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What Is African Braiding?

By Andrea Cross
Updated May 21, 2024
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African braiding is a form of hair braiding that has long and culturally significant roots among women and men of African descent. Similar to other forms of braiding in that it typically consists of three sections of hair that are interwoven, there are numerous styles of African braiding. A traditional expression of different aspects of culture, the braiding is still popular today, although the significance behind the different styles has become more generalized.

Not only a way to style hair that was both practical and aesthetically pleasing, African braiding was created as an indicator of cultural aspects for African tribes. Different variations of style could indicate a number of social attributes, including age, marital status, and kinship ties between villages. The skill of braiding was passed down through generations over thousands of years and was a major social activity that cemented social bonds.

This form of braiding traveled out of Africa during slavery, when women, men, and children were transported to other countries. African braiding continued to flourish, allowing slaves to maintain a form of their identity and culture, asserting their independence in a subtle way that was not realized by their captors. After the abolishment of slavery, traditional braiding in America became less popular as many African-American women adopted more "white" hairstyles.

A resurgence of African braiding occurred in America in the 1950s and 1960s with the black pride movement. It continues to be popular today, although braiding is now often carried out in specialized hair salons. Popularity also continues due to the flow of immigrants into America, which helps to reaffirm and renew the more traditional styles. The braids chosen and worn by women and men now tend to be more about which braid suits a hair type and face shape rather than indicating a specific cultural significance.

There are many basic styles of African braiding and many modern variations on these styles. Long, loose multiple braids are popular and are plaited in varying thicknesses, including tiny micro braids. Braids can also be woven by stylists so that they lie relatively flat and tight against the person's head in styles including corn rows and country plaits. These rows can be straight and follow the curvature of the woman's or man's head, or they can be braided into a variety of curving patterns. Variations on the traditional, flat, three-strand braid popularly include twists and knots.

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