Box braids have been around for decades, but in 1993, the braid style hit the mainstream in a major way, mainly in part to Poetic Justice.
John Singleton’s drama, which starred Janet Jackson and 2 Pac, featured Jackson rocking the individual braids as she played hairdresser Justice, who writes poetry to deal with the murder of her boyfriend. Jackson often wore the braids tucked under a newsboy/cabbie cap, but also sported them in high ponytails, tossed up in a turban, and other versatile styles. Following the release of the film, the box braids trend started surging.
“When I think box braids, I think Janet Jackson’s character in poetic justice,” Tanisha Ford, Author of Dressed in Dreams and Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware told Hello Beautiful. “Box Braids have always been a part of the culture from as long as I can remember, some version of them. Even where I’m from we called them dookie braids, but when Janet Jackson wore them, it elevated those braids to a certain level of like Black girl glam that is still felt every day and around the way in ways that we all wanted them.”
“Those braids were impeccably braided,” she continued. “[Jackson] had that little band wrapped around them and a cute criss cross in the front. It elevated them to this level of Nubian goddess. They felt freshly 90s. It felt like taking the plaits of our Black girl youth and elevating that work.”
Box braids are small individual braids that are braided from the root to the ends of the hair interweaving braiding hair into natural hair. Each braid is divided by small boxes or parts, and depending on the style and the length of the braids, it can take four to eight hours (and sometimes even longer, depending on the stylist) to put them in. They are low maintenance, usually last six to eight weeks, and are versatile, so they can be styled into different looks.
Braids have their roots in Africa, and as early as the fifteenth century, hair “was an integral part of a complex language system,” according to Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps. “Ever since African civilizations bloomed, hairstyles have been used to indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community.” It also indicated a person’s geographic origins.
In the Mende culture of Sierra Leone, for example, a symbol of beauty was long hair, but hair that had to “be clean, neat, and arranged in a specific style, usually a braided design – to conform to tradition.”
Box braids specifically, appear to have originated in Namibia. The braids are similar to the Eembuvi braids of the Mbalantu women in Namibia, according to The History Channel’s A Visual History of Iconic Black Hairstyles. “One of the greatest honors for a Mbalantu tribeswomen is to reach the stage in their lives when they are permitted to wear their hair as an elaborate headdress,” according to Ancientorigins.ent. “Preparation for this stage begins around the age of twelve, when the hair undergoes special treatment to drastically speed up hair growth.”
When girls reached the age of sixteen, their hair was styled into four long, thick braids, known as Eembuvi for a ceremony that initiated them into womanhood.
Since Jackson’s Poetic Justice days, box braids have seen a resurgence. Gabrielle Union, Justine Skye, Solange, Zoe Kravitz, LeToya Luckett, Beyonce’ and countless other stars have sported them on red carpets, vacays, film, TV, and music projects, and on the ‘gram recently.
And as any trend that we started goes, when they resurface, cultural appropriation of those styles tends to kick off too.
The Kardashians, Fergie, and Katy Perry were just a few of many non-Black celebrities who have sported box braids in the past few years, with accusations of cultural appropriation soon following once they wore them.
“One thing that I find interesting is how non Black people, non Black and Brown people, specifically white women have used Bo Derek to create their own genealogy of braids,” Ford continued. “So then, when any white girl celebrity wears braids, it’s like, ‘oh, she got that from Bo Derek,’ as if Bo Derek is their originator of braids. So I think it’s interesting how the beauty and fashion industry has created this white girl genealogy around braids that begins with both Derek and ends with the Kardashians. I think that it’s also interesting how when that happens, the braids can only be fashion when they’re on a white body.”
Back in 2018, Kim Kardashian West caught major flack when she rocked Fulani Braids to the MTV Movie & TV Awards, for example, just months after she faced criticism for styling her locks into cornrows that she called “Bo Derek braids.” The same thing happened in 2016, when West wore braids on Instagram that she dubbed “boxer braids”, as if the trend had been started by UFC fighters.
“For the fashion industry, when they colonize our style, they colonize it and have to attach a white face and a white narrative to it,” Ford said. “Like, when the Kardashians started wearing cornrows and they’re like, ‘oh, these are boxer braids, like UFC boxers.’ So, now the face of those are like Rhonda Rousey and Paige VanZant, and all these white girls who are UFC boxers like that, who are then part of the genealogy of the white girl cornrow.”
“So, it’s always like they have to create their own colonizing legacy. It goes back to the things that I’ve learned in my Black feminist theory courses as an undergrad, where it’s like everything but the burden. They want to look like us, dress like us. They want our hairstyles, but they don’t want the burden of being a black girl and living within the contradictions of being seen as too much and not enough.”
“There’s a certain kind of price we pay for our own ingenuity, our own style genius that they get to benefit from financially,” she continued.
It’s not that women who aren’t Black are banned from rocking box braids, or other braided and natural styles like cornrows, bantu knots, and french braids. It’s just continuously frustrating when those styles resurface, a non-Black woman wears them, and it becomes a “new trend” – a trend where no credit given to its origins in Black culture.
Back in 2016, Zendaya broke down just that, echoing Ford’s sentiments as she discussed braids and cultural appropriation with Pop Sugar. “First of all, braids are not new,” the Euphoria star said. “Black women have been wearing braids for a very long time, and that’s another part of the frustration.”
“We’ve been using that as a protective style, as a hairstyle. That’s been in our culture and our community for a very long time,” she continued. “So it’s not this new, fresh, fun thing. Another problem is it became new and fresh and fun, because it was on someone else other than a Black woman. You know what I mean? So that is the frustration. That’s where the culture appropriation element comes into play.”
Her advice for non-Black celebs who have worn braids? “I would be careful,” she continued. “My girl Amandla [Stenberg], who is super dope, brought up another problem. She wished society loved Black people as much as they love Black culture. That’s the truth. The credit gets taken away from us when we make certain statements or when we do certain things. That is the frustration.”
“People want to be around for the positives and the things that we bring as far as culture, but they don’t want to be around when we have problems or when we’re getting shot in the streets,” Zendaya went on. “You know what I’m saying? You have to be there for the whole experience. You can’t just decide when you want to be a part of our culture.”