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BANTU KNOTS

From box braids to edges: a glossary of black hair terms


A guide that unpicks hairstyles, slang, and more celebrated by people of colour

Welcome to Rooted, a campaign celebrating the power of black hair and the launch of ‘Tallawah’ – an exhibition by photographer Nadine Ijewere and hairstylist Jawara Wauchope. Here, we explore what the beauty of black hair is all over the globe, from Jamaica to London and New York to the screens of Nollywood films. 

If you don’t have it, you might be unaware of how black hair culture has shifted in recent years. Yes, people do perm, straighten or cut away their natural hair texture for work and school, to culturally assimilate and comply with euro-centric beauty standards, and the various ways that black hair is policed is still enshrined in law in 48 American states. 

But gone are the days when you’d rather hide inside than be seen without your long braids/weave/wig (delete as applicable). On this flip side, the natural hair movement – which encourages people with afro-textured hair to embrace it exactly how it grows from the root – has really gained traction. This seachange has, in part, been aided by the likes of Solange, Lupita Nyong’o, and Janelle Monáe, it’s fair to say, who’ve led by example and opened eyes to the endless styling possibilities. 

Why has this happened? Well, firstly to rebel against discriminatory attitudes to hair that, frankly, should have been left behind when slavery was abolished. Secondly, because the wider acceptance of and pride in wearing your hair out if you want to, styling your natural hair, or putting it in a protective style (when your natural hair isn’t exposed), free from harmful chemicals, means that the shackles are off. Hair can finally go back to being the important means of self-expression it’s supposed to be, transforming the person wearing it inside and out. 

“Hair can finally go back to being the important means of self-expression it’s supposed to be, transforming the person wearing it inside and out”

Chunky braided bobs, jewel-encrusted cornrows, technicolour wigs, and graphic fades: black people are experimenting with their hair like never before and it feels like nothing is off-limits. Hours of YouTube tutorials demonstrate how to DIY these looks, while the viral #dmxchallenge last year showcased this newfound sense of pride and creativity. So much so that the thin line between appreciation and appropriation is crossed fairly frequently by non-black women who think that they can borrow hairstyles from black culture, often without understanding the history, and escape the prejudice attached. Black people clap back.

It’s well-documented that the UK black hair market is booming generally, but so are the number of specialist hair products being created by black entrepreneurs. Brands like Dizziak, Afrocenchix, and Jim + Henry all cater to afro-textured hair and are curated together on sites like Antidote Street with hair-changing expert advice. The quest for healthy hair and the thirst for knowledge about exactly what is in the products that we’re using transcends everything, and shocking results from studies into chemicals found in black hair products keep spurring these developments on. 

As you’ve read, there’s a lot going on, more than there’s space to discuss here, like the ‘curly girl method’. Terms used to describe black hair are already in our collective vocabulary, like ‘afro’, and there are new(ish) inclusions like ‘snatched’ and ‘curl type’ in relation to different classification systems. But it’s totally subjective – what’s fine to use for some members of the black community, is offensive to others, like the use of ‘dreadlocks’. The glossary below is by no means a definitive list – it’s a refresher, condensed. “Don’t touch my hair,” as Solange sang, still applies, though. Always.

AFRO

If the hair of American activist Anglea Davies, Beyoncé transformed as Foxxy Cleopatra in Goldmember (2002) or John David Washington and Laura Harrier in character in BlacKkKlansman (2018) spring to mind here, you’ve hit the nail on the head. An ‘afro’ can be defined as a halo of natural hair left in its natural state, and Davies’ is probably one of the most famous ‘fros of all –  it was an anti-establishment way of wearing her hair and a symbol of black power during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It’s worth mentioning that not every black person’s afro will grow as big, the shrinkage is so real for 4B curls for instance (more on that later), but ‘TWAs’ as in ‘teeny weeny afros’ can be just as striking. 

BANTU KNOTS 

Not actual knots, these small buns of coiled hair and braids, which often have triangular section partings, originated in Africa hence the name. According to multiple sources, ‘Bantu’ is a blanket term that refers to hundreds of indigenous groups in Southern Africa, but the Zulu tribe is believed to have created this look. Twisting sections of hair like this is also a styling step to create curls when unravelled. While they’ve been rocked by Rihanna, Lauren Hill, and Uzo Aduba (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Orange Is The New Black), Bantu knots have also, unfortunately, been misattributed to Björk and appropriated by Khloe Kardashian (who deleted her Instagram post after being dragged for it). The reality is, ‘Bantu knots’ have now been renamed as ‘space buns’ or ‘Micro bun mohawks’ – see the hair Guido Palau did for the Marc by Marc Jacobs SS15 show – to make it more culturally comfortable for non-black people to wear them. Don’t be fooled.

BOX BRAIDS

As much as the internet loved Zendaya’s epic breastplate look at the 2020 Golden Globes, her bum-length braids took her look up another notch wouldn’t you agree? Let’s break this protective style down – ‘braid’ is another word for three-strand plaits and the ‘box’ part actually refers to how the hair is sectioned into squares on the scalp before the extension (which can be any colour you want) is plaited on. This is done over and over again and, depending on the size of the braids, partings and head, up to around 80 braids can fit. ‘Box braids’ has become a catch-all term for all single plaits, regardless of how they’re parted. Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice (1993) is a popular reference, so is Solange circa 2010. 

