I used to hate getting my hair braided.
Sitting for hours in an uncomfortable chair was not my idea of a good time, although I can’t imagine spending long periods of time in one place is considered ‘fun’ for any active child. Regardless, though, those hours could have been a lot worse.
The reason it wasn’t because of the firm-handed Senegalese hair braiders who worked steadily on my hair, and for whom I have so much respect. Through them, I learned about experimenting with and caring for my hair, something that’s become extremely popular with the natural hair movement.
Pretty much every single hair braiding salon looks the same. The walls are bare, save for posters featuring women with increasingly elaborate hairstyles. These aren’t necessarily options per se, but examples of the skill that the braiders in the shop possess.
I used to hate getting my hair braided.
The set-up is pretty much the same, from the hair braiding mecca that is Harlem, New York City, all the way to the Carolinas. Across America, women primarily from Senegal, Togo, and the Gambia have used hair braiding to create a better life for themselves.
In recent years, however, things have changed.
The demographic shifts in neighborhoods, rising rent, and licensing practices all threaten to cripple the once-thriving community of hair braiders. In Washington, the Department of Licensing has begun to put hair braiders under scrutiny. For many years, hair braiders were under the impression that a business license was the only thing they needed. About four years ago, that started to change. Now, they need cosmetology licenses in addition to a business license.
Demographic changes, rising rent, and licensing practices all threaten to cripple the once-thriving community.
In order to get a cosmetology license, a person must complete 1,600 hours of education. In general, cosmetology courses cover everything from manicures to waxing. They do not, however, always cover hair braiding.
Additionally, many hair braiders are women with children. Going to college to study a course that they feel doesn’t benefit them eats away at the free time they do not have.
Some hair braiders are also undocumented.
With gentrification and rising scrutiny from government officials, the likelihood of some of these women going underground increases, which also affects their ability to earn an income safely. With their financial independence in jeopardy, they can become cut off from their network of socialization.
I find the increasing marginalization of hair braiders an important topic to speak out about for more sentimental reasons as well. For a period of my childhood, Senegalese, Ivorian and Gambian American hair braiders were my bridge between cultures. These hairstylists were able to combine West African hairstyles with trends happening within African American culture at the time.
My hair became a physical manifestation of both the worlds I inhabited. With a major shift in the way black women present their hair in the past decade, the role hair braiders play cannot be overstated.
My hair became a physical manifestation of both the worlds I inhabited.
Braiding hair is a source of income for Black women of all nationalities and creeds. It is also a connection to the past, a way to get to know one another.
Before I started going to braiding salons as a child, I didn’t know anything about other West Africans.
But while a Senegalese American woman burned the tips of my braids to close them, I learned about her family, where she came from, a little bit of her personality – all because I spent a few hours in her chair. I would leave the salon with my sisters, hair swinging slightly, with renewed confidence.
This is an experience every little Black girl should have.
Black hair, like Black fashion, can be a political statement. Hair braiding salons are a testament to that fact. These salons are mini-communities in and of themselves, with a long history of social, economic and cultural importance.
The proverbial house that these women have built should be preserved and respected, always.
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