Why Isis Brantley’s 20-year battle for the right to braid hair matters

You may want to write down the name Isis Brantley because she’s changing the world. Brantley has spent the last 20 years fighting a very important legal battle in Texas, the right for women to braid hair professionally without a cosmetology license. That may at first glance seem trivial, but it’s a fight saddled with all sorts of racial and economic implications. It’s a seriously big deal. And as of this week, Brantley has finally won her case.

“I’m really thankful the judge saw my side of it,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “Being a single parent with five children, I really needed to get this behind me.”

Here’s what happened. The law in Texas required hair braiders, like Brantley, to obtain cosmetology licenses in order to run hair braiding businesses. The problem is obtaining a cosmetology license is pricey and time-consuming, plus it’s the same license required for beauticians and barbers (who use tons of chemicals and products). Hair braiders, in contrast, only use their hands. In sum: The law was pretty unfair for people who wanted to braid or loc hair, plus it was putting all sorts of red tape on not just an important beauty business but a crucial economic pathway.

Brantley wrote about the experience for the Huffington Post when she was first bringing the issue to the courts. In her post she hit home the cultural, historic, and economic importance of the braiding business. She writes:

“I’ve been teaching African hairbraiding since 1984. African hairbraiding has a proud lineage and dates back centuries. It’s all natural so braiders don’t use any chemicals, dyes, sprays, or anything that can permanently damage someone’s hair or the environment.

Through my school, the Institute for Ancestral Braiding in Dallas, I’ve taken in hundreds of young ladies and trained them how to braid. My clients include everyone from the homeless to Grammy award-winning neo soul artist Erykah Badu. By passing on these skills and traditions, I’ve helped many women support themselves and their communities.”

But for years, because of state laws, Brantley was subject to legal battles, a $600 fine and even an arrest. According to her documented complaint, she was arrested by seven law enforcement officers in 1997, during a raid on her hairbraiding business, all because she lacked a cosmetology license.

Brantley, who learned the art of braiding from her mother at the age of 6, began seeing clients in her kitchen, to avoid legal repercussions, and eventually tried to open a salon.“As soon as I opened up the shop, wow, the red tape was wrapped around my hands,” she told the Texas Tribune. “Seven cops came in, in front of my clients, and arrested me and took me to jail like a common criminal. The crime was braiding without a cosmetology license.”

Once she was released from jail is when Brantley began trying to combat the law. In 2007 there was a hint of success when the state lowered the training hours required to get a cosmetology license from 1,500 hours to 35 hours. Brantley was grandfathered in and got her license. She was finally able to legally braid hair.

Still, there was another complication: Brantley, in this time, had taught braiding and the state was not ready to accept her students. She was told her that her students would not be allowed to professionally braid hair unless, according to the Wall Street Journal, she “install[ed] at least 10 workstations — equipped with reclining chairs and no fewer than five sinks — purchase[d] barbering textbooks, and relocate[d] to a space more than twice as big.”

Brantley, who had already taught hundreds of women to braid hair, was not giving up without a fight.

“This is crazy. Braiders are not barbers. What I want to do is an all-natural art form. It has nothing to do with chemicals, cosmetology, or owning a barbering school,” she wrote for the Huffington Post.

In 2013, Brantley sued the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation saying they were infringing her 14th Amendment rights (the Amendment was adopted after the slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War) and barring her and others from earning an honest living. Two years later, she’s finally won.

Why does any of this matter? Well it matters a whole lot. Her win protects the rights of women generally, of Black women more specifically, and will honor the fact that this is a means for many, many people to rise out of poverty. There are endless political implications when it comes to Black women with natural hair, and those ideas are tied up in this debate as well. Braiding and loc-ing and twisting hair may seem trivial to some, but allowing women the power to do their hair in a style that represents their family, history, and roots is both crucial and fundamental. Furthermore, allowing women to pass down this knowledge and start their own businesses is of paramount importance.

Brantley fought a battle she believed in for over 20 years and she won. We applaud her work, her dedication, her devotion to women and her passion, and every single thing she has done in the fight for equality.

[Images via Cosmo.]

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