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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.