Heads up: This is a fictional narrative aiming to answer some FAQs about braids in a fun, experimental and hopefully educational way!
As I get ready to bike to my 9:30 a.m. class, my hair freshly braided, I realize how lucky I am to have someone who knows how to do my hair. Coming to Stanford, I worried that it would be difficult to find someone who knew how to deal with 4c hair. I needed someone who knew the whole process of braiding — how to part it and then oil it, make it shine and then moisturize it; manage the extensions and then skillfully braid it; how to seal off the ends with boiling water and undo it with scissors and a rattail comb, being careful not to burn me or cut off my actual hair in the process. Indeed, doing braids is a long and dexterous journey. How beautiful it was to have someone who knew how to give my hair the TLC it needs!
The night before, my amazing friend had installed my braids. Looking at a picture, she almost perfectly imitated the design of the shoulder-length salt and pepper braids. It’s different from my previous style, long cardinal and black curls going down my back, but I love the change. The week before, my friend had done her own braids. Hours of standing in front of the bathroom mirror had resulted in her getting the cutest braided bob, complete with colorful beads and cowrie shells adorning it. Braiding your own hair is like a superpower to me.
Twenty-four hours ago, we had gotten up very early for a Sunday morning, and by the early evening we had wrapped my hair up — both figuratively and literally. Sleeping that first night is always a wee bit painful; my friend had done them nice and tight. Yet, it was relaxing going to sleep knowing that I would have a protective hairstyle that would last me a while — low-maintenance yet high-quality.
1. Did you cut your hair? How did it grow so fast?
Biking to my first class is a breeze. I park my bike in a rack across from the building and begin my walk to the language corner. As I enter the building, one of my classmates smiles and opens the door for me. We walk together to class. Noticing my new hairstyle, shorter than before, he kindly asks, “So, did you cut your hair?”
I smile, not knowing exactly what to say. Technically I didn’t cut my own hair, but it also is shorter than before. And my hair was “cut” because I left in my old braids for too long … but that’s too much to explain, let alone understand. Sometimes, it can be a lot to answer these questions; other times, it’s fun to educate people. I begin explaining what I can.
“Oh — okay,” he responds. There’s still a look of confusion on his face, but we’ve entered the classroom, and there’s not much more I can do as we switch languages for the rest of the class. Some things are hard to explain unless you’ve experienced them.
2. Can I touch it?
As we say au revoir to the professor, I head out to eat lunch at Wilbur. Before entering the dining hall, I see someone from my dorm. Eyeing my hair like a foreign animal in the jungle, she reaches for it without warning. I gently back away, but not before a bead falls out.
“Oops.” She reaches down to get the bead and hands it to me. “So exotic.”
3. Is that your real hair?
Now I’m back in class, sitting down next to my p-set partner.
“I love your new hairstyle! Is that your real hair?” they ask curiously.
I never know how to answer this question, as some perceive it as invasive. Personally, I think the answer is interesting. Although not all of it is my “real hair,” it still is my hair. It’s also a cultural tradition. True, extensions are a way to lengthen the hair and make it easier to maintain — but they are extensions of not only me but also my culture and the creativity that accompanies it. With extensions comes the ability to explore different designs and expressions of the self. It hits me that most of the people who ask have never had the experience of going to the hair shop, looking at the 1b-colored, pre-stretched Kanekalon packages and wondering, “Is that the kind of style I want?” and, “Am I going to go short and straight, long and colorful or curly and crocheted?”
4. Why do you wear a durag?
After a long day of classes, I go to my dorm. After rubbing some oil in the parts to keep it moisturized and spraying leave-in conditioner, I wrap my hair in my durag to keep the oils in and the hair protected. Then, I take a nice long nap. When I wake up, it is already dark outside. I freshen up and head out into the lounge to relax a little bit. As I open the doors to the lounge, one of my dorm friends is just heading out.
“So why are you wearing that … thing on your head?” he kindly inquires, pointing at the black durag wrapped around my whole head of hair. “In fact, why do people wear durags? Is it a ‘style’ thing?”
It’s interesting how something so practical has been viewed as merely a trend. Perhaps the durag is just a fashion item for some — but as my THINK 66 professor would say, “It’s a synthesis of both function and form,” being extremely practical but also a fashion statement, depending on the context.
“It’s to protect my hair,” I explain. I see the puzzled look on his face and realize that most people don’t have to do so. Such an intricacy like braids has to be protected, lest you want to wake up with them frizzy and short-lived. The puzzled look dissipates as we talk some more about braids, replaced by an expression of awe.
5. Who did it?
In the lounge, I converse with someone whose hair journey has been like mine. She’s had her natural hair out for a while and wants to have braids before the Week 10 wildness ensues.
“Cute braids? Did you have someone nearby do them? It’s been difficult to find a reasonable place nearby in Palo Alto.” I explain how my friend installed my braids.
“Do I have to bring my own hair?” I smile and answer accordingly.
“Thanks!” she says as we exchange goodbyes.
6. Isn’t it just a hairstyle?
After getting caught up in the classic Stanford dormside conversation, the topic of cultural appropriation pops up.
“Isn’t it just a hairstyle?” someone wonders.
“Anyone, despite their skin color, can wear any hairstyle they want!” they further proclaim.
I take in a deep breath before I respond, being careful not to get too worked up in my response.
“Anyone can wear them,” I remark, “as long as they give their respect.”
After the experience of getting the “raw” hair at the shop, spending upward of eight hours installing the braids, oiling it, moisturizing it, neatening it, burning the ends and wrapping it, I know it isn’t “just another hairstyle.” It’s a whole creative process, a form of cultural expression, passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, tribe to tribe, continent to continent, surviving through the trials and tribulations of enslavement, colonization and globalization. Just like any cultural artifact, with the right amount of respect and reverence, I think that anybody should be free to indulge and enjoy the cultural phenomenon that is braiding.
About the series: Normally, I have written Daily articles about my infatuation with Stanford (e.g., 10 Things Stanford Feels Like Beside a School, 10 Unique Moments I realized I was here, 23 things I Missed About Stanford). And those are really fun to write, to share and express my appreciation of being at a school I love very much. But with this “Afropreciation” series, my goal is to explore my experiences and thoughts about the world from the “Afrocentric” view that I can offer — one that centers my experiences as a Sierra Leonean American girl — and to put them into conversation in hopes of understanding more about the world around me. I acknowledge that I am one perspective, and I’d love to hear what other people from a wide array of perspectives — be it from the African diaspora or otherwise — and think about these issues and/or my points of view on them. Feel free to email me to chat. I am always open to learn, explain and elaborate on things. Any resources are also appreciated. Thanks for reading.