“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.
“We of the natural camp believe our standard of beauty originated in Africa, and that relaxing is adhering to a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Like, if you have accepted someone else’s standard of beauty, you are saying there is something wrong with you,” says Julian Roberts, an associate of Uqdah’s in Chicago and the co-owner of Amazon Natural Look Salon, the big, bright, famous natural hair-care salon at 55th and State.
Some natural hair-care practitioners also believe the air circulating in salons that use chemicals (and in schools that teach with them) is carcinogenic, and that breathing it day in and out can cause cancer or asthma. They pretty much ignore the mainstream beauty schools. Most of the braiders I talked to learned their work as little girls; more than one recalled sitting out on the stoop watching her mom and aunts and big sisters and cousins braid each other’s hair on Sunday mornings.
Some West African braiders hold licenses from braiding schools in their native countries, where they learned to wash their hands between clients and what scalp infections look like and that braiding too tightly can cause hair loss. The lockticians, whose trade is more recently popular–as opposed to the “5,000 years” of history Uqdah attributes to hair braiding–learned at seminars and workshops hosted by companies like Sisterlocks, a California styling business that successfully sued there for exemption from licensure. They all regard themselves as knowing just about everything there is to know about their craft, and until 2001 no one could tell them otherwise, because until 2001 the only word in the cosmetology act that approximated what they do with hair was “arranging.”
“By no definition could I be considered an ‘arranger’ of hair. I am a cultural artist, working on a live canvas,” says a locktician named Maevette Allen-Brooks, vice president of the just-formed Chicago chapter of Uqdah’s national association. (She’s one of two members at the moment.) “That law did not pertain to me.” The DPFR’s Division of Professional Regulation probably wouldn’t have agreed, but the term arranging was so vague that it didn’t have irrefutable cause to disagree. Allen-Brooks has been locking hair without a license since 1999. Of the roughly two dozen stylists I talked to, just one went to school and got licensed after 2001; the rest continue to practice in open defiance of the current law. Allen-Brooks never ran into trouble for practing without a license until last month, when the child-care support she got through an agency called Action for Children was terminated because she didn’t have one. Now she asks relatives to watch her kids while she works out of her in-home salon. Her partner in the Chicago chapter of AHNHA is another locktician, Arlanda Darkwa, who also works out of her home. Darkwa says that last year she got multiple letters from the department, and even a call from an inspector who’d seen her Web site and ordered her to cease and desist and get licensed. Darkwa shut down the site but not her business.
By its own admission, the Department of Professional Regulations left braiders, twisters, and lockticians alone before the 2001 amendment passed. Braiders and lockticians practiced in a sort of negative space–lawless, but legal–often on the same block as a full-service salon where each employee had to show proof of licensure.
Uqdah says the story of how the braiding industry becomes regulated is the same in every state. He says a shift of interest in black communities in the late 80s away from relaxing and straightening and toward natural hair became a sea change that by the mid-90s forced the attention of the beauty industry at large. “Regular cosmetologists were getting phone calls from their black clientele saying, ‘I want to get braided.’ And the cosmetologists would say, I don’t know how to do that. Call Shaniqua down the street. Call Mulu’s down the street. They saw the trend toward natural and they felt threatened. They figured a lot of black women were out there making a lot of money, and the cosmetology association wasn’t getting its piece of the pie. So they said, ‘How are we gonna get some control over this?'”
That’s not exactly the way Daniel Bluthardt, current director of the Division of Professional Regulation, recalls the amendment being proposed (he was a legislative liaison at the time), though he agrees that the word “braiding” was added at the urging of the Illinois Cosmetology Association, a big, well-connected trade organization. “It was the feeling of the cosmetology association that braiding constitutes the practice of cosmetology,” he says, “and from my standpoint as well. When you look at the practice of braiding, it’s hard to say it’s not cosmetology. The association was concerned that at a number of braiding shops they were apparently doing more than just braiding hair, that there was cutting and shampooing going on as well. Also, certain potions, like the juices of berries, were being applied to the scalp and the hair without training, which poses a public safety concern.” (At the shops I visited, I saw braiders rub grease into their palms and dab commercial hair cream onto the ends of their customers’ natural hair before braiding in extensions. But they didn’t apply berry juice or other unidentifiable “potions,” and I never saw anything other than braiding and twisting going on.)