CLOSURE 

Imagine this: you’re sewing down your weave and you’ve reached the crown of your head. You don’t want a fringe and you don’t want to leave out any of your hair to blend. What do you do? Add a closure. A closure is a hairpiece unit, with a lace or silk base to ventilate and imitate the scalp, that can be sewn, taped or glued down flat to create a natural hairline (as yours is covered). It should match the rest of your weave texture-wise. They can be ‘pre-parted’ in the middle, side or have three-part (three ways of parting), or be ‘free part’ where you can part the hair anywhere. Type ‘closure weave’ into YouTube if you want all the secrets – lots of people have their own tips on how to make them look most natural, like plucking the hairline and adding foundation or concealer to the lace that’s visible. 

CORNROWS

‘Cornrows’, ‘canerows’ (in the Caribbean), and ‘boxer’ braids are all the same thing. Three-strand plaits that are tight to the scalp, with the strands woven underneath so they pop off your head. Like rows of corn in a field, get it?, and this unisex hairstyle can be traced back to around 3000 B.C. There are clean partings in between and the plaits can be solely natural or combined with extensions. Patterns range from straight rows to words, shapes and zigzags, and plenty of black women can recall having stacks of beads threaded on to the end of theirs as children – singer/songwriter Shingai Shoniwa has elaborate, adorned cornrows in her repertoire of breathtaking hairstyles. Many people wear cornrows, even if you can’t see them, because they are the basis of weaves and crocheted styles (more info below), where hair is sewn on or looped through them.

CURL TYPE 

Back in the 90s, Oprah’s hairstylist Andre Walker came up with a ‘Hair Typing System’ (trademarked) that has since been widely adopted as a quickfire way to figure out what type of hair texture you have. There are others but in Walker’s system, type one hair is straight, type two hair is wavy, type three hair is curly and type four hair is kinky. How that type of hair behaves is classified by letters A-C with types one and two and A-B in types three and four – ‘C’ being most extreme. Type one straight hair is fine to coarse, type two wavy hair is fine and thin to coarse and frizzy, type three curly hair goes from loose curls to corkscrew, and type four kinky hair is tight coils to Z-angled coils. Very simplified and disputed, it is, nonetheless, a good jumping-off point when weighing up the products and treatments to try, with further advice and research.

(DREAD)LOCS 

Locking hair strands together by twisting them or leaving them to matte until individual ropes are formed is how dreadlocks are created. The thickness and number of them is a personal choice and there are lots of loc types: sisterlocks, two-strand twists, goddess locs, freeform locs, faux locs… Legendary Rastafarian musician Bob Marley and model Adesewa Aighewi famously wear them and we can kill negative misconceptions that dreadlocks must be ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ or ‘criminal’ right now. It’s simply untrue and these are damaging assumptions to make. By answering the question ‘Can white people wear dreadlocks?’, Dazed and the great people at Gal-dem have broken down the nuanced history, spirituality and cultural significance of the loaded hairstyle brilliantly, and the short answer is: yes but no. Some black people reject the term ‘dreadlocks’ and call their hair ‘locs’ because they refuse to characterise their hairstyle as ‘dreadful’ and encourage others to do the same. 

SNATCHED (EDGES)

The fact that people cuss each other out about their edges suggests how seriously their care and upkeep is taken. Your edges are how many baby hairs you have (left) at the front of your hairline and you always want them to be ‘snatched’– look bomb, be excellent. Whether that means grabbing a toothbrush or Baby Tress edge styler and some gel to slick your edges back or laying them into baby curls, waves, whatever you dream up. It’s unclear whether the term came from black, queer, or drag culture first (or all three at once) but it, as well as edge patterns, have certainly gone mainstream in recent years – Jimmy Paul did various curl patterns for the models at the Moschino’s Pre-Fall 2020 show. Sadly, Jenn Li’s viral tweet that the look is seen as “ghetto” on black people in real life but  “high-fashion” when non-black models sport them on the runway is still playing out.

THE CROCHET METHOD

Instead of crocheting yarn, you’re crocheting hair, threading individual hair extensions through cornrows (underneath the raised plait) or the base of single plaits with a latch hook. They are secured by looping the bottom end of the extension through the top loop and pulling tight, and tucking away or wrapping the single plait in hair so it can’t be seen. At least that’s how it works with faux locs, and you can also use pre-braided and pre-twisted hair too, or attach strands of crochet hair in the same way. Super quick and easy to install (you’ll need a mirror to see the back), it takes a couple of hours rather than up to a full day (if you installed the locs individually). There’s less tension with your hair overall, and you still have access to your scalp so it can breathe and be greased! No more awkwardly patting your head to try and soothe the itchiness, like you would with a weave. 

WIGS

Hands up if you used to think that Beyoncé always wore her real hair on stage? You are not alone. Plenty of performers – Cardi B, RuPaul, and Yung Baby Tate are a small handful –  utilise wigs (not everyone owns up to wearing them) as statement-making extensions of their looks, some obviously more dramatically than others. Other people wear them for work, due to their religious beliefs, out of necessity, to give their hair underneath a break or just to try out a new hairstyle. Physically, a wig is a head covering, with tracks of hair attached to a cap that can be removed when done, or glued down, and they come in every colour and cut. If the wearer wants it to look natural, innovations in lace frontals and closures (see above) mean wigs can be completely undetectable, although there is this telltale millimetre of cap visible in wigs with partings. Is there a stigma still attached to wigs? It’s hard to say but their increased visibility, availability and quality seems to have emboldened people to give them a try. The trick is to look after them as you would your own hair.

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