African hair braiders in North Carolina will soon need a license to practice their craft.

As of July 1, North Carolina will become the 18th state to require women to carry a license to braid hair.

Braiders have a year — until July 1, 2011 — to take a written and practical exam administered by the North Carolina Board of Cosmetic Art Examiners. Those who fail must spend 300 hours and thousands of dollars at a cosmetology school to relearn a skill most braiders mastered as young children.

Anyone trying to enter the field after July 2011 will have to take the 300 class hours, without the opportunity to test out.

One problem: the vast majority of hair braiders emigrated from West Africa, and most can’t read or write English. Moreover, traditional African hair braiders do not use chemicals, so they say there’s no need to provide instruction on hygiene and other safety concerns that do not apply to their skills.

Complaints not from customers

The national trade group representing African braiders says North Carolina’s law is little different from barriers placed on practitioners in states across the country; the primary complaints have not originated from customers but from licensed cosmetologists who see the braiders as unwelcome competition.

Requiring hair braiders to take formal exams smacks of a literacy test. “Back home, a lot of families don’t let their girls go to school,” said Mariama Diakhate, the owner of two African hair-braiding salons in Raleigh.

Diakhate, who is originally from Senegal, received a formal education because her dad served in the military, but six of her eight employees are illiterate. The two who can read and write do so in French.

Lynda Elliott, director of the state cosmetology board, confirmed the test would not be offered in French and that accommodations would not be made for those who can’t read.

“If you don’t know how to read or write, you don’t take classes,” Diakhate said. “You just pack your stuff and move out of North Carolina.”

Diakhate said she, her sister, and her cousin will get licensed and do their best to keep the business running, but losing eight employees may force her to close her doors and move out of state as well.

Even if the braiders had the language skills necessary to pass the written exam (which Elliott said includes questions about hygiene, health, and braiding techniques), Diakhate says the practical exam and any classes on braiding are pointless.

“There is no school back home that teaches you how to braid,” she said. “Either you know how to do it, or you don’t know.”

“It’s in our blood,” she added. “It’s our culture.”

Diakhate began “braiding her dolls” when she was 7 or 8.

“I did my sisters’ hair,” she said. “They did mine.”

Taalib-Din Uqdah, who has been referred to as the “Johnny Appleseed of hair braiding,” confirms this is the case.

Uqdah and his wife Pamela Ferrell own a prestigious hair-braiding salon in Washington, D.C., called Cornrows & Co. Ferrell, who is Diana Ross’ hair stylist, is considered the foremost authority on natural hair care, which includes braiding, twisting, and locking of hair.

The couple has trained dozens of women who’ve gone on to open their own salons.

In the 1980s the District of Columbia tried to shut them down, threatening them with fines and jail time for operating without a cosmetology license. After 10 years of battle, with help from the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, the couple was able to exempt braiders from the local licensing law.

After his success, Uqdah formed the American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association to help braiders nationwide fight regulations that threaten their livelihoods.

Uqdah advises braiders in North Carolina to “openly defy” the law. He says he and the Institute for Justice can help them fight and win.

Ulterior motives

Rep. Earline Parmon, a black Democrat from Forsyth County, said she introduced the licensing legislation for health and public safety reasons.

“Several of my cosmetologist constituents in Winston-Salem were seeing a lot of customers who had been to hair-braiding shops and were having all kinds of problems with hair breakage or chemicals that had been placed in their hair inappropriately,” Parmon said.

Uqdah says traditional braiders do not use chemicals of any kind. He said they use nothing more than “shampoo, a comb, and a little oil now and then.”

Licensing laws rarely are created for the public good, said Uqdah. Rather, they are created to appease private interests who don’t like competition.

“Cosmetologists look at braiders as if they are taking money out of their pockets,” he said.

West African braiders are now learning to add extensions to white women’s hair, he said. White cosmetologists wanted to offer the services, but didn’t know how to braid. So they created other methods — gluing and singeing.

Uqdah said up to 25 percent of calls coming into salons are women asking for extensions, braiding, twisting, or locking services.

“If braiders weren’t making money, the cosmetology industry wouldn’t be concerned about them,” he said.

Parmon said no cosmetology association lobbied her before she introduced the legislation. She said the bill was prompted instead by individual complaints. However, she said, the complaints were not made by individuals with “damaged hair and scalps,” but by “licensed cosmetologists.”

Diakhate and dozens of other salon owners have formed an association and plan to meet with Parmon and Rep. Larry Womble, another black Democrat from Winston-Salem who co-sponsored the bill.

Parmon said she wished the braiders had contacted her with their concerns before the legislation was passed.

Diakhate said a group of five women carpool from Virginia (where licensing is currently required) to have their hair braided in her shop. If she has to move, she believes her customers will follow her wherever she goes, “because that’s what they need.”

“I don’t see a requirement for licenses putting [anybody] out of business,” Parmon said. “I would never do anything to cause people to lose their jobs or put people out of business, unless they’re so bad they need to be out of business.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.