But Paul Dykstra, president of the Illinois Cosmetology Association, says it doesn’t matter whether braiders are just braiding, or are cutting and shampooing and applying “potions” too. As soon as someone touches another person’s hair and makes a business out of it, cosmetology is being performed, he says. He says his association lobbied for the addition of the word “braiding” in 2001 simply to clarify the existing law, not to change it. “Our association believes that braiding is a form of arranging the hair. The Illinois Cosmetology Association tries to ensure that all cosmetological practices are regulated by the government, because what’s most important here is the end result–the protection of Illinois residents,” he says.
Uqdah says it’s the potential millions in tuition the beauty schools are missing out on that worries the Illinois Cosmetology Association. Getting licensed in Illinois takes a year of training full-time or two part-time, and costs anywhere from $7,000 (through the Dudley Beauty College on 95th Street, which has a largely black student population) to $17,000 at Pivot Point in Evanston, which bills itself as the “Harvard of beauty schools.” He says the ICA and the Division of Professional Regulation shouldn’t meddle with a cultural practice that, in his opinion, they could never understand. “From where,” he asks, “did the state of Illinois receive the authority to regulate a 5,000-year-old cultural institution that was handed to a particular people from none other than God himself? Race, money, politics, power, and control. That’s what this issue is about. Don’t let them fool you into believing it’s about public safety. Since when has the state of Illinois been concerned about the public safety of its black citizens?”
I called Betty Clawson, director of Dudley Beauty College’s Chicago campus, because she’s been working in the cosmetology industry for 35 years and because she’s black and presides over a school with a lot of black students. I wanted to know if she thinks black stylists who do only natural styles are missing out because they never enrolled in a school like hers. They certainly wouldn’t go there to learn anything new about braiding: of the 1,500 hours of training mandated by the state, she says, maybe 25 hours are related to braiding. Clawson says that, for example, Dudley teaches French braids and how to attach hair extensions, but nothing like elaborate Senegalese twists. Still, she’s adamant that unlicensed natural hairstylists would benefit from her curriculum. “There are certain things that can only be taught in school. How to drape a client, for example.” For a moment I think she’s kidding, but she goes on. “How to shampoo. How to give dandruff treatment. How to spot infections.” She says the existence of hundreds of unlicensed stylists, practicing without benefit of schooling (or schooling in Illinois, as opposed to formal schooling in the Congo, or Burkina Faso, or Benin, which the state of Illinois doesn’t recognize), poses a threat to the entire industry’s reputation. “I want everyone in the braid shops to make a good living, and I want to maintain the integrity of the profession,” she says. “My suggestion to the braiders is this–go ahead, get the license, and then advertise more than just braiding. You can set up a full-service salon. You can pull in more business!”
Of all the braiders I talked to, from 79th and Ashland to Wilson and Sheridan, not one was interested in learning how to shampoo, cut, or dye hair. “They think we don’t do these things because we don’t know how,” said a woman from Togo, citing the chemicals used in full-service salons and her desire to stay far away from them. “It’s because we don’t want to do them. Why should I close my salon for one year, when I gotta feed my kids and send them to school, and pay $8,000, $9,000, to learn all these things I’m not gonna use?”
Braiding salons aren’t hard to spot. Mustard-and-maroon awnings bear names like “Awa African Braiding” or “Black Diamond” or “Dora’s African Natural Styles,” and the shops’ glass fronts are plastered with posters of women with big smiles and big, complicated-looking hairdos. They’re easy to ignore if you don’t need one, though, unless they’re in dense clusters like at 79th and Ashland or Cottage Grove or by the Wilson stop on the Red Line, where there are 12 braiding shops in a five-block radius. Ewise, a braider from Burkina Faso who’s been working in Uptown salons for seven years, tells me there were even more shops in her neighborhood, but a lot of them closed their doors in 2001. She and two other women are standing over a customer who wants a full head of microbraid extensions in black, gold, and silvery white. “You gotta jazz it up for the summertime,” says the customer, wincing as Ewise and her coworkers pull apart little bunches of hair and braid the tops of the silky extensions into them, dotting a little nail glue to finish the braid. Their fingers move with scissorlike precision and speed, as if detached from the bored-looking, gum-cracking faces above. They started on this customer around noon, and Ewise says it’ll be after dinnertime before they finish, maybe even ten at night. The customer sighs loudly, shifts her weight, and passes dollar-store chips and candy up to the braiders from her purse.
