Braiding Is More Than a Protective Hairstyle—It's a Black Mothering Tradition

Black hairstyles reflect Black culture. Braiding is not just a protective hairstyle—it's a tradition passed down out of necessity, a chance to nurture and spend valued time with our children.

Illustration of Black mother braiding her daughters hair on the couch.
Photo: Yeji Kim

I learned to braid because of my grandmother and Auntie Jean. There were no formal lessons on braiding, though each of them were "kitchen beauticians" in their own right. They taught me the context of braiding, that Blue Magic and precise parts were nonnegotiables. They showed me that braiding was love and each of them took turns caring for me, and by extension my mother who wasn't as well-versed in hair as the last of four girls. They taught me braiding was foundational.

As a senior in high school and eventually a college student, hours of practice stood between me and healthy hair. I'd spend days practicing in my dorm room wondering why my hands wouldn't move the same or my braid wasn't as firm. They said it was all about the grip, the Blue Magic, the patience.

I wondered if braiding was an investment I'd ever master. By sophomore year I could braid, though still not like them. I didn't know I was running out of time, just a couple of years until I'd lose my grandmother and have a child of my own. Two more before I'd have a daughter and lose my Auntie Jean.

Now, we live 800 miles away and I have two children, each with uniquely different textures. I live in an area with few other Black people and feel that braiding is equal parts creation, care, and survival strategy. My husband takes down, washes, and moisturizes. I style. The Blue magic is missing. I don't always part right in the absence of a rat tail comb. I've learned that braids are as diverse as the perspectives within Black communities. The process of parting and moisturizing my children's hair is a moment to show them care, talk or have quality time. Braiding— especially cornrows—are the foundation of so many of the hairstyles that matter to us. They're a nostalgic reminder of childhood summer, the foundation for transformative styles like sew-ins, or a place to pause and rest in a protective style.

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And when I reflect on my grandmother and aunt, I can't help but consider braiding a mothering tradition. Though the popularity of Black hairstyles like braids has exploded over the past three decades, braids in all of their diverse presentations are more than a stylish hair trend. There are many options with cornrows, individuals, or a mix of the two in countless sizes, locations, and pattern variations. The earliest records of braids in Africa are thousands of years old. In that time braids have adapted to be many things—evidence of tribal affiliation and a map to communicate the journey to freedom, and, more recently, an embrace of Blackness and a ready-to-wear protective style. The diversity of braids has kept them relevant across different social landscapes. But they've remained evidence of care and mothering.

Just as braids have historically had a deeper meaning than just being a hairstyle, it remains so. For many, myself included, braiding is an opportunity to transfer knowledge between generations. I remember sitting on a pillow on the floor between my grandmother's legs, hearing stories of distant worlds and being encouraged. I aim for the same with my children, my son on the floor asking an overwhelming number of questions as I did with his great-grandmother.

Braiding for Self-image

"My mother braided underhand, but I braided overhand because I'm left-handed," says Sierra Bowman, a military spouse with two children who currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Bowman says knowing how to braid helped her to adapt in places where stylists couldn't support her hair needs. "One stylist told me, 'I don't do colored hair often." For her, braiding had been a chance to make money, connect with other Black people, and take care of her family's hair.

Bowman says growing up, she lived in a multi-generational household with her mother, grandmother, and occasionally her aunt. Everyone had a role, and while there were many moments of instability due to the presence of untreated mental illness in her family, her mother was the braider. But around 15 she wanted more trendy, alternative Black styles, and her mother wasn't having it.

"I didn't believe the labels she applied to my styles, like 'ghetto' and 'fast,' so I learned to braid to do styles I liked," she says. Bowman is working to create a stable home environment with freedom of expression for her 8-year-old daughter, Alex, and has already introduced the foundations of braiding. "I'm not passing that on to my daughter," Bowman says, noting that she will let her daughter experience colors and styles. She already knows how to install braids and twists with a latch hook from helping her mother.

Braiding for Connection

Ashley J. May, a mother of two who lives in Los Angeles, California, has always wanted to braid, but her hair texture made it difficult. Still, she sees braiding as a part of her identity. "I remember my maternal great-grandma wearing her hair in a braid. She had hair like me, and she'd braid it each day," May says. "My mom put my hair in braids when I was younger once because my friends with tighter curls used to get them, and I naturally wanted to join the club," she says, noting her braids wouldn't hold and her scalp would sunburn.

She got to braid by practicing on her baby cousin's hair and again on her second child, who had tighter ringlets. She says she wishes she could braid, but now that her children have cut their hair there's no opportunity.

Dr. Donna Oriowo, a licensed therapist and owner of Annodright says the act of braiding a child's hair has a purpose beyond just hair styling. "Because hair can serve as an important part of identity, the act of braiding hair can be seen as a parent helping to nurture the identity of a child," she says. "It can be a time to affirm their beauty, especially given that they will face discrimination in a white supremacist society that doesn't often value the diversity in Black beauty."

Oriowo says when done thoughtfully, nurturing our children's hair contributes to a positive self image later in life. "The voices of the adults around them, what is being said, and what is being implied can often become their inner voice, critic, dictating how they treat themselves."

Alexandria White, a mother of 3 in Dallas, Texas, remembers her mother regularly braiding her hair into "dookie braids'' and learning to braid her dolls' hair. "My mother was a busy nurse, and her taking the time to braid our hair meant she had time to spend with her babies," White says. As an adult, she practiced on her twin boys but hadn't anticipated her sons would pick up messages about braiding and self image as well.

"When my sons began to say 'I want hair like mommy's.' or 'I want big hair like mommy!,' it showed me that embracing my authentic, natural self was important not only for me but also my boys."

Braiding as Equal Opportunity Bonding

Sean A. Williams, is the founder of The Dad Gang, an organization aiming to celebrate, support, and redefine Black fatherhood. Williams says what started as an effort to make sure his daughter looked her best, even when her mother wasn't around, became an enriching bonding opportunity. "I wasn't going to step outside with my daughter's hair looking crazy, so daddy mode kicked in, and I had to do what I had to do," he says. "It actually became a really cool bonding moment between my daughter and I. And as hard as it was to get those braids tight, I enjoyed the process and was eager to learn more."

Williams says many people—especially fathers—misunderstand hair care as a "mother's responsibility." He pushes back against that framing. "It's our daddy duty to make sure our baby girls are cared for in all aspects, including their appearance," he says, telling dads to go for it even if it looks intimidating.

Braiding, after all, is as much about nurturing and instilling a strong identity and sense of community in our children as it is about the art of meticulously interlacing strands of hair.

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