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  • Writer's pictureEbony Tomatoes Collective

A Braided Shield

I’ve never been a hair girl. For me, styling my hair has always been this obstacle to deal with in my day. I can’t just roll out of bed and walk out the door. I was never taught the skills to mold my mane into intricate styles. I can’t even braid my own hair.

Instead, I outsource. I go to the women who study the timeless craft our people have used to chart the path to freedom. They weave each loc into gravity-defying strands packed with magic and a bit of Ecostyler gel. These individual demonstrations of God’s favoritism don’t require hair ties or scrunchies—they’re filled with love and silent prayers from mom in the middle of the night, bonded by the memory of her forcing that comb further and further up as I sat on a pillow on the floor between her legs. HGTV plays on the family TV as a compromise—“Cause I’m gonna watch what I wanna watch if I’m gonna help you.”

Hair is my shield—not just for me to duck down and hide from fire, but a bulwark to stand in front of me wherever I go. Braids made my life easier to navigate (I like to think this is a generational blessing; my enslaved ancestors used braids as maps through the dark woods to freedom). I never knew how to take care of my natural hair, and braids were a safe choice. But beyond comfort, braids made me limitless. Rain couldn’t ruin my day, a pool was no adversary, there was no activity I could not do or had to plan around. I woke up late and ran through my routine. There was no event I felt unprepared to attend. No manipulation I had to budget for. This is not to say that braids are this brutalist warrior’s tool to take on each day, but rather that final touch to a ceremonial garb. Braids are elegant. Braids walk into a formal or a gala effortlessly.

Braids shielded me from negative perceptions and comments. They’ve made it easy and accessible for me to enter spaces where I was different, white spaces that might contort my hair into a monster, a devil to be suppressed, controlled, or tamed. They’ve protected me from the judgmental looks, patronizing compliments, from the fear that seeps in. I’ve hidden behind them, protecting myself from the scrutiny that comes from unfamiliarity or hatred.

So I kept them in. I have my hair done at the beginning of every opportunity, every semester. Very few people have seen my hair in its melted down, raw form. They’ve only had the privilege to see it once it’s been shaped, crafted and cooled into a solidified safeguard over my skull.

I don’t know where this fear stemmed from or where these presumed negative perceptions originate. They’re baked into my psyche from my childhood, the media I consumed, or the generational trauma passed through my blood.

Jasmine LeCount-McClanahan by Zelle Westfall

I could trace it back to the smell of the hot comb on Easter morning or the “You gonna go get your hair done?” from my grandmother. It could be attributed to the crushing feeling I got when I couldn’t replicate my Irish best friend’s hairstyle in 2nd grade.

I could try to trace it back to Saturday mornings in front of the T.V., to Raven Baxter’s silk press or Hilary Banks’s soft tresses. Or maybe the Proud Family’s straight 'dos.

Maybe it’s the memories of my mother being turned away from jobs or the list of banned hairstyles her church gave her when she attempted to become an usher. Or perhaps my great-great-great-grandmother passing for white in Pocohontas, Arkansas.

I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself right now. But what I can say is that for a period of time my hair was a pathology. Anxiety bubbled in my eyes and chest if I had to go to school even for a day before my braid appointment. As soon as those extensions were dunked into that boiling hot water and I felt steam up my back and around my ears, I knew I was safe. My shield was in place. It was all I felt I needed to fight what the world might throw at me.

My braids are a double-edged sword. They’ve represented safety and security, visually incited elegance and admiration in my eyes. But at the root of each strand of hair is an inherent fear of the white gaze. I can’t help that with my hair growth comes apprehension about the way I may be perceived. With every wash day on a rest season, the occasional times I give myself without braids, I can feel the stigma dissipating. With every new DIY treatment I mix, every new technique I learn to use on my natural, unbraided hair, the more and more I learn how to wield this armor.

Don’t expect me to do a big chop or go completely natural anytime soon. I love my braids. I wear them with pride because rather than being a warrior every day, I can be a warrior princess. They make me feel beautiful. They make me feel brave. My braids don’t hide me from danger anymore. They’re becoming what they always should have been: a tool in my artillery. I just don’t need them to walk into battle.

Edited by: Cecilia Innis

Issue 17 Credits

Photography: Zelle Westfall

Creative Direction: Payton Selby, Ava Emilione, Leslie Vargas, Zelle Westfall

Photography Assistants: Ruby Summer, Jewel Simpkins

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