Unless they own a salon or are related to someone who does, most braiders work as freelance contractors in a loose word-of-mouth network, moving from shop to shop as they get calls from salon owners and getting paid by commission. Ewise’s current spot at Broadway and Sheridan is typical of the shabbier salons, with gray metal folding chairs and bar stools set in front of cracked, wobbly mirrors. The walls are white and bare save for the sign reading CUSTOMER MUST ALWAYS PAY BEFORE SERVICE. CUSTOMER MUST NEVER GET ANGRY WITH EMPLOYEES. NO REFUND, NO CREDIT. While Ewise and her coworkers braid, another braider sleeps on a couch under the storefront window; most styles require at least six hours of repetitive, standing work to finish, so invariably there’s someone napping in the shops I visit.
Later I knock on the bolted door of a salon at 79th and Ashland–a lot of African women keep the doors locked when they work–and when the owner, a Senegalese woman named Kadya Nome, lets me in a little bell tinkles above the door as the deep, woody incense she burns wafts out. The walls are painted a rich saffron, and gold tinsel hangs from the mirrors at each station. Other than Nome and her two employees, who put their feet up on the salon chairs looking at beauty magazines while Nome and I talk, the shop is empty.
“Yah, it’s very slow, we just try to get by. You see my shop, even on a Saturday it’s slow now. Saturday used to be very busy,” she says. She wears a yellow-and-purple wrap around her hair and a yellow-and-green wrap around her waist, and while we talk she rocks slowly from the balls of her feet to her toes and back again. I’ve seen braiders in other shops move the same way as they work. “Now there’s too much competition and business is bad, because so many braiders shut their shops and started doing braids from their house,” she says.
A lot of braiders complain about this. “Out there,” they say, beyond the city’s dense clusters of storefront braiding shops that I’ve become familiar with, are other, invisible braiders, working alone out of their living rooms. Those other braiders worked in storefront salons, their shopbound counterparts say, until the cosmetology act was updated in 2001, and lots of braiding shops received cease and desist letters. Nome and others say a lot of braiders became too scared to continue in the shops, whether they understood the meaning of the letters or not. They decided to “go underground”–as one woman puts it.
Home braiders existed before 2001, but not in large enough numbers to count. But over the last five years they’ve mushroomed to the point where they’re affecting the viability of the storefronts. Once they were established at home, many found that less overhead made it easy for them to lower their prices and attract the storefronts’ clientele. Nome says microbraids–the most popular style in Chicago according to many braiders, and also the longest to finish–used to go for at least $400, $500 if the customer wanted human hair instead of synthetic. Since the home braiders began “breaking the prices,” as many women call it, the going rate for microbraids is down to around $250; one shop does them for $150. “And the price of the hair is always going up, up, up,” says Nome. Most African braiders I spoke to mail-order hair by weight from Korean or Chinese distributors in New York, and every one echoes Nome’s complaint. “Good quality hair is $50 a pack,” says Tima Diallou, a tiny woman from Guinea, as she paces her empty Forest Park salon. “Me, I only can do quality work–I cannot buy the cheap stuff. Then you gotta pay the employee one-half. How much you got left? Sixty, seventy dollars. How you gonna pay the heat bill, pay the light bill, pay the water bill, pay the rent bill, feed your kids, make your home, with just $60, $70, after you work all day?” Some women also complain that home braiders will walk into their shops when there are more customers waiting inside than braiders to work on them to pass around flyers and business cards. Sometimes customers walk away then and there.
The profit margin in the African braiding industry used to be steep, before the state updated the definition of cosmetology and triggered the price-breaking epidemic. Most braiders paid nothing to learn their skill, and beyond the raw material–the hair–they require next to nothing in the way of supplies. One locktician said she knew African braiders who used to pull in $90,000 or $100,000 a year at their shops. The same women now worry about making rent each month.
Business in the shops isn’t always wretched, of course. Once I opened the door to a narrow south-side salon to find eight Cameroonian braiders–all sisters, aunts, and daughters of the same family–working in a line over six customers. Three more customers waited in chairs pushed up against the small window. It was the busiest salon I’d seen so far. A younger woman named Berthine, who helps out in the family’s shop when she’s not in college–she wants to be a doctor–told me there was no accounting for it; their shop had just seen a stretch of bad days, then this good one came along. Scattered good days keep the salons afloat, just as they do for small businesses in any industry, but Berthine and her relations face the disadvantage of unseen, illegal competitors who drive the price of their services down. Of course, all the women in Berthine’s family are unlicensed, too, but to their eyes the real crime is “going underground” and hurting business for the rest of the community.
