Reclaiming Black Beauty through the Power of Braids
Summer. Remember her? The sun sets at 9pm and outdoor dining is safe-ish. The air is light and the breeze is oh so welcome as the sun not-so-gently roasts your skin (please everyone be wearing sunscreen). Sundresses and those little shorts the thick thigh men are wearing again are everywhere. We are all well versed on the sights and sounds of summer. Except, one tradition is hiding in plain sight and only the initiated know what’s up.
For those of you out of the loop, I’m going to clue you in. The Black girls all have braids. Cornrows, stitch braids, box braids, Senegalese twists, Bohemian braids, flat twists, faux locs, crochet braids. The list goes on and on. Every year there is something so special about seeing the first of the summer braids emerge like the fresh sprouts of hard working little seeds from the soil.
Usually I live in two big braids, intricately snaked around either side of my head with a multitude of products designed to nourish and protect my curls. It was July. I saw the girls with the braids, less because I was always inside, but still. I wanted to join in. My job was cool but bad so I “worked from home” for three days after submitting my 2-weeks notice to do something new with my look before starting my new role. I spent over 36 hours installing what felt like hundreds — in reality probably like 68? — 26in. box braids. The whole process from filthy hair with raggedy ends to washed, blow dried, trimmed, parted, and braided up was more like a week. I watched 2 seasons of Real Housewives of Atlanta with my boxy booty firmly planted on my sofa as I carefully incorporated six packs of 1B 3X Jumbo braiding hair into my locks.
That week was definitely the most time I actively spent working on myself. As a writer, an introspective thinker, and person who has been deep social distancing since March 2020, the experience really struck me. I have never felt more Black nor more beautiful than when I had finished those very many, very long braids. Other Black girls with their summer braids acknowledged what I had achieved with a reassuring “your hair is cute!” or “love your braids!” We shared a personal understanding of what it is like to have to sit in a place for much longer than reasonable time just for a flex. A flex that denotes a heritage and history that is bigger than us and yet dependent on us to keep alive. It may just be hair, but never is it just hair.
Black people have been braiding hair since hair has needed to be done. Globally, braids are a way of communicating culture and celebrating beauty, style, creativity, and accomplishment. That celebration has been hampered by the discrimination and violence that befalls braid-wearers.
Black children have been targeted and punished in schools for their hairstyles. The U.S. military only recently allowed various natural hairstyles as an acceptable hairstyle. We all had to live through the culturally-appropriative travesty that was “boxer braids.” Oh! My favorite is when Giuliana Ransick said Zendaya’s faux locs “look like they smell like patchouli oil and weed” (and not in a good way). The intentional choices to people of color who have a braiding tradition, Black women specifically, from the ranks of “beautiful” and “acceptable” are damning. I spoke at length in a previous article about grooming gaps and maintaining a socially pleasing appearance. Read that one for that conversation. This article is a celebration.
I’ve always loved playing with my hair. I was the child with scissors and an idea once my parents were out of eyeshot of me. I’ve had every hair color from jet black to platinum blonde to fire engine red. One constant has been my braids. My mother loves to tell me about my favorite childhood hairstyles: two straight-back Dorothy braids or “bear ears” made out of my braided pigtails. It’s easy, versatile, and complimentary to my negro face. The look is perfect for my busy lifestyle — transitioning seamlessly between a sleek look prominently featuring my baby hairs and an ideal foundation for my many ethnic texture wigs. Most importantly, the style connects me to a heritage of beauty practices that have been revered and reviled.
Trying to remember which ones of my friends currently has braids is one of my favorite past-times. The answer is at any given time is at least two. The two braids I loved as a child and as a big sour adult are reminiscent of laurel wreaths encircling the head of a victor. Various interpretations of the braid tumble down the high cheekbones, sloping shoulders, and strong elegant backs of my people. Reminding us we are worthy of hours and hours of attention and care for the sake of style. Gold bits, mixed and loud colors, bangs, and other accessories offer the wearer an opportunity to assert their individuality and creativity within a community that recognizes their beauty and togetherness. The act of braiding is an exercise in patience and praise. The under-over-criss-cross motions — a literal weaving of strands together to create something new — is a meditation.
Black beauty is radical. Choosing a hairstyle that creates distance between yourself and the rigid exclusivity of Eurocentric standards is a liberation praxis. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of reactions to my braids. Having avoided box braids for most of my life because they “rip your hair out” or my desire to be “presentable” — especially for work and starting a job for which I was immensely grateful, it was definitely not an undertaking I took lightly. But it was so fun! Would I do it again? No. My arms hurt like never before and in a time when body ache is a symptom of infectious disease for which there is no known cure, it was a no go. However, I did immediately purchase a box braid wig for the glams and scams. I also believe in paying people for their time and talents so maybe when the rona takes its foot off our necks a little.
When you see box braids or any other intricate and looks like it took a very long time hairstyle, salute. Challenge your perceptions of the style. Look. Do not touch or ask if “it is their real hair.” It doesn’t matter. It’s a real and special thig that can’t — nor should be — explained.