Black art has always existed. It just hasn’t been looked for in the right places. — Romare Bearden
I believe that creativity is the child of want. The emotion-rich blood of humanity’s deep need to simply belong flows through creativity’s veins. To me, this explains why America’s most impactful artistic movements were conceived in the womb of its most disenfranchised communities.
In the 1940s, Abstract Expressionist painters would listen to free jazz at the Five Spot in New York until closing and then go home and paint. Four decades later, young art graduates, indoctrinated in Ab Ex and Pop, embraced the graffiti art scribbled and painted on subway cars and tenements in Harlem and Brooklyn and launched a new generation of Neo-Expressionism. The world’s most popular music genre, hip-hop, was conceived by poor, disenfranchised youth who transformed their vocal cords and tapping rhythm into musical instruments.
Interestingly, there is another form, born of royalty, surviving the genocide of its founders and yet surviving and flourishing to this very day.
I am talking about hair braiding as practiced by Black women in America. Yes, women of other races are braiding their hair, but most non-Black adherents are fascinated by the style and the “exotic other” appeal but ignorant of the rich traditions, history and cultural significance behind it.
What many do not know is that braids have served a dual purpose of upholding societal customs while also being fashionable for eons. In ancient Africa, styles and patterns of braids were used to indicate social status. Braided hairstyles were a part of religious life in Egypt. During slavery, maps leading to freedom were often braided into the hair. The legacy of Black hair braiding is not just style, but also one of cultural pride and activism.
Countering the destructive impact of slavery and racism on the Black family, the practice of braiding has helped to create bonds between generations of Black women. For many Black girls, a rite of passage is the first trip to the salon to have their hair done. In these sacred spaces, generations gather together to talk, cry together, pray together and bond while having their hair done. In addition to hair styled to perfection, they often leave with their spirits refreshed, souls watered, and their hearts healed as they face the struggle of being Black and female in America.
Much braiding is done outside of the salon in intimate interactions between mothers and daughters, grandmothers, granddaughters, sisters, cousins and friends. Adrianne Clayton, an artist and teacher in Kansas City, taught her daughter, Raven, to braid. “I remember the day Raven asked me how to braid,” Clayton said in a recent interview. “I showed her but told her it would take practice. I bought her a head (with hair) and would allow her to practice on it when we were sitting at home. Sometimes she would hide out in her room when I didn’t notice, and practice . . . I remember the excitement when she finally learned how to make that braid lay down, she ran in the room and yelled, ‘Look, I got it!’ . . . by 15 she was really combing and styling my hair.”
For Clayton, the bonds created through braiding go beyond mother to daughter and discussions about hairstyles. “During the process of hair braiding my girls and I discuss styles for ourselves and each other. We ride to the hair store and buy our supplies. We gather in the living room and we talk, watch movies, eat (usually whoever is not in the braiding chair or the braider watches the food), listen to music and enjoy each other’s company. Now my baby sister is living with us, so she also joins our hair braiding activities. I once braided her hair, and she learned how to braid as well,” she stated.
Of course, the same way jazz, blues and even hip-hop were initially demonized by some, braiding is not exempt. Braiding is often considered too much of a “Black” hairstyle, and many employers will not hire a Black woman with braided hair, regardless of how qualified. Black women have had to literally go to court to defend their right not to be discriminated against because of their braided hair.
When people don’t understand or appreciate an art form, they often make assumptions about the artists to justify their ignorance. Braiding is not immune. Lisa Jackson, a registered nurse, states, “Some people assume that locs are not clean or they associate it with smoking weed, neither of which is necessarily true.”
“When I wear my natural hair, some people will stay clear of me. I believe they think I’m feeling militant or maybe argumentative,” says Clayton. Carmen Diaz, a singer, says, “Yes, they assume I cannot conduct myself in formal environments as if box braids limit me to cookouts and club functions.” April Shields, a cash application specialist, adds “Yes. That I’m uneducated, ghetto, or the help. They see my locs, my bright lipstick and my hoop earrings and automatically assume that I’m going to begin speaking in Ebonics, when in fact I’m very professional and work in corporate America, where I am one of very few Blacks.”
Despite these responses, the artistry involved in Black braided hair cannot be denied. To take thousands of individual strands of hair and manually organize them into intricate, exquisite, harmonious and symmetrical patterns requires a high level of technical mastery. Comparing a head before and after braiding is, to me, like comparing a blank canvas, pile of paints and brushes to the finished work of a master painter.
And, as seen in the following pages, the same way appropriation art places art in the context of other art, braiding is often applied in the context of other hair styles, resulting in braided cornrows, braided locs, braided ponytails and other applications.
As in music, dance and the visual arts, hair braiding results in a final product that is not just coherent but impactful and life changing. That is what Billie Holiday and Luciano Pavarotti did, it’s what Frida Kahlo did and Amy Sherald does, it’s what Alvin Ailey and Isadora Duncan did, and it’s what Black women do in salons, kitchens and living rooms every day in America.
Sonia Sanchez once said, “The Black artist is dangerous. Black art controls the ‘Negro’s’ reality, negates negative influences and creates positive images.” Black hair braiders are “dangerous” artists in our midst. They are shaping Black America’s reality by creating and sustaining a connection to the royalty and greatness of their ancestors, negating negative influences by supporting the one thing that their enemies fear most — self-pride, and creating walking, living, breathing, positive images of Black women.
Just like Romare Bearden pointed out, if we look we can see Black art.
It’s not hidden. We simply have to look.
It’s always been there.
Photos by Jim Barcus. Special thanks to Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin for her recommendations of women to photograph for this feature.