For Albuquerque senior and retired nurse Hiddekel Sara Burks, breaking a Guinness World Record isn’t just for fun — it’s an expression of her culture.
Currently sitting in the Holocaust Museum is a nearly 4,000 foot long textile braid that still isn’t done. This long array of colors won’t be finished until Burks, founder of the National Braiders Guild, braids 6,000 feet and breaks the Guinness World Record for the longest handmade textile braid, which currently stands at about 5,217 feet. Burks estimates that she’ll finish in about six to eight more weeks, and will basket-weave all of the braids into a double helix.
Burks said working amongst the history represented at the museum “just ties into what this is all about — it’s a tribute to the CROWN Act.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 29 and Senate Bill 80 back in April, preventing hair or headdress discrimination based on race or religion for New Mexico students. This act is nationally referred to as the CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”
“This bill is a product of the leadership of Rep. Stapleton, Sen. Pope and others who recognize not only that our multicultural diversity is our strength but that we must actively fight for justice,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release. “I’m proud to enact this law and humbled to call these justice-minded legislative leaders my colleagues.”
The Guinness administration originally wanted Burks to braid only with black yarn but, being 80% blind after five eye surgeries in her life, this would’ve been a difficult feat. Burks is instead using a variety of colors after being inspired by a close friend to pursue her own path, and every 100-plus feet of yarn represent “the many who have supported natural hairstyles.”
Over 800 feet of rich purple and gold yarn honors Kobe Bryant, while teal and turquoise lay next to each other representing Hattie McDaniel and Cicely Tyson. Many more names sit in this project, and when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down her operation last March, Burks was working on Gigi Bryant’s strain.
“Those colors and the people, they’re all related to something related to the image of Black people with the natural hairstyles,” Burks said.
Burks’ history of braiding has been building up to this project, with past braid length accomplishments at 100 feet, 400 feet, 2,000 feet and now this Guinness record-breaking attempt of 6,000 feet.
“As a cosmetology teacher, Hiddekel continues to promote the cultural, professional and technical aspects of braiding,” Burks’ bio outside the museum reads. “In 2000, Hiddekel set a record for the world’s longest synthetic hair braid ever recorded for a hairstyle (2,000 feet in length).”
Burks has been braiding for more than 43 years, and has long been an activist for professional braiders promoting natural hairstyles. She referred to the decades of hair suppression African Americans have suffered through, and said she has acted as a “mediator” between the professional and cultural sides of braiding to encourage not only businesses and governments to accept the natural hairstyle, but also the African American community itself.
“Our image wasn’t acceptable to us … We evolved and it’s mainly self-acceptance,” Burks said.
Braiding is one of the oldest known hairstyling techniques and represents a long history of activism for many African Americans. Burks talked about the rags that slaves were forced to wear over their hair because they weren’t given the necessary materials to take care of their hair, leading to unhealthy conditions.
“(Braids) bind us together,” Essence Magazine said in an article. “They are an integral part of Black culture — past, present and future.”
Seeing other retirees accomplish great successes inspired Burks to start the project, such as 94-year-old Opal Lee living to see Juneteenth be made a national holiday after spending her life advocating for it.
Burks originally started the project in February 2020 at the Coronado Mall but was put on a hiatus last March due to the pandemic. Burks herself contracted the virus and has since been vaccinated.
“I’m just glad I’m still on the planet because so many people didn’t make it,” Burks said. “I mean, I lost a sister, I lost a brother (and) my neighbors.”
Burks started braiding again on June 3 at the Holocaust Museum after needing to relocate from the mall due to the pandemic. She works in the public eye, as required by Guinness regulations, during the museum’s regular business hours.
Visitors from the First Friday Artwalk, as well as community members passing by Burks at the mall, have donated many balls of yarn that help Burks continue toward her goal. Volunteers from UNM, including those at African American Student Services, have also been helping Burks along the way.
With the future in mind, Burks is working on an additional hair-based photography exhibit that explores the symbolism and representation of hairstyles in different cultures. While Burks is focusing on breaking this Guinness World Record first, she said that project won’t be far behind.
Megan Gleason is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @fabflutist2716