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The Art of Healing: A Nostalgic Ode to Black Hair Braiding

Ashley Tucker, Public Affairs Specialist (detailee) crowned in “knotless braids.” Braids styled by Dan McDonald who also authors the photograph.

Black history tells powerful stories of innovation, perseverance, triumph, and celebration but also stories of loss, tragedy, trauma, and pain. Historically, African Americans have turned to art for its inexplicable healing powers. There is healing in African American spirituals and in praise dance; in African drums; and in beatboxing, in storytelling, and in rhythm and blues. As I reflect on this year’s theme of Black Health and Wellness, I think about how deeply artistic expression is woven into the fabric of Black history as a source of wellness. In fact, as an African American woman, I cannot help but to travel down my own memory lane with spiraling thoughts of moments where Black art and tradition have brought me restoration. I land on a memory in particular and smile.

I will forever cherish a weekly routine I shared with my mother as a child. “Spray bottle?” “Check.” “Oil?” “Check.” “Comb?” “Check.” “Ribbon?” “Check.” My mother runs down the checklist of things she will need to style my freshly washed hair into braids. She sits in a chair and I on a cushion on the floor, nestled between her knees. She parts my hair into sections and massages the warm oil onto my roots. She adjusts the positioning of my head and begins to create. With no strand left behind, she makes intricate patterns of art with various braid styles and braid sizes, some overlapping, and others ornamented with coordinated ribbon. She both literally and metaphorically creates a crown, and it is a true work of art.

Singer and songwriter, Solange Knowles honors her tresses in the song “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which was registered with the Copyright Office in 2018. In this timeless piece, which appears on her album A Seat at the Table, she parallels her hair to her soul, her crown, and goes as far as to say that her hair is the feelings that she wears. It’s no surprise that Solange takes such pride in her hair. She is the daughter of a professional hairdresser (Miss Tina Knowles), who owned a successful beauty shop in Houston, Texas. Superstar sisters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles have been known to share sweet memories, very similar to mine, of their mother turning their kitchen into a hair salon when they were children and even now, well into their adulthood.

Sonya Clark, a Black woman artist who sees Black hair as a fabric for creation, argues that hairdressing is “the first form of fiber or textile art.” With many of the same tools on my mother’s checklist, Clark creates her own masterpieces in honor of Black hair and expression using actual human hair fibers. However, her manipulations stretch far beyond the human crown. In her work “Afro Abe II,” for example, she uses a U.S five-dollar bill as her canvas, sewing a textured multidimensional afro atop of Abraham Lincoln’s head. In another work, “Hair Necklace 5 (Pearls),” Clark again uses human hair to create a seventy-two inch long “pearl necklace.” This past summer, the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, an exhibit that featured one hundred of Clark’s beaded, stitched, threaded, and sculpted textile works. Clark quite literally demonstrates that creativity exists within the African American DNA. Her work serves as social, cultural, and historical commentary about told and untold Black stories.

The braided styles my mother would install have a history that dates back far before our mommy-daughter moments. Not only is hair braiding an expression of fashion and style, in the 1500s, braids were a mode of communication between various African societies. Your style of hair was a way to reveal your identity, indicating things such as your tribe, marital status, beliefs, and beyond. In preparation for a journey through the Middle Passage, (the eighty-day voyage that transported captured Africans across the Atlantic to America), many African women would even braid rice or other grains into their hair or their children’s hair to ensure that they would have food. In the era of slavery, the enslaved used braids to hide maps and other directional instructions that would lead them to safety. While copyright law may not protect such braided maps, the law does protect sufficiently fixed maps defining them as, “a cartographic representation of a geographic area, including atlases, marine charts, relief maps, and globes.” The Library’s collection contains maps that depict various routes to freedom.

My weekly hair appointment with my mother was to protect and nurture my hair for healthy growth. However, my hair wasn’t all that was being nourished. These sessions were food for the soul. The stories we exchanged, the advice we offered, and the laughs we shared in this space has healed a thousand wounds. I found these moments to be both physically and emotionally therapeutic. Whether it’s the soothing caress of my mother’s fingertips running through my curls, her carefully crafted confidence boosting styles, or her words of wisdom and affirmation, I’d always leave (and still do) feeling restored, motivated, well cared for, and loved.

