bantu knots

The History of Bantu Knots

[Detangling Our Roots] Stop the co-opt. In this EBONY.com series exploring Black hair origins, we trace Bantu knots to the Zulu tribes of Southern Africa

by Princess Gabbara, November 29, 2016

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bantu knots

Rihanna accepts the award for artist of the year at the iHeartRadio Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on Thursday, May 1, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

If there was ever a contest for the family who has crossed the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation one too many times, the Kardashian-Jenner clan would likely finish in first place.

The cultural appropriation of Black hair, features, music, fashion, etc. has become so common that most of us are no longer fazed when the latest white celebrity misses the memo and suddenly finds themselves at the center of scrutiny.

Khloe Kardashian was schooled by Black Twitter a few months ago when she shared a photo of herself wearing Bantu knots with a caption that read: “Bantu babe.” After getting dragged online, Khloe deleted the photo, uploaded a slightly different one, and re-captioned it with, “I like this one better.” But, needless to say, the Internet never forgets. More recently, Black Twitter was reminded how much they disliked Khloe’s Bantu knots when they appeared in a recent episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Need another example of cultural appropriation gone wrong?

Back in January, Valentino was criticized when predominately white models were spotted wearing Bantu knots in the designer’s pre-fall 2016 lookbook. Marc Jacobs is still trying to live down spring of 2015 when he sent his models down the runway wearing Bantu knots. To make the situation worse, the folks at Mane Addicts apparently had never heard of Bantu knots because they published (and later deleted) a tutorial titled, “How-To: Twisted Mini Buns Inspired by Marc Jacobs SS15 Show.”

The popular beauty blog attributed the hairstyle to Jacobs’ SS15 show hairstylist, Guido Palau—who also styled the models’ hair for Valentino’s pre-fall 2016 lookbook. They took it one step further when they referred to Bantu knots as “twisted mini buns.” This was problematic because the name of the hairstyle is Bantu knots, and they’ve been worn by Black women for centuries. In other words, they’re nothing new, but by now we all get how columbusing works.

“Cultural appropriation by definition means norms that are valued by one culture being absorbed and claimed by the dominant culture,” says Banke Awopetu-McCullough, professor of developmental reading and writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Virginia.

“In regards to hair, cultural appropriation is particularly offensive because Black women have to fight for our natural beauty to be featured and valued,” Awopetu-McCullough continues. “When white women rock our styles without at least giving credit, it’s another example of the ways Black women are marginalized.”

Bantu knots made a comeback in recent years with celebrities such as Mel B. a.k.a. Scary Spice, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Rihanna, Blac Chyna, and Teyana Taylor stunning the masses. These women and plenty of others slayed Bantu knots, helping to bring them to the forefront. However, the hairstyle can be traced as far back to at least 1898.

#bantuknots worn by Madagascan women circa 1898 #africangirllonghair

A photo posted by africangirl (@africangirllonghair) on

“Bantu” is a blanket term used to describe the 300 to 600 ethnic groups within southern Africa. There’s no standard language, but interestingly enough, “Bantu,” which means “people,” remains consistent across the different groups.

“Bantu knots also are known as Zulu knots because the Zulu people, a Bantu ethnic group, are the originators of the look we love and wear today,” says NaturallyCurly Branded Content Editor Gerilyn Hayes.

“This ancestral and cultural tether is striking in its eons-old manifestation of togetherness,” Hayes continues. “Bantu knots are a visual reminder of the origins of humanity, which may intrinsically be a key to their charm.”

Another key to their charm is the longevity and no-fuss routine. How many other protective styles can you think of that are this simple yet intricate looking? We’ll wait. Even better, no special hair prep is required for Bantu knots. Shampoo and condition the hair as you normally would. Then, using a rat tail comb, detangle and evenly section off the hair into diamond, triangle or square shapes.

“The size of the sections should depend on the length and density of the hair—smaller sections for shorter hair, bigger sections for longer hair. Your sections should be neat and precise,” says Carol’s Daughter Style Squad Member Cataanda James. “Next, from the base to the ends, twist each section of hair in one direction.”

“Then, take the twist and wrap it around at the scalp, while holding it in place until it forms a knot and the end disappears at the base,” adds Dark and Lovely Style Squad Member Stephanie McLemore. “Secure the ends with a bobby pin.”

Though Bantu knots are stunning on their own, many natural hair wearers rely on the Bantu knot-out to achieve heatless curls. With the Bantu knot-out, the knots are left in overnight and unraveled the next day solely for the purpose of creating voluminous, bouncy curls.

Damp hair and the right styling products, such as Carol’s Daughter Black Vanilla 4-n-1 Combing Creme or Dark and Lovely Easy Twist Gel N’ Butter (for thicker, coily textures), are must-haves for a flawless Bantu knot-out. James warns, “Overuse of multiple products can result in buildup and flaking, which can potentially ruin a beautiful knot-out. Know what you’re mixing and don’t over-saturate!”

Allowing the hair to completely dry before unraveling is equally important. “Otherwise, this could be your worst nightmare resulting in dropped curls and frizz—a natural girl’s worst enemy,” James explains.

Let the hair air dry overnight to retain its moisture and prevent frizz, or sit under the dryer for 30 minutes to one hour. Both of these methods help lock in the curl formation. Oh, and using a blow dryer is a no-no.

When unraveling your Bantu knot-out, lightly coat your fingers with an anti-frizz serum beforehand. Then, gently separate each section and fluff as you go, channeling your inner Tracee Ellis Ross.

Bantu knots can be created on hair that’s blown out, relaxed or going through the transition process. They can even be created on box braids, Mali twists and dreadlocks. In Jamaica, Bantu knots are known as Chiney or China bumps. Others prefer Nubian knots. No matter what you call them, there’s no denying that Bantu knots seem to be everywhere right now. So, why are they making a comeback?

“Black women are reclaiming styles that reflect our ancestry,” Awopetu-McCullough says. “We are rejecting the melting pot philosophy and the historical ways our culture has been stripped from us.”

At a time when our Blackness seems to be under constant attack, it’s important more now than ever that we celebrate and validate ourselves instead of waiting on others to do it.

Our ancestors may have worn Bantu knots as a protective style decades ago, but in recent years, they’ve become an outward manifestation of our love and acceptance for ourselves. Not only do they symbolize our rich history, but they also represent the pride that so many of us carry in our hearts as a salute to all those who came before us.

It’s also the reason why Bantu knots being renamed and rebranded as some hot new trend feels like a slap in the face to Black women everywhere. Bantu knots have always held a deeper meaning within our community. Many of us wear them like a crown, as if each knot contains a small ounce of the fearlessness and beauty that is Black girl magic.

To paraphrase Solange, “We got so much magic, you can have it.”

Just give credit where credit is due.


Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has been published in several national publications, including Jetmag.com, Essence.com, HelloBeautiful.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, and Sesi Magazine. Visit her site or follow her @PrincessGabbara.

 
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