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Friday, September 01, 2006


The politics of braids

Black women have been braiding hair for generations, and until recently they didn’t need a license to do it for a living. Now the state requires braiders to spend thousands of dollars on beauty school, where they must learn to cut, dye, and perm--services they never wanted to provide. Instead they’re going underground.

By Tasneem Paghdiwala
September 1, 2006

“THE WAY I SEE IT,” Taalib-Din Uqdah tells me, “I’m coming to Springfield, Illinois, to free the slaves. I am a modern-day abolitionist. And the cosmetology industry is the last legal bastion of chattel slavery in the United States.” He’s calling from the hair salon he owns with his wife in Washington, D.C.; their shop is nationally famous among people who care about the upkeep and the politics of black hair. He’s black and Muslim, and in pictures I’ve seen of him he wears sharp suits with folded pocket squares, like Farrakhan’s. His voice is gruff with a preacherly tone. Someone described him to me as “the Johnny Cochran of natural hair.”

When Uqdah’s not tending to the business side of the salon, he’s traveling from state to state as the president of a lobbying group called the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, arguing against laws that require those who braid, twist, or lock hair for a living to go to beauty school and learn how to perm, dye, and relax it, too. He started the group in 1995 after his salon ran afoul of Washington’s licensing requirement for cosmetologists. Uqdah filed a lawsuit, and the district later deregulated its braiding industry.

Last month, a couple of black hairstylists from Chicago asked Uqdah to come to Illinois and do what he’s done in 11 other states since then: free Illinois’ braiders and lockticians from the state’s 1,500-hour beauty school requirement, which they say is useless for their businesses. They want him to turn back the clock to 2001, before the cosmetology industry’s lobbyists pushed through an amendment that brought them within the state’s regulatory reach.

Uqdah is already up to speed on Illinois’ natural hair-care industry and its attendant politics; three years ago, he was contacted by a group of south-side West African braiders that tried to do the same thing but imploded before any legislative change was won. Uqdah wants to finish what that group started. He told the women who petitioned him to start fund-raising for his retainer. “We fought those jim crow laws in California, in Mississippi. We’re doing it in Tennessee--Tennessee! We’ve been fighting, and winning, up and down this country and now,” he tells me, his voice dropping to a whisper, “and now, we got our eye on Illinois.”

BEFORE 2001, NEITHER the Illinois Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics and Nail Technology Act of 1985 nor the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which enforces it, paid attention to the state’s hundreds of braiders, twisters, and lockticians (stylists who twist hair into thin dreadlocks). The act’s list of practices that the state considered cosmetological in nature--that is, administered for the purposes of beautifying--and therefore in need of licensure by an accredited beauty school, said nothing about “natural” hairstyles of the kind Taalib-Din Uqdah is interested in. When Uqdah and his colleagues talk about the “natural” hairstyling industry, they mean selling styles like long, thin microbraid extensions, and Senegalese twists, and corkscrews, and Nubian knots and silky dreads and cornrows, and any of the “probably hundred and one ways, and most of the good ones from Benin,” as one Beninese salon owner on 79th Street put it, of braiding black hair or twisting it or locking it into dreads. They are emphatically not talking about applying chemicals to black hair to relax and straighten it, which, unlike braiding, twisting, and locking, is readily available at full-service black salons.

Amazon Smiley is a petite African-American woman with light-colored locks and a wide, infrequent smile. She owns Amazon Natural Look Salon at 55th and State with Roberts, who’s gruff and solid and towers over her, with graying locks pulled into a long ponytail and a quick, deep laugh. They’re both wearing loose Africanprint shirts. They’ve been business partners in the natural hair industry for over 20 years--“and we’re best friends,” Roberts tells me.

They know Taalib-Din Uqdah and the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association well; Uqdah plans to have Smiley testify against the cosmetology act when he travels to Springfield. “She’s been in this business the longest of anyone in the state of Illinois. I am very interested to hear what the cosmetology association thinks they have to teach Amazon Smiley,” Uqdah says. Smiley doesn’t have a cosmetology license and she doesn’t intend to get one. I ask her if she hopes Uqdah can obtain an exemption from the license requirement.

“We already think we’re exempt,” she says.

