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DC Intersections

West Africans and African Americans in the Columbia Heights Community Connecting through Hair Braiding

Video and text by Arliene T. Penn


Nubian Twists, Kinky Twists, Cornrow, Senegalese Twists, Banku Knots and the Nubian Corkscrew represent just a few of the African braid styles worn by many African American women living in Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.

These different braid styles hail from West African countries including Guinea, Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Senegal and Mali, according to braiders at a few of the 10-plus braid studios in the Columbia Heights community.

Through hair braiding, West Africans can educate the public about Africa not being a monolith, said Ayah Nuriddin, an African American senior at American University double-majoring in International Studies and History.

“The different names of the braid styles tell us that we must stop generalizing the continent,” Nuriddin said.

Each braid gallery has braiders from the different regions. They fuse their native and traditional braid styles together to create the many designs that African  American women in the Columbia Heights community call “a masterpiece” “stylish,” “low maintenance” and “manageable.”

Though the area is known for its growing Latino presence, statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Africans and African Americans account for more than 55 percent of the neighborhood’s population. Additionally, even though gentrification continues to push both populations away from the city to the outskirts, African American women wearing West African braid styles have a strong presence in the area.

“No matter where you walk in Columbia Heights, you can see these elaborate braid styles that are meticulously crafted,” said James Walker, an African American freelance barber in the neighborhood.

Walker said the braid styles seem to change the physical appearances and personalities of the African American women who wear them.

“When the women wear these braids their faces glow and somehow they tend to walk with their heads really high,” he said. “They are finally embracing their African side.”

When these same women are sporting their perm styles, he added, they don’t appear to be so confident.

Walker added that the empowerment he sees with African American women in Columbia Heights is incredible.

“I really believe that hair braiding brings a new meaning to our women,” he said. “It helps them to appreciate their blackness more as many of them are removing the perm and going natural.”

He added that they help dispel the myth that black hair being nappy and not beautiful.

Braiding is authentic to African women, said Fanta Aw, a native of Mali and director of International Student Services at American University.

Aw, whose current dissertation focuses on West African migration and integration into the United States, said there is an elaborate structure to braiding that includes a great deal of history. She said braiding is a form of liberal expression and empowerment.

“Getting your hair braided and determining what style you want is not something your spouse or others dictate,” she said. “It is something you make a choice about, so there is a great sense of empowerment there.”

Aw, who has been getting her hair braided for more than 20 years, said it has long been a means of communication in the West African region.

She said in the different communities you can tell whether a woman is married, mourning, single or courting, depending on the style.  Also, they can indicate the socioeconomic background of the female.

“It was traditional for women from an aristocracy background to have gold ornaments in their hair,” she said. “You could also tell their ethnicity or the tribe they were a part of.”

Funmi Siwonik, a passerby in Columbia Heights and a native of Nigeria, said it is amazing how one would have to go to different regions in Africa to see the different braid styles, but in this D.C. neighborhood, they come together in one central location.

Siwonik said once she saw a woman shopping, wearing the Basket-weave Goddess braids. She said in Nigeria, this style is sometimes worn at naming ceremonies, baptisms or weddings.

“I was surprised to see so many African American women wearing braids in America,” she said. “On the television they often had perms. It’s amazing and I like it.”

Women like wearing braids because it makes them look very beautiful, according to workers at the different African braiding studios, including the African Braid Gallery, African Hair Braiding by Jaru and Miss Hair Braiding Gallery. These businesses have been in the Columbia Heights community for more than 10 years. Many are there because of the high African American presence in the area.

“I do my hair at many different braid studios in this community,” said Micaela Moore, a resident of Columbia Heights. “I like the braids because it makes me look beautiful and besides it helps me to express my African side.”

Although, in the United States, braiding is more about beauty, fashion and convenience, Jennell Green, a neighborhood resident, said she likes going to the braid studio because there is a strong presence of female unity.

“Braiding brings females together. We talk and exchange information about our way of life” she said. Very often, braid styles take more than five hours.

Aw, who gets her hair braided in Silver Spring, said she looks forward every two months to getting her hair braided because there she is able to learn about other regions of Africa.

“We talk about family and traditions and the plight of women in our communities,” she said.

Moore said sometimes she sits and listen to the different accents of the braiders as more than two of them from different regions braid her hair.

“It’s amazing what I learn in the braid studio,” she said. “The communication helps me to visualize and think about my African ancestors.”

Aw said the interaction between West Africans and African Americans is so subtle that none of them realizes that the transference of culture is taking place.

Ashley Crestwell, another resident in the community, said hair braiding to her is a sign of respect for her African heritage. She said the art form is an important piece of culture that African Americans have that was brought from Africa and through their lineage.

“I know that if I can’t say too much about the lives of my ancestors, I can always say they taught their children to braid and as a result I have learned the art form today and I will pass it on to others in my family to keep the culture alive,” she said.

Lori Tharps, an African American and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, said hair braiding in the African American community is also becoming an act of social bonding.

Tharps, said hair braiding is becoming a sign of friendship and intimacy among the teens in the African American community. She said teenage girls often braid the hair of boys they like as part of modern courtship rituals.

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Many males in the Columbia Heights community agreed, including some from the Latino community. Some males said their girlfriends had braided their hair as a gesture of love and respect for the relationship. Others said their mothers or sisters had braided their hair, allowing for convenience and easy maintenance.

Aw said she recognizes that in the United States braiding is not gender-specific. However, in West Africa it remains an important part of female life and beauty.

There was a time in the early 1980s in the United States when braided hairstyles were considered unfavorable in the workplace. Today, those hairstyles are acceptable.

When asked if Michelle Obama should consider wearing African braids, Aw said people would want to know what journey the First Lady was engaged in. She said the public would immediately think Obama was trying to reclaim her blackness in a way they are not accustomed to seeing her do.

Walker said Mrs. Obama would not be at peace and would be on the front page of every newspaper.

“The media will give her negative publicity because it is not the norm,” he said. “Braids may not appear to be presentable for her position.” Having straight hair, he said, will keep her safe from media monsters.

Tharps, who wears dreadlocks, said the American public would freak out.

“People believe that the way a black person wears their hair indicate something about their political beliefs,” she said. “Wearing braids would probably make people think the First Lady had become a radical ‘Black’ extremist.”

Many African American women in Columbia Heights said they would love to see the First Lady wearing braids.

“She would be representing her ancestral roots and those of President Barack Obama,” Crestwell said. “She would look great.”

The hair braiders of the Columbia Heights community said they are looking forward to giving Mrs. Obama the West African makeover.