The Blueprint Was In the Braids

Dr. Marita Gilbert, Guest Blogger

When I was a little girl, my hair was cornrowed religiously. In fact, some of my earliest and fondest memories are of sitting at my auntie’s feet, feeling her hands making sense of my defiantly massive hair, radiating to every corner of the earth. We would be together for hours, she and I. If you were a black girl lucky enough to be born at the end of the seventies when cornrows and braids were the craze, you know this was a tedious process.

The hair had to be washed, dried and detangled—and I do not know a soul who enjoyed this stage, described as torture by some. But then, the sweet joy of “hair grease” to keep the hair and scalp moisturized. Now, there were few things in life as sweet as having one’s scalp oiled! Feeling that cool, gooeyness slidemarita 1 down and across my head even now can put me in a state of bliss.

It was in those moments that my Aunt Colita was interlocking messages of love, prayers for my future, and aspirations for who I could become. As she gripped my scalp with a balance of tension and tenderness, each braid was filled with a dose of blackgirl survival and blackwoman wisdom. Every intricately designed, perfectly executed part symbolized, perhaps, the journey of my life—sometimes winding, sometimes straight—always filled with beauty if you looked closely enough. Often people (my parents, actually) would compliment me on how pretty my hair was never appreciating the labor of love that could create such beauty.

I do not know if my auntie dreamed I would become a college professor or if she even knew as I sat at her feet that she was following in the tradition of aunties long before, braiding into my spirit the secrets I would need to survive. Hair braiding is one of the traditions brought with us from Africa. A hairstyle could convey the village from which one was from or signal virginity. I am struck by the creativity of black women to construct language in words unspoken. And so, this is not a piece about hair, not really.

As black women in the academy, we must be equally as creative about communicating messages to inspire and educate. Our intellectual foremothers labored to pass on messages to sustain us, knowing they could not simply open a door, they must first build the door and structure, leave a trail leading to it, and tell us we had the right to cross the threshold. Black Women in the Ivory Tower 1850-1954: An Intellectual History chronicles black women’s educational pursuits. Mary Jane Patterson became the first black woman to receive a Bachelors’ degree from Oberlin College in 1862 (even before the abolition of slavery). Anna Julia Cooper argued in 1925 that higher education was a human right from which black women should not be excluded. Stephanie Y. Evans writes that Mary McCleod Bethune created an institution of education and service from “$1.50 and five girls.” The indefatigable efforts to ensure our education made our scholarship possible.

The ways black women’s scholarship has influenced my work are too numerous to count. Maya Angelou taught me how to see and love myself wholly. Patricia Hill Collins gave me a foundation for self-empowerment: defining myself and my experiences for myself. Kristie Dotson formarita 2ged a path for a black feminist epistemology from which I could make sense of black women’s contributions to knowledge production in sport and recreation as a valid framework for inquiry. Tanisha Ford provided a language for exploring black women’s cultural aesthetic and resistance as catalysts for transformative change. Audre Lorde reframed anger as an important and useful tool for black women’s survival. Darlene Clark Hine demonstrated how to write myself at the center of history. Zora Neale Hurston personified the lesson of studying myself for myself and being my authentic self unabashedly in my work. These are but a few…

The lessons I would need to survive as a black woman in the academy were given to me very early by my auntie—who never attended college—but gave me a little of each of the women mentioned above. The blueprint was in the braids. The message was hidden in plain sight, decipherable by only a few: Becoming a black woman would be an arduous experience, but embrace it. Wear it as a crown. The beauty of cornrows, after all, is paid for in the pain of detangling, but the end result is exquisite. Black women have used our scholarship to make our struggles beautiful. We have turned the tension of marginalization in teaching and research into a not-so-perfect coif weaving together a thirst for knowledge, a determination to educate ourselves and each other, the will to preserve an intellectual legacy for those who will follow. We write from the tangles of a painful past, never made perfectly smooth but transformed into art. We do not cover ourselves. No, we adorn ourselves in the textured nature of our scholarship, the kinks and coils of our intellectual journey. And my, do they marvel at our work…


Dr. Marita Gilbert is a New Orleans native, a post-Doctoral Fellow at Allegheny College and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

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One Comments

  • Jo Ann

    September 4, 2014

    This essay should be required reading for all school children, Black, White, Brown and Otherwise.

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