One of Berthine’s aunts told me she believes that if the home braiders felt safe again, they’d return to the shops. I asked why she thinks anyone would voluntarily give up the comfort of working in her own home and paying just one rent. “Look at this salon,” she said. “We are all talking. We tell stories, we teach each other.” At an in-home salon, she said, the braider works without the support and protection of a larger community. “The braid shops make it so African women can come out of their home. We can become businesswomen, with a real store, not hiding inside all day. I know they want to be with us again. They are just scared,” she said.
In 2003 Taalib-Din Uqdah was contacted by Mouche Anjorin, a lanky Beninese man who owns Clarke’s Braiding on East 95th. Anjorin, wearing a big-buckled belt and soft leather boots, buzzed a short, severe style into his own hair with clippers while we talked, his eyes fixed on his reflection in the mirror. He recounted the story of his involvement with a defunct group called the African Hair Braiders Association of Illinois like he wasn’t terribly thrilled to be doing it.
“All this headache started when my friend Coco up the street–you know Coco?–got a letter from the Division of Professional Regulation at her salon, saying to cease and desist and go get a license. So I thought, we’d better do something about this before it’s too late.”
Anjorin moved to Chicago in 1994 from New York, where he also made a living as a braider. He says most men involved in the braiding industry either work on the supply side, delivering hair to the shops, or own salons but don’t work at them. He’s a rarity: the sole employee of his own salon. In New York he’d always worked legally at other people’s salons–he easily got a braider’s license there by submitting payroll records to prove he’d worked in the industry for two years. “I got grandfathered in,” he said in his thick French-tinged accent. He said he inquired about licensing requirements for braiders when he got here and the Division of Professional Regulation answered that he didn’t need one. Coco’s letter was the first he heard about the new law.
Anjorin took flyers shop to shop, and through the winter of 2001 Anjorin called monthly town-hall-style meetings at Root’s Hair Braiding, the salon of the group’s informal treasurer. In the beginning, he said, over a hundred shop owners came. They were largely West Africans–no African-American braiders showed up.
“At the meetings, we were talking about the letters–a lot of people got them–and everyone was asking, ‘What should we do? Are they going to put us in jail? Why are they doing this?’ Everybody was just scared.”
Anjorin contacted a community group called the United African Organization, and its president, a well-connected Nigerian by the name of Ewa I. Ewa, told Anjorin he thought the braiders had a valid case against the new amendment. Ewa advised Anjorin to raise funds for a lawyer and a lobbyist and said he’d get them a meeting with someone from the legislature. In his search for a lawyer he contacted Taalib-Din Uqdah, who by 2003 was famous to braiders across the country for his victories in Mississippi and D.C., but decided not to go with him. “I didn’t think he really knew what he was talking about,” Anjorin told me, shrugging. The association picked Jeffrey Levens, a white lawyer who works out of a sunny office with cowboy statuettes and cowboy posters at the downtown firm of Augustine Kern & Levens. “The white man’s ice is cooler,” Uqdah says.
Uqdah says he’s skeptical of a white lawyer having the wherewithal to grasp the plight of West African braiders, but Levens says that while he was working with Anjorin’s group he persuaded members of the Division of Professional Regulation to contact him before moving to shut down a braiding shop. “To this day, I’ve never gotten a call, and as far as I know they haven’t taken action against any shops,” he told me. This was confirmed by director Daniel Bluthardt, who says the department has eased off on enforcement since meeting with Anjorin and Levens and is waiting to see where further legislation takes this issue. Some braiders told me they still get cease and desist letters but are so used to them they just toss out any envelope with the department’s seal.
Ewa I. Ewa thought state representative Art Turner would be sympathetic to the braiders’ plight, and he was right. Turner says his grandmother, his mother, and his sisters have been braiding hair informally all their lives, in front of the television, around the kitchen table, before church. “I got involved myself a few times,” he says. “Just grease up your hands and you’re ready to go.” He arranged a meeting between the braiders’ group and members of the Illinois Cosmetology Association to see about a compromise. Everyone I spoke with who attended that meeting, from Turner to braiders to ICA president Paul Dykstra, recalled it as pleasant and productive. The braiders made the case that the 1,500 mandated hours are onerous and useless to braiders, and the representatives from the cosmetology association cited concerns about public safety. Art Turner suggested that the braiders draft a proposal for a separate licensing process; Ewa wrote a bill requiring that braiders complete 500 hours of training in hygiene, health, and safety and then pass an exam to receive a cosmetology license. The bill passed the house unanimously, and Turner was confident that if the braiders’ lobbyist stirred up sponsors in the senate it would easily pass there too.
