Enslaved Women Used Hair Braiding As A Means To Escape

Woman under tree with cornrows
Via Nappy
L. Graciella Maiolatesi
November 16, 2021

During the 1600s in Columbia, an enslaved former African King, Benkos Bioho, escaped from Portuguese colonizers. But he wouldn’t be alone. As he strategized his community’s freedom, he was inspired by their hairstyles. He was struck by a genius idea – and developed a plan ROOTED in liberation!

Benkos’s plan relied on enslaved African women using hair to spread information throughout their communities in a way invisible to the enslaver. Braids became codes: thick, tight braids, with a top bun, meant the wearer planned to escape. This hairstyle, known as “departes” by Afro-Colombian women, is now popular worldwide. Cornrows were also encoded in another way − as maps!

How one’s cornrows were styled depended on their intended escape route: the pattern, number of braids, or general curve was code for which roads to use. To prepare for their journey, enslaved women also hid coveted gold and seeds within their braids.

White supremacy tells us to “tame” our hair because, as a system, it doesn’t like it when Black people feel or look “too free.” Valuing our hair honors our ancestors' creativity and literal crowns! Cornrows are a royal legacy.

It’s a must that we rock WHATEVER style makes us feel free! As we fight for liberation, remember we already have the tools we need: our ancestors left us a map, reminding us innovation and self-love is how we get free!

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