African Hair Braiders Want a New Law

April 13, 2010

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Oumou Wague crochets a client's hair. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
The African tradition of hair braiding is seen as a cultural art. But Illinois requires state oversight of this tradition. Those who braid are supposed to pay to take hours of cosmetology training. When the Illinois Senate returns from recess this week, members are expected to vote on a bill that would lessen the amount of training required for hair braiders.

Oumou Wague learned to braid hair in her native Senegal by watching her aunts and mother. By age 10, she was braiding the hair of cousins and friends. Today, she owns a shop on South Halsted. Wague's technique on a client looks like tapestry.

ambi: This is crotchet and you French braid the hair going back using a needle…

As she works on the customer, Wague pulls out synthetic hair from a bag. She uses it to braid into her client's natural hair to give it length.

ambi: This is actually a brand called Beverly Johnson. It's a good brand…

Wague's shop is spare. She takes one client at a time by appointment. Her doors are not widely open to the public. There's no bustle of women inside like typical salons. She has her reasons.

WAGUE: We're still afraid to be shutdown.

State law says that hair braiders like Wague must have a full cosmetology license. That could cost about $10,000 and includes 1,500 hours of training. Like many hair braiders on major streets in Chicago such as Halsted or 79th, Wague doesn't have a license. Some observers say only 10 percent do have one. Women less as bold have shuttered their businesses.

WAGUE: We don't feel safe operating when the government is really saying to us to close. We want to respect the law but the law is not easy to follow.

She says it's not easy to follow because it's too cumbersome. Hair braiders say hours of cosmetology training are unnecessary because they don't use chemicals or do anything unrelated to braiding. Wague's shop doesn't even have a shampoo bowl.

She's hoping a new law gets on the books that would require only 300 hours of training in sanitation methods to receive a hair braider's license. Current hair braiders with experience would be able to get grandfathered in. Later they'd have to get yearly continuing education.

State representative Will Burns introduced the hair braiding bill.

BURNS: There's a vibrant underground economy right now of hair braiders. And I don't think that's going to change with the law.

The bill has passed the Illinois House. It soon goes to the Senate.

BURNS: And at a time here we need to create jobs for low- and moderate-income folks, particularly women, this made a lot of sense to me.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation controls cosmetology licenses. Officials say licensing is necessary so that hair braiding customers have a place to take complaints. But this debate over licensing is deeper than issues of money and safety. The practice of hair braiding in Chicago speaks to the acculturation of black American women. Hair braiding came from Africa and spread to Latin American and the Caribbean. The style is an inherent part to African and African-American culture.

KABBA: It's really the manipulation, natural manipulation of hair like fingers. This does not involve chemicals. It does not involve any extensive use of tools that are beyond just comb and the fingers. It's a natural artwork that you acquire from generation to generation.

Alie Kabba runs the United African Organization in Chicago, which backs the bill.

In Washington, D.C. Taalib-din Uqdah is the executive director of the American Hair Braiders and Natural Haircare Organization. He crisscrosses the country trying to get hair braiders exempt from cosmetology licenses. Uqdah doesn't like the 300-hour proposal in Illinois. Public health is common sense to him.

UQDAH: First of all it doesn't take 300 hours of anything to train an individual that if someone comes into your salon with an open wound, you don't provide them with a service. Uqdah advocates states giving out sanitation booklets.

If the bill passes in Illinois, he's advising hair braiders to openly defy the law.