By Kholiswa Mendes Pepani | Photos John Ochira

Snow painted a quintessential Maine portrait outside, but inside the Rafiki Braiding Academy’s historic Hair Show in Portland on December 18 the air resonated with African vibrations. Born from a partnership between Black Owned Maine and Rafiki Shop, the hair show celebrated African beauty, design, and pride. 

On the runway, models displayed intricate cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, weaves, and box braids dripping with jewels. Adding to the atmosphere was the scent of Yardie Ting’s heavenly oxtail soup, and musical beats from around the continent. The ambience transported guests into a world celebrating Black innovation, creativity – and hair.

The relationship between Black people and their hair is both intimate and marred by systemic racism. Black people have been told for centuries that their natural hair is too “difficult,” “unmanageable,” or “unprofessional,” due to white supremacist standards of beauty and acceptability. The Rafiki Academy hair braiding show challenged those notions, and made room for Black empowerment and pride. 

“Rafiki Academy was the idea of my business partner, Douglas Rutamu,” said Rose Barboza, founder of Black Owned Maine.

“He opened Rafiki Shop last year and wanted to have a community space for Black people, of all cultures, and ages, to gather and enjoy each other. Rafiki Academy is a product of this vision.” 

Often, an industry lack of knowledge about Black hair impedes stylists from getting the hair education that is necessary to care for and attain natural looks. “There are no other braiding schools within a 100-mile radius of Portland, and natural styles are not taught in cosmetology school. Rafiki Academy provides an opportunity for Black hair and culture to be celebrated in a way that Maine has not experienced before. We have a growing Black and African community here so it is about time that we come together! Not just Black Americans, or Jamaicans, or Congolese, but all Black people living in Maine,” said Barboza.

According to Barboza, the Rafiki hair show was a historic gathering of Black excellence and pride never before seen in Maine. “I am still in awe over the support expressed at the show. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity. Many have asked us when we will hold the next class…our goal is to have a hair show every year during the holiday season. Food, music, hair, and a celebration of many Black cultures all in one place. In a state that is not often seen for its diversity, this show was a truly phenomenal experience,” Barboza said.

Black hair, in all of its various forms of coily and curly glory, is complex. It requires care, moisture, and a great deal of patience. The textures are often assessed according to a numbered scale ranging from 3a to 4c. Caring for hair is a practice in community, love, and tradition, with tips and advice passed down from grandmothers, mothers, aunties, cousins – and hairstylists, who often become like family. 

This feeling of community was evident at the hair show, as hairstylists from a range of African countries discussed their personal inspirations behind the styles they created. “My inspiration was protective hairstyles and 4c hair type representation,” stylist Bene explained about her model, who displayed an Afro weave fashioned with golden clips and jewels, atop a twisted protective style. 

Another model demonstrated an intricately woven chain across a crown of protective twists, finished with a long, cascading ponytail. “The chain links symbolize the connection between African women as we do hair. We chat, bond, and discuss life. We become friends – family even, through hair.”

The event showcased Black hair, but was also a celebration of the stylists themselves and their ability to give Black people the tools to feel confident in their Blackness. Paired with the hairstyles were striking accessories from Ghanaian artist Ebenezer Akakpo, who explained that he uses symbols from his homeland to imbue his jewelry with distinct meaning. “As individuals, our lives are filled with stories. These stories create patterns that can be carried to convey certain characteristics,” he said.

Black hair is a lifelong expression of identity – passed down between generations as a tapestry of history, culture, and resilience. In a world known for its rejection of Black humanity, celebrating Black culture is an act of joy and resistance to racist oppression. 

Policies forbidding the wearing of natural hairstyles have been used to justify marginalizing Black children and adults in educational and professional settings for decades. According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, with no nationwide legal protection against race-based hair discrimination, Black people face having to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty, or risk removal from institutions. But Black resistance has always been strong and the movement to embrace natural hairstyles endures.

To help combat race-based hair discrimination, please consider writing your state representatives to ensure that The Crown Act – a bill prohibiting discrimination in employment and education based on hair texture or hairstyle – which was introduced in 2019 and has already passed in 14 states – also passes into law here in Maine.