Roberts says, “The way we see it, we don’t believe the cosmetology association has any jurisdiction over us. They can write whatever they want, doesn’t really mean anything to us.”

Smiley grew up braiding hair but never thought she’d do anything with it beyond a hobby; her first career was in social work. At an African art fair in 1976 she ran into a high school friend who was running a hair braiding booth. Smiley was intrigued. She started helping out at her friend’s in-home salon and opened her first salon at 87th and Bennett in 1978. “There were maybe six of us in the beginning,” she says, all African-American women, “though I was probably the most well-known.

“And then the African braiders came, and that started my competition.” She laughs ruefully.

Smiley was involved in the founding of the International Braiders Network, a trade association that met every year in a different city until it folded in 1998. She thinks the group had 1,000 members at its height. “It was this wonderful community where we all shared what we were learning, teaching new creations. It was phenomenal.”

I ask if any African women were involved in the group.

“No,” she and Roberts say in unison.

“Well, I don’t want to say no,” Smiley says, and pauses. “Maybe one or two. It wasn’t an African braiders organization, it was an African-American braiders association. It was our recognition that we know how to braid,” she says, echoing something Taalib-Din Uqdah told me a couple days before. “I didn’t appreciate the signs that I saw Senegalese braiders hanging on their shops when they started coming over here--authentic African hair braiding,” he said. “As if what we’d been doing was fake?”

I asked Senegalese shop owner Kadya Nome if there are differences between braiding shops owned by African-Americans and the ones owned by Africans. She didn’t exactly call the work of African-American braiders fake--just poor. “The American people, they don’t do the professional job that we do. We take eight hours, ten hours, to do it neat and tight. You go to the salon of the American people, the braid does not stay. One month and you can tell if an American person or an African did the work. The customers come back to our place and they complain, because the hair is frizzy or raggy,” she said.

After talking to Nome I walked down 79th and stopped at a big, busy shop called Millennium Braids and Beauty. There were about a dozen customers inside; I’d seen a total of one customer at the three other shops I visited that morning. Millennium looked like a mainstream, full-service salon. The owner gave only her first name, Shevonne. Shevonne was the only African-American salon owner I encountered just by walking down the street and randomly popping into stores; all the other owners said they were from Togo, Guinea, Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, or the Congo. I told Shevonne hers was the busiest salon I’d visited. “You hear what she said?” she announced to her employees. “She saying she been all up and down the block, and all the Africans got no business.” Everyone stopped braiding to whoop and clap.

Shevonne pointed the sharp end of a purple comb at me. “You put this in your paper. Tell them Africans to go home and stop stealing our business. They act like no one know how to do hair but them. Did they tell you where they buy their hair from? ’Cause they won’t tell me. I go in their shops to talk about the business, and they act like it’s some big secret. Just ’cause I’m not African they can’t let me know anything. I gotta buy from the beauty supply store like anybody else, ’cause they won’t tell me who’s their suppliers.” I ask what she pays for a pack of average-quality synthetic hair from the brick-and-mortar beauty emporium, and it’s a lot higher than what her African colleagues pay for the same materials from their Asian distributors in New York.

Amazon Smiley says she noticed new African-owned shops, mostly West African, dotting the south side in the late 80s, and then a seeming deluge in the mid-90s. “It changed the whole industry,” she says. She lost clientele to the new shops, though she says many came back, preferring the work they got at her salon. “It was very in-my-face. The tagline that they all used was ‘We cheaper than Amazon’s.’ If I was walking down the street wearing braids, they’d say, ‘Where you get your hair done?’ And I’d say Amazon’s, and they’d say, ‘We cheaper than Amazon’s!’”

Senegalese braider Kadya Nome in her salon at 79th and Ashland
Lloyd DeGrane

Smiley and Roberts say they didn’t attend the African Hair Braiders Association of Illinois meetings three years ago because they weren’t invited. Shevonne of Millennium Braids and Beauty says she’s never heard of the group--“I told you! They never tell me anything.” African-American lockticians Maevette Allen- Brooks and Arlanda Darkwa, the heads of the Chicago chapter of the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association, have heard of it--and of the rumors that its leaders ran off with the funds--but say they weren’t contacted by the group. Amazon Smiley explains to me that her International Braiders Network was an African-American association, not an African one; in the same way, the very name of the 2003 West African braiders’ group excluded the likes of Smiley and Allen-Brooks and Darkwa. Had the West African association gotten its bill passed, it wouldn’t have benefited a large part of these women’s businesses--locking. The 2003 proposal provided a separate licensing procedure for braiders, but said nothing about lockticians. “We’re glad their bill never made it to the senate,” says Smiley.