This month and every month, we celebrate the history of Black art and artists. Black art has always been a source of strength and freedom, and we applaud all of those who use their creativity to promote health and wellness in their communities.

14 Comments

  1. Jeanne Shrader
    February 16, 2022 at 3:20 pm

    I am Master Cosmetologist and have been doing braiding since 1980 and learned the first day of Beauty School from a black Lady. I wore cornrows in the 80’s for a Black owned Salon for advertisment on a TV Commercial during the Bo Derek era, loved them! I also taught my oldest Daughter how to braid.
    I enjoy cutting ethnic hair however difficult it may be, I love a challenge of curly hair no matter what ethnicity you may be.

  2. Annette
    February 16, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    This is brilliant!! It made me feel very warm inside as I remembered my own bi-weekly hair ritual with my mom. Years later When I had a daughter, we shared a very similar experience around “hair day”. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Ellarwee Gadsden
    February 16, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    I wish my hair memories were so congenial. With 4c hair and only combs made for straight hair, getting my hair braided and re-braided was almost torture. It broke off so badly sometimes that there wasn’t enough hair left in the back of my head to braid. Short 4c hair didn’t make one a star. My mom took care of her hair no better. I think if she’d been that “other mother” she wouldn’t have braided it at all and just let me run around with linty knots. Once I was old enough, my mom eagerly let me do my own hair. After burning it and my scalp for awhile, I learned how to style it myself. I was a hard life experience that many black women never had to endure. Thank goodness.

  4. Carolyn Tucker
    February 16, 2022 at 5:19 pm

    Wonderful blog Ashley!!! It warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely love it ❤️

  5. Carolyn Tucker
    February 16, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    Wonderful blog Ashley! It warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Absolutely beautiful ❤️

  6. Franzetta Turner
    February 18, 2022 at 10:33 pm

    Very interesting! I recall having that same position: me in a chair and my daughter on a cushion on the floor between my legs. However, because she was so tender headed and her hair was so long and thick, we both were usually close to tears most times until the end. The finished product was indeed a work of art. Thank you Ashley for allowing me to also take that trip down memory lane.

  7. Sean Tucker
    February 19, 2022 at 11:57 am

    Ashley, well done! Thanks for providing profound insight into the art of Black hair braiding. You skillfully illuminate the symbolism of this time honored tradition in the African American community. Your personal experience adds wonderful flavor to the subject matter. As your Dad, as I travel down memory lane, I was truly blessed to witness firsthand this example of love expressed between you and your Mom.

  8. Kimberly
    February 25, 2022 at 10:09 am

    Beautiful article that brings back memories from my childhood of getting my hair done. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Tonya
    March 1, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    Beautifully written! My favorite line: “She adjusts the positioning of my head and begins to create.”

  10. Willi Coleman
    March 17, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    This is so lovely. Thank you, thank you. You had me searching my library for similar thoughts in a wonderful book ‘Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers & Daughters. 1991 & 1993. Beacon Press
    Especially see “Closets & Keepsakes.”
    May we never forget.
    A million hugs.

  11. Brandon William
    April 4, 2022 at 9:29 am

    Absolutely love your blog post, Ashley. It is so relatable. I remember the days when my wife braided my daughter’s hair. Thank you for sharing this wonderfully, well written piece.

  12. Jenne
    April 11, 2022 at 10:18 am

    Wonderful blog post Ashley – Thank you for writing and sharing. I can certainly relate.

  13. Hair Braiding
    May 12, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Hey, this a beautiful article about braiding hair. Thank you for sharing.

  14. 4C Hair
    May 31, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Hi, I read your Hair blog, it’s useful for 4c hair and I gained more information. The blog is so informative and helped me break so many of the myths I had about my hair. The language is so easy to read and understand. Thanks for the update.

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