“We were feeling real happy, real hopeful when we came back from Springfield,” said Mouche Anjorin. But in the meantime the other members of the African braiders’ association, the hundred or so shopkeepers who hadn’t gotten on the bus to Springfield with Anjorin, hadn’t sat in on the meetings, and weren’t familiar with the back-and-forth nature of the legislative process, had gotten restless. They started to loudly wonder where the $200 or $300 they’d each contributed to the association had ended up. Nearly a year had passed since Anjorin called the first meeting, and still the matter wasn’t wrapped up–and still the association kept asking for more money. Some of the braiders I talked to told me they’d contributed funds and had gone to the monthly meetings. “Yah, they came here asking for money for their white lawyer,” said Kadya Nome, the owner of the incense-scented shop on 79th Street. “I gave them $400, and they said come to our meetings, and I went, but then I didn’t think they were really doing anything so I didn’t go anymore and I didn’t give any more money.”
Rumor had it that the leaders of the group were pocketing members’ dues. Anjorin said there was little in the way of record keeping or receipts, but he’s adamant that all the money went to Levens and lobbyist Vince Williams–the group still owes thousands of dollars to each, actually, though neither firm has made any effort to collect and neither intends to. Levens says he advised Anjorin to set up a checking account in the name he’d incorporated the group under, the African Hair Braiders Association of Illinois, but he thinks this never got done; both Levens and Williams say they were paid in large stacks of cash. Williams says he stopped hearing from anyone in the association after the bill passed the house, and he hadn’t collected a payment since well before that, so he didn’t look for a senate sponsor. Levens, Ewa, and Turner all say calls from the association suddenly stopped coming. The bill went no farther.
Anjorin says that after a year of begging fellow braiders to keep giving money he got tired and stopped–without fanfare and without wrapping up loose ends. “I just wasn’t appreciated. My people, they thought I was doing this for myself, like I had something personal to gain. I was doing this for everybody.” He found it painful to see actual progress being made in Springfield while the association crumbled at home. He believes that if it had stayed strong it could easily have pushed its bill through the senate. Art Turner agrees.
I asked Anjorin what ultimately caused his group to fall apart. He thought for a second, scowled, and said, “Africans, we are very suspicious. The association didn’t have the trust of the people, so we couldn’t get the resources. I mean, I was really interested at the time, really into it, but my people, they have to feel the pressure, and right now they stopped putting on the pressure on us for a while. But we know it’s gonna come back. They don’t believe it’s gonna come back again. But I know it could come back anytime. We need to get this settled before it comes back.”
I told him about the black stylists who’ve formed a Chicago chapter of Taalib-Din Uqdah’s group, and that Uqdah is coming to Illinois to challenge the cosmetology act himself. I asked what he thinks of their chances. “Probably they could do it, ’cause probably they could be more serious than we were,” he said sadly. “‘Cause my people, we just couldn’t get it together.”
They call her the queen of the braiders, the woman behind the “big-time” salon on State Street. Someone told me she was the first woman to make a business out of braiding hair in Chicago and the person to find if I wanted to know the whole history of the industry here. Beauty school directors and members of the cosmetology board know her by name. Some braiders don’t know if she’s a real person–they think she’s a corporation, a friendly brand name like Aunt Jemima. Among those who know she’s real, some have stories about a connection to her, however brief or tenuous. “When I came to Chicago from New York, the first salon where I was working, they told me Amazon was teaching at the salon just one day before–I missed her by one day!” said one woman. “Yes, I know Amazon, I worked at her place, I learned all my designs from her,” said another, though she couldn’t recall the address of the salon.
“Probably half the braiders in Chicago say they apprenticed under Amazon,” says her longtime business partner, Julian Roberts.
“And a lot of them did,” Amazon Smiley says.
“But not all of them that say so.” Roberts leans back, laughing.
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 African-print 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!'”
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.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.