One of the benefits of living in New York is that you can find pretty much any food, consumer good, or service that you’re looking for. If you walk down the iconic 125th Street in Harlem as a black woman with natural hair, one particular service will stick out to you. Glare you in the face. Shout at you.
Regardless of the temperature, how I’m dressed, how fast I’m walking, whether I’m smiling or scowling, one thing remains constant whenever I walk along 125th street: I am approached by a minimum of 3 hair braiders shouting for my attention. Many of these women are African immigrants, their braiding shops small entities tucked in between McDonald’s and Rainbow, or housed in the basement or rear of one of Harlem’s giant beauty supply stores. As an African immigrant myself, I respect their hustle. Braids are a hot commodity in these parts, and particularly in the summer, as large box braids, Havana twists, and Senegalese twists can be seen sported by celebrities and common folk alike (I’m still waiting for Lady O to rock some waist length braids though, she knows she wants to!). With 2-4 braiders conquering each head, these small shops are a great option for people who want a fairly quick, low maintenance, and affordable protective style.
So what’s my beef?
These women–my sisters and aunties–overwhelmingly target me and other ladies who have decided to wear their hair in its natural state. Imagine this scenario: three women walk down from Frederick Douglass Blvd to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd (one avenue). The first has relaxed hair, in a bob, that is cute but obviously not fresh. The second has a long weave, poorly blended with visible tracks. The third has kinky hair, a carefully defined twist out with a pretty flower pinned in the corner.
9 times out of 10 (I’ve walked down 125th street hundreds of times), the hair braiders will harass woman #3. Me. Never the woman with the bob, and (to my dismay) not the woman with the sad weave. I use harass because the conversation/verbal attack often goes like this:
Hair braiding miss?
No thank you (smiles).
Excuse me miss, I SAID hair braiding!
I’m ok thanks
BUT MISS, HELLO, HAIR BRAIDING!!!
No means no. In every context. So when I say no the first time, either because I’m on my way somewhere (who actually randomly decides to braid their hair at 4pm on a Tuesday?) or I happen to like my hair that day, I really mean no. When I first experienced this I had to seriously reflect the moment I got home. Was my hair busted? Was my kitchen unbrushed? Did my updo really look like an updon’t? After the next five or so times, I realized that it had nothing to do with my hair. Regardless of whether my hair was freshly washed and styled in a twistout, an old puff, fro’ed out, or pinned up elegantly, I was equally and always asked if I wanted my hair braided, and then emphatically reproached when I declined.
If it wasn’t me, then it had to be them. What is it about my kinky hair that makes the hair braiders on 125th street believe that I am in immediate and dire need of their services? Obviously it wasn’t the kind of hairstyle, nor the quality, so it must’ve been the state of my hair. Being West African I know how most of my people feel about natural hair. Natural hair is reserved for school girls and is kept uniformly cropped in a low cut. The only adult Nigerian women I’d ever seen with braided or twisted hair (without extensions) until recent times were the actresses portraying house girls in Nollywood films. So most people in the motherland don’t think it’s the move. When I went to Nigeria two years ago, my cousins were thoroughly confused about my “Afro” (it was a twist out) and why I didn’t relax my hair like everyone else. Thankfully I made progress with them and a few have since gone natural, but I have a feeling that many of my aunties on 125th still see my hair as unmanageable, undesirable, and unsightly, and assume that I want to–or even worse, that I need to–put my kinks into braids.
One of these days when I actually do have a few minutes free time, I plan on stopping an African hair braider and asking her why she singled me out of the crowd of twenty women who walked by. Maybe I have a welcoming face. Maybe they can tell I’m West African by my wide nose and fluffy cheeks. But I have a strong sense that it’s because of my hair and only my hair, which is cause for a serious discussion about perceptions of kinky hair among African women, whether they are immigrants or several generations removed. Seeing as the convo will take a while, I might as well get my hair braided.
Do hair braiders, or African women in general, still see natural hair as an element that needs to be both tamed and hidden? Are braided styles disproportionately advertised to the natural hair community?
*Sidenote: I love braids. We have no beef. When installed and maintained correctly, they can be a fantastic protective style. I wore kinky twists while transitioning, Senegalese twists in year 2, and Havana twists in year 3. I just don’t want to have my hair braided every day. I also think weaves are a great protective style, until this happens.