African-style braiding is a way of protecting black hair naturally through twists, locs, and braids. No chemicals are used, just natural ingredients. It's a practice usually passed down from generations.
Damond Grayson: "Today I'm doing loc maintenance, a loc retwist. I'm just cleaning up the loc shaft just to keep the locs healthy."
Damond Grayson is a licensed natural hair stylist in Chicago, where the state requires 300 hours of classroom and practical experience. Across the country, hair braiding requirements are inconsistent. Twenty six states don't require licensure at all. Some states require specialty licenses with 50 to 500 hours of training. While more extreme states l ike Idaho and Montana require a cosmetology license and 2,000 hours of training. For comparison, it takes an average of 150 hours of course work to become an Emergency Medical Technician— a job where you're helping save lives. Not only is licensure time consuming for some students, but costly as well. This inconsistency raises a question not only within the hair braiding community but nationally: Should hair braiders be licensed at all? This notion of regulating black hair is not new. It has roots in American history.
"Black hair was regulated by slave masters who shaved the hair of enslaved people of African descent as a means of control and punishment," said Jasmine Cobb, African American Studies professor at Duke University and Author of "The Art and Texture of Black Hair After Emancipation. "We also see in U.S. law, legislators dictating cutting black hair close to the scalp as a means of control and that identifying enslaved people from free people."
In October of 1670, a Virginia Law directed slave masters to give repeated runaway slaves "a haire close cut." And Cobb says even the hair of freed blacks was regulated. In the 18th century, a New Orleans governor administered the Tignon law that required free black women to bind their hair in handkerchiefs rather than adorn it with feathers or beads.
Cob: "The regulation and punishment against black people administered through hair cutting was a way of taking away both distinction and personal autonomy."
If regulating black hair was a way to enslave black people then, is hair braiding licensing — which can take time and money— just another way of oppressing or suppressing black people today? Licensed hair braiders we spoke to say it's not about limiting black hair expression, but rather protecting consumers by training stylists on the basics of health and hygiene.
Danesha Damond, licensed natural hair stylist: "If you went to a doctor would you be okay with somebody who didn't go to school to be a doctor? ... Your basics come from school. Absolutely."
Latisha Price, licensed hair stylist and business owner: "When you go to school, they teach you things about sanitation and teach you things about marketing, [the] biology of the scalp, the face. They teach you about certain disorders like alopecia, the different kinds of alopecia."
Damond, Danesha and Latisha believe that licensing is important to hairstyling. But the hair braiding community isn't all alike. Some entrepreneurs just want to do hair without learning the other aspects of cosmetology. We are drove about an hour away from Chicago to Merrillville, Indiana. The state doesn't require a license to braid or style natural hair.
Kenyarea Price, unlicensed hair braider: "I braid hair part-time to supplement my household income... to help put food on the table and pay my bills."
Kenyera Price is a single mom with two kids. She's not making enough as a certified nursing assistant, so she turned to braiding. And because the state doesn't require her to be licensed, she's using it to her advantage.
Price: "Why should I go to school to do something that I already know how to do? You're not relaxing, you're not dying hair, you're not perming hair. Clients come washed and conditioned already. I don't wash and neither do I condition their hair. I just braid the hair when they come to me or when I go to their home."
Kenyarea believes there shouldn't be a braiding requirement at all, but she does think there should be an optional safety and hygiene course.
"We think there are thousands of ways in which people can learn a skill. What occupational licensing does is it only sets up one path, the government path, that is often captured by schools or people who sell textbooks and want to earn money," said Lee McGrath.
McGrath works for the Institute for Justice, an organization fighting to de-regulate braiding licenses because they say its stunts job growth. Currently, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have bills looking to repeal braiding licenses.
McGrath: "Advocates for government really missed the boat that the most powerful regulation, far greater than a piece of paper hanging on the wall, is word of mouth."
Black consumers spend nearly $500 million dollars a year in hair care. With that much consumer power, perhaps it'll be the consumer who decides whether braiding licenses matter at all.
Byron Kinard, customer: "I mean, it's the quality of your work that matters. That's how I feel."