MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So now we want to talk about hair. Yes, that again. For women of many backgrounds, hair is a sensitive topic. But you've probably heard by now that for black women, hair care can be a particularly sensitive topic, what with people wanting to touch the hair, battles over how it should be worn and whether it should be chemically treated or not. But the question of who styles your hair is also a knotty issue, and that's become even more of one in Texas.
Hairstylist Isis Brantley is suing the state for the right to teach natural hairstyling and braiding. The state wants her to meet several qualifications that include 750 hours of barber training. Brantley believes her experience should be qualification enough. She's been braiding hair for more than 30 years and includes singer-songwriter Erykah Badu among her many clients. I want to mention, we reached out to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation for a statement. They declined to comment as the case is still pending. But Isis Brantley is with us now. She's the CEO of the Institute of Ancestral Braiding. That's a natural hair care and braiding salon and school. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
ISIS BRANTLEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: So for people who may not be familiar, what's the difference between natural hair care and other types of styling? People might hear that, and they think, oh, it just means you use natural products or something like that. What are you talking about when you say that?
BRANTLEY: When I say natural hair - and thank you for that question - I'm talking about African hair because an Asian woman or a Latina woman or an Italian woman with no chemicals has natural hair. But when I stand next to these women, my hair is not considered natural hair. It is considered African hair because it's different. It's different, and it has a different meaning to it. It has a different historical importance to it, you know. So when I say natural hair, I'm talking about kinky, curly, coily, nappy hair.
MARTIN: So people of African descent with their hair in its natural state, not chemically treated to make it look straight or something of that sort. So you are suing the state for the right to teach and issue a hair braiding certificate. Talk to us about that. What is the state asking you to do that you find objectionable?
BRANTLEY: The state is asking me to turn my Institute of Ancestral Braiding school into a 2,000 square foot barber college. They're asking me to take 1,500 hours and become a barber. In addition to that, they're asking that I take 750 hours to become a barber instructor. And I'm not a barber. Barber and African braiding are two different things. And all I want to do is issue license and continue to teach and train in my community and pass this gift down to the next generation.
MARTIN: Now you already teach, but you can't issue certification. So is that part of it? What is it that you particularly object to?
BRANTLEY: I issue certification from the Institute of Ancestral Braiding, but I don't issue license so that people can go to work. So my objection is economic liberty. I have the right to earn an honest living and teach and give license to those that want to go to work. I'm objecting the unreasonable, unfair requirements and regulations to my African art, which is something that's indigenous and something that I grew up doing, and something that you don't have to go to a barber college or a cosmetology school to learn.
MARTIN: Now this isn't the first time you've had legal issues because of your hair care business. In 1997, you were actually arrested for braiding hair without a license. Was that the actual charge, braiding hair without a license?
BRANTLEY: Yes, that was the actual charge.
MARTIN: And you fought that charge, and what happened?
BRANTLEY: I fought the charge because there were no braiding laws on the books at the time. I think it was just a scare tactic that they used. But I didn't comply, so I didn't understand why that happened because I had already been practicing the art of braiding 20 years before I was arrested and taken to jail. Basically, I got a lawyer and sued the state of Texas. And finally, 2007, they changed the law from the requirements of 1,500 hours to 35 hours, which exists now, and they grandfathered me. I was the only one out of the whole state of Texas. And all the people that braided hair and wanted to braid for a profession or, you know, for a living - they had to take the classes somewhere, but I was grandfathered. And the only reason I was grandfathered was because I - you know, it should have been exempt altogether.
MARTIN: On the one hand, though, I mean, so you're saying this is an issue of economic liberty and also self-expression. On the other hand, there are horror stories about people getting scalp infections or losing their hair because stylists braided their hair too tight or didn't take the necessary sanitary precautions. And some people would argue that experience alone - and even though I think most people do know that hair braiding is something that has been passed down for hundreds of years through generations.
There are ancient artifacts that have hair braided, you know, in the manner that you teach, and that this is something that has been done at home, among family members for generations after generations. However, some people say that when you take it into the realm of business, that you can hurt people. You can hurt people or some untrained people. So what would you say to that, you know?
BRANTLEY: Let's talk about that. Sanitation - if that's the real concern, then sodium hydroxide should not be placed on top of one's skull. Sodium hydroxide is one of the chemicals that's used in cosmetology. And alopecia is running rampant in this country because of the use of sodium hydroxide.
MARTIN: What is that? That's hair straightener?
BRANTLEY: It's - yes. It's very caustic. So, to me, that's real sanitation and safety, you know, not a comb being dropped on the floor in a braiding salon and used. Sodium hydroxide should never be put on African hair, period. I think that we are trying to see something that is really, really minute when there's a really, really big monster in the house.
MARTIN: Why do you think this is coming to the fore now? In preparation for my conversation with you, I was looking around the country for similar stories, and I understand that in Oregon and California, Utah, and a number of other states have dealt with similar issues about which qualifications braiders should have to meet in order to conduct business. Any thoughts about that?
BRANTLEY: African hair was enslaved in this country. It was removed from American social systems. We weren't allowed to be seen in public with afros and twists and locks and braids. You could not go anywhere. And if you look at the industry today and look at the workforce, people cannot go to work looking a certain kind of way if it's too ethnic. Our children are being forced not to wear afro puffs to schools and cornrows to schools.
So it's an attack on African identity. That's what I see. The cosmetology industry wasn't designed hundreds of years ago. It wasn't created with African hair in mind. You know, it was created for the people who enjoy the industry now. We don't have a place in that industry. So it's all about culture. That's what I'm saying. This - our culture, African hair, is the last thing that's enslaved on African people. African people with African hair, who know more about African hair, should govern their own industry.
MARTIN: So what's the next step here?
BRANTLEY: Hopefully, we win this lawsuit, this federal lawsuit, so that it can change lives and help people that are in Texas who want to be entrepreneurs, who are already braiding and teaching and helping their community underground. You know, they have their businesses underground. And hopefully this will help people. And in the next 10 years, you'll see more natural hair braiding institutions. And I want to say that I am concerned about the way we braid hair because the market is saturated with women of African descent who do not understand African hair, curl pattern and texture and how fragile it is. So there are a lot of things that we have to make sure that we educate when we do become owners of our own natural hair braiding institutions.
MARTIN: How are you wearing your hair today?
BRANTLEY: Afro. And I wear this 'fro because it's a conversation. It's a conversational piece. And I like to talk about the history of black hair in America.
MARTIN: All right. Isis Brantley is the owner and operator of the Institute of Ancestral Braiding. That is a natural hair care salon and school. And she was with us from Dallas, Texas. Isis Brantley, thank you so much for speaking with us. Keep us posted.
BRANTLEY: I will. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.