Just as braiding shops made overnight entrepreneurs of hordes of newly immigrated African women, in the last decade many African-American women have learned to lock and make a full-time business of it. Smiley and other African-American stylists told me locking is the new, sweeping trend in black hair, what braiding was before it. “A lot of people with locks have this spiritual feeling about their relationship with their locktician,” Smiley says. “Once someone does your locks, they are very special to you. It’s a unique feeling, more so than braids. Braiding is more elusive. It’s not permanent. It’s just a temporary solution. Locks is a way of life.”

While braids are mostly hair that’s not the wearer’s own, locks are made by tightly twisting and retwisting together thin sections of natural hair until each section begins to grow as one mass, like dreads but with lots of thin strands instead of a few big bunches. Women who wear locks can style them a “mainstream” shape like a bob if they want, just as they can with relaxed hair. But as with braiding, no harsh chemicals are involved. Braiders and lockticians both fall under the umbrella term of “natural hair care,” but lockticians see themselves as evolving beyond the braiders and consider ownership of their craft to reside in the African-American community. An African braider I talked to saw it the same way. “Locks, that’s the black women’s thing,” she said. She wasn’t planning on learning how to lock.

Smiley and Roberts think that with Taalib-Din Uqdah’s bluster, bravado, and experience behind them, the women heading up the Chicago chapter of AHNHA stand to win their cause. Unlike in 2003, though, this time around the effort is to get both braiders and lockticians exempted from regulation, even though the effort is led by a pair of lockticians who’ve never braided professionally. “Right now it’s like two separate camps, but we hope to form a bridge through this,” says Maevette Allen-Brooks. “I believe we’re all equally the best at what we do.” Arlanda Darkwa envisions another town-hall-style meeting down the road, like the ones Mouche Anjorin called, but this time with Africans and African-Americans, braiders and lockticians, and anyone else who wants to come. I ask her if she thinks African braiders will show up. “It’ll be hard to get them out, since Africans are naturally suspicious of Americans, even black Americans, and also because of what happened with the money the last time,” she says. “I should know, I was married to an African man. But to do this, we gotta have everyone on board.” To foster trust, Darkwa and Allen-Brooks say they’ll have a team of treasurers, not just one, and keep a detailed paper trail. And rather than rely solely on contributions, they’re holding locking workshops to raise some of the money.

I think of something Art Turner told me before he knew a new effort was under way to change the license laws for braiders. “Politically, my preferred strategy would be to have African-American women take charge of this issue if we wanna win it,” he said. He says he’ll sponsor any new proposed bill, and he can think of at least a half-dozen black female legislators who wear braids themselves and would probably help carry it through the senate.

I call Taalib-Din Uqdah once more, and ask if he sees a hard fight ahead of him or an easy one. “Oh, it’s never easy to do God’s work,” he tells me. “But I’m willing to die for what I believe in, that’s the difference between me and the cosmetology associations.” I say I hope it won’t come to that. “Well, if I can force Mississippi, I guess Illinois should be a breeze,” he says. “Anyway, all I care about is getting the white man’s foot off the black woman’s neck. Then I’m through. I got 35 other states to deal with,” he tells me, and hangs up.

Fuck all the nationalist rhetoric, what about health and safety issues? The 1500 hours is bullshit, but a barber can't just cut hair, why are these women exempt from ANY training. I mean, there is no formal training system and you're working with people's hair and potential health issues.

It's nice to talk about getting the white man's foot off the black man's neck, but it's not that simple. You have black cosmetologists who follow the rules and have to live by them. This isn't just a black/white issue. It's about fairness to everyone involved, including customers. There has to be a liability mechanism, health training, more than just people acting in a lassier faire way.

posted by Steve @ 1:56:00 AM

1:56:00 AM

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