In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, beauty routines have gone out the window. Gone are the days of weekly nail appointments and biweekly hairdresser or barber appointments.
Many African Americans are looking to the internet for their hair care answers. Natural hairstylist Niani Barracks started classes to fill that void but ended up creating a community.
“I have been planning on teaching a class like this for a while. I’m a natural hairstylist here in Detroit and I don’t accept child clients but I wanted to do something. So I thought I’d put together a class where we’ll teach you basic styling techniques, basic tips on how to maintain styles and how to keep your hair healthy,” she says.
When COVID-19 started to take over, she moved up her timeline.
“I remember the Friday the 13th and I was thinking, Oh my god, I’m not gonna be able to work anymore. I had to shut down my salon because the schools were closed and I have children. So, I kind of thought about the class I was going to teach. And I was like, OK, I can teach the class online and I can do that from home,” Barracks says.
Barracks figured she would teach some family members, a few clients and maybe some of their friends.
“I was like if I can get at least 50 people to sign up for this $5 plan, it’s $5 every two weeks, then that could be OK. I mean, it’s not enough to cover everything, but at least I won’t have to worry about things like food and such. By Wednesday, I think I had three people signed up and two of them were family members. So, I lowered my expectations to 25 people. I posted it on my Instagram page and Twitter as well. One of my clients saw it and posted it on her Twitter and it was great to see that everyone started sharing it. I think by that Saturday, we might have had 15 signed up and now we have 504 students,” the Detroit native says.
Barracks quickly realized that people were looking for more than a place for quick hair tips for their kids, they wanted a place to learn and talk about Black hair. Her online course and community, “A Safe Space For Black Girls That Never Learned How To Braid” is a judgment-free space for African-American women to learn popular hair braiding protective styles through online videos.
“There were a lot of people that couldn’t braid but always wanted to do it. If you don’t know how to do something, it’s like learning a new language as an adult. It’s hard to wrap your head around. People are like how do you put two strands together to make something that’s beautiful? How does that work? I don’t understand it,” Barracks says.
Barracks says for many of her students, the class is more about connections than actual braiding.
“A lot of my students just want that connection and if not for their kids, but just that bond to our culture. Braiding is so important to our culture. Especially in Africa, braiding represented a lot of different things. So being able to do it, understand it, look at styles and make them your own is a powerful thing,” says the natural hairstylist.
Barracks says that our cultural connection to braiding is as strong now as it ever was before.
“Braiding has always been a part of our history. I feel like people, especially African Americans, being in America knowing our cultural roots are African, but not knowing where exactly we started, want that sense of connection. I feel like braiding pulls me closer to feeling like I’m connected. I have this craft that I’ve mastered and it brings me closer to my ancestors who also did this great craft when they didn’t have all the resources that I had, but they still made it,” she says.
Barracks is excited to be able to share her ancestral connection with people around the world via her online classes and Facebook group.
“I could never have imagined that I would have I have students in Ireland, Germany, South Africa and the UK (United Kingdom). There are students from all over the world and I’ll probably never be able to do a class with them face to face. This is my way of connecting with them. And then with the Facebook group and having so many members, we’ve built a community,” Barracks says. “Last night I did a live class and afterward people were posting pictures of their work. They saw it, the before and afters, in just one class. They saw a difference. There are little things that sometimes you have an idea in your head and you just can’t put it together and there might be one little tip you need. You change one thing that you were doing and that makes it perfect.”
The salon owner says she’ll continue her classes as long as there is a need for them.
“I don’t want anybody to feel like they have to know how to braid as though it’s part of being Black, but if you want to learn, you want to feel that connection, then I want to provide the space for you to do so,” Barracks says.