Hairbraiders Face Unfair Tangle
By Drew Johnson Imagine a law that inhibits hundreds, even thousands, of people from pursuing a rewarding job and creating a better life for themselves and their families. Worse still, what if the law almost exclusively targeted young, low-income, African-American women — members of our society who desperately need economic opportunity? Imagine a law that inhibits hundreds, even thousands, of people from pursuing a rewarding job and creating a better life for themselves and their families. Worse still, what if the law almost exclusively targeted young, low-income, African-American women — members of our society who desperately need economic opportunity? Unfortunately for Tennessee’s hair-braiding artists, such a law isn’t merely a troubling vision, it is a reality. Hair-braiding, or ”natural hair styling,” began more than 3,000 years ago in the region now known as modern day Egypt and Sudan and remains an important symbolic and stylistic statement to many African Americans. Thousands of practitioners throughout the United States engage in the intricate crafts of twisting, wrapping, weaving, extending, locking and braiding hair. Since African hair-braiding involves no chemicals, dyes or other artificial hairstyling methods, it does not raise the same health and safety concerns commonly associated with mainstream cosmetology. Debra Nutall, a single mother of three, used her braiding abilities to pull herself and her family out of poverty. ”I was on welfare and food stamps, and lived in public housing,” said Nutall. ”I began braiding, got a job in a salon and was able to move into my own place and get off of welfare.” Then, in 1996, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation requiring that all natural hair stylists acquire a license through the State Board of Cosmetology. Nutall and all other natural hair stylists, who had previously been ignored by the board, received notice that they would be responsible for ”satisfactory completion of a course of instruction of not less than 300 hours in the practice and theory of natural hair styling at a school of cosmetology.” For skilled braiders like Nutall, an eight-week course in braiding is wholly unnecessary. Few, if any, natural hair stylists in Tennessee learned their craft through the state-required curriculum. Most braiders in Tennessee learned to braid as children by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters or friends and practiced their craft on playmates. By the time braiders enter cosmetology school, nearly all already know how to braid. This regulation is also stifling considering that only two of Tennessee’s 56 state licensed cosmetology schools offer the 300-hour ”natural hair styling” course. These schools are located in Memphis and Nashville, leaving potential students living outside these areas little chance of ever attending these courses. Even more ruinous to the hopes of most Tennesseans working to meet licensure requirements is the cost of the 300-hour course — about $2,000, not including state examination fees. Since so few would-be certified natural hair stylists have the time or financial resources to attain licensure under the Board of Cosmetology requirements, as Nutall points out, ”there just aren’t enough licensed braiders.” ”Some salons are shutting down because their customers want natural hair styling and they can’t find enough braiders to do the work. Folks just do it at home instead.” The government shouldn’t be in the business of eliminating valuable jobs. The only regulation natural hair stylists should ever face is the mandated use of disposable or properly sterilized instruments and equipment. A number of other states have already opened up the market for braiders, including Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi and Washington. Tennessee should follow suit. Freeing natural hair stylists from Tennessee’s entangling regulatory burdens not only benefits salons wishing to offer braiding services and consumers seeking expert hairdos, more importantly it benefits the natural hair stylists themselves. Scores of underprivileged women of color have the capacity to follow in the path of Debra Nutall and create better lives for themselves and their families. The question remains, will the state legislature let them?