recordings of the style has been found in the Hindu Vedic scriptures. In its Indian origins, the “jaTaa”, which means “wearing twisted locks of hair,” was a hairstyle worn by many of the figures written about 2,500 years ago.
Members of various African ethnic groups wear locks and the styles and significance may differ from one group to another. Maasai warriors are famous for their long, thin, red locks. Many people dye their hair red with root extracts or red ochre. In various cultures what are known as shamans, spiritual men or women who serve and speak to spirits or deities, often wear locks. In Nigeria, some children are born with naturally locked hair and are given a special name: “Dada”.
Yoruba priests of Olokun, the Orisha of the deep ocean, wear locks. Another group is the Turkana people of Kenya. In Ghana, the Akan refer to dreadlocks as Mpɛsɛ, which is the hairstyle of Akomfoɔ or priests and even common people. Along with the Asante-Akan drums known as Kete drums, this hairstyle was later adopted by Rastafarians, with roots in Jamaica from the slave trade era.
In the 1920s, Jamaica born Marcus Garvey began a black nationalist movement in America to spread his belief that all black people should return to their rightful homeland of Africa. Although many associate dreadlocks like Bob Marley’s with what became known as the Rastafari movement, the Ethiopian emperor it was named for was better known for his facial hair than the hair on his head.
Early Rastas were reluctant to cut their hair due to the Nazarite vow in the Bible. Tensions started to build regarding debates on whether to comb these locs. In the 1950s, a faction within the Rastafari movement, the Youth Black Faith, rebelled against any visual signs of conformity, and split into the “House of Dreadlocks” and “House of Combsomes.”
Braids were used to signify marital status, age, religion, wealth, and rank within West African communities. Nigerian housewives in polygamous relationships created the style known as kohin-sorogun, meaning “turn your back to the jealous rival wife,” that had a pattern that when seen from behind was meant to taunt their husbands’ other wives. If a young girl of Senegal’s Wolof people was not of marrying age, she would have to shave her head a certain way, while men of this same group would braid their hair a particular way to show preparation for war and therefore the preparation for death.
Another hairstyle, still popular today, with rich African roots are Bantu knots. Bantu universally translates to “people” among many African languages, and is used to categorize over 400 ethnic groups in Africa. These knots are also referred to as Zulu knots because the Zulu people of South Africa, a Bantu ethnic group, originated the hairstyle. The look also goes by the name of Nubian knot
Hair threading has always been an integral part of African beauty, especially in West Africa. It is both a fashionable and protective and has been worn for ages.
The Fulani are a primarily Muslim, traditionally pastoral ethnic group in Africa that’s scattered throughout West Africa and parts of East Africa. A Fulani bride’s hair is especially colorful and deliberately adorned.
Afro, sometimes abbreviated to ‘fro or described as a Jew fro under specific circumstances, is a hairstyle worn naturally outward by people with lengthy or even medium length kinky hair texture (wherein it is known as a natural), or specifically styled in such a fashion by individuals with naturally curly or straight hair. The hairstyle is created by combing the hair away from the scalp, allowing the hair to extend out from the head in a large, rounded shape, much like a cloud or ball.
In people with naturally curly or straight hair, the hairstyle is instead typically created with the help of creams, gels or other solidifying liquids to hold the hair in place. Particularly popular in the African-American community of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the hairstyle is often shaped and maintained with the assistance of a wide-toothed comb colloquially known as an Afro pick