One Stylist Fights to Remove the Stigma Surrounding Black Women Who Can't Braid
For many American Black women, the staple hairstyle of their childhood was braids. To add flair, the braids may have been accompanied by different sized beads, plastic barrettes, or colorful rubber bands. “Getting braids… is a rite of passage for many Black women in America. Who can remember spending hours as a child sitting on the floor between a loved one’s legs as your tresses were carefully intertwined?” writes Siraad Dirshe in a 2018 Essence magazine article.
Photo provided by Wix
Even in adulthood, braids continue to be a popular style for not only Black women, but for people around the globe of varying races and ethnicities. Well-known styles include box braids, cornrows, and faux locs.
Braids are arguably an integral part of the Black identity and a form of art and expression. “As women, we like to experiment. We like to switch it up, and we can switch it up without damage, without relaxers, and with careful practices with our braiding,” says Nikki Walton, author and founder of pioneering and acclaimed natural hair blog, CurlyNikki.
Additionally, braids fall under the “protective style” category. According to another leading natural hair blog, NaturallyCurly, “When you wear your ends tucked away, your hair is in a protective style. This is important because your ends are the oldest and most fragile part of the strand. In the world of natural hair, rocking protective styles has become an added bonus of having more (better) options for concealing hair on a multitude of levels. Protective styles include but are not limited to twists, braids, updos, and wigs.”
Unfortunately, hair braiding is not a skill that comes easy to every Black woman, resulting in a stigma surrounding those who lack the ability.
Enter, Niani Barracks, a hairstylist hailing from The Motor City and the creator of, “A Safe Space for Black Girls that Never Learned How to Braid” which is an initiative that offers paid live classes for, “the girl that just couldn’t understand the concept of braiding…” and wants “help without being judged,” according to the initiative’s website.
My full interview with Barracks is available to watch on my YouTube channel.
Like many naturals, Barracks had her own natural hair journey, “I grew up natural. My mom had locs, and she gave me locs before I could remember. I grew up in the 90s, and locs was not a popular style, especially among kids.”
Barracks says she yearned for straight hair as a child, and at 12-years-old her parents gave her permission to cut her locs off.
“The first thing my godmother did was take me to get my hair done. We went to an African braiding shop, and she leaves me there for a little bit. But she comes back with painkillers.”
Barracks recounts that she did not know her first braiding experience was going to be a painful one, “It was obviously traumatizing because I still remember the story of getting my hair braided, taking those pills, having to sleep differently because laying on the braids hurt so bad.”
Despite the negative experience, Barracks says she loved her braids, but did not want to return to the dreaded braiding shop. This prompted her to learn the techniques herself, and Barracks discovered she was quite talented and eventually began her career as a professional natural hair stylist.
As a stylist, Barracks says she learned how important braids were to her community, “I don't think I realized how much people thought or felt that it was a part of our culture and how much it affected women who didn't know how to braid. A lot of women felt that they were missing connections with their children because they didn't know how to braid. Instead of having that wash day where they get to do their daughter’s or son’s hair from morning to night, they’re taking them to a salon and somebody else gets to bond with their children on that level.”
Walton says braiding or any type of styling can be an intimate experience for hairdressers and their clients, “Family, that’s what I consider stylists in the Black community.”
However, Walton says she understands the bond that is created when she does her own child’s hair, which can sometimes be an all-day affair, “I make sure it’s fun. There’s music or talking or reading a book, like a joke book aloud. I never make it feel like her hair is a chore or like I don’t like doing it. I make sure she knows her hair is gorgeous. I’m not the best stylist, but I do the best I can. We celebrate her hair the best that we can.”
Barracks describes the feeling of embarrassment that non-braiders can feel, “Contrary to popular belief, you weren't born with this skill. I knew that there was that feeling of shame when it came to the black women who didn't know how to braid.”
This revelation inspired Barracks to launch her initiative focused on creating a safe space that was conducive to learning. Her braiding classes have garnered widespread popularity, and she now has students from different parts of the world. “A Safe Space for Black Girls that Never Learned How to Braid” has been featured in Teen Vogue, Essence, Madamenoire, and Blavity.
Barracks shared this message for anyone who wants to learn but is scared to speak up, “I want prospective students to be patient with themselves. You have to be positive, and you have to practice.”