Salamata Sylla, owner of Kent’s Sally’s African Hair Braiding, is from Senegal, in west Africa.
“That’s where I’m from. I love home, I’m very proud of where I’m from.”
And her job, literally, is to keep the west African hair braiding tradition alive in the United States. Salamata moved here when she was 15.
“For a better life, a better future. But when you get here things are a little different, it’s not paradise. You know, back home they show you Hollywood, until you get to JFK and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on!’ My sister put me to school and after school I would go to the shop and do hair braiding and Saturday and Sunday.”
Now she has her own shop and women visit from as far away as Portland and Spokane. But about a year ago, she was paid a visit by the Department of Licensing.
“It was two officers, they told me I needed a cosmetology license to do hair braiding. I told them, ‘No.’ I didn’t need one. They said I needed to go to school, I needed to close my shop. We argued back and forth.”
Salamata says they pestered her for nearly a year, but she stood her ground.
“I know that I don’t have to go to school to do hair braiding. I know my rights. They didn’t see no complaints under me. No other shop was targeted but me, in Seattle.”
So she decided to file a lawsuit. But the day before it was filed she got a call from the Department of Licensing.
“To tell me that I could do whatever I want. That it was over, that it was a big mistake. But it’s a little too late. I don’t think it’s right after you harass a person for a whole year. All of a sudden you heard about a lawsuit and you want to call and apologize and say you can do whatever you want. So basically they’ll just have to deal with that.”
What they have to deal with is a lawsuit. Salamata is not asking for any money, what she wants is an actual law that states that she, and all other hair braiders, don’t have to go to cosmetology school. It’s something that Institute For Justice attorney, Paul Avelar, says was already established, but just magically disappeared.
“Way back in 2005, the Department of Licensing, in response to an earlier lawsuit that we had against them, said that natural hair braiding wasn’t the practice of cosmetology because it didn’t use things like chemicals or hair cutting or heat or anything like that,” said Paul.
That’s the thing. Cosmetology school doesn’t actually teach braiding, something that Salamata says keeps many west African immigrant woman afloat in this country.
“They use hair braiding as a survival, instead of being on the streets or doing different things that are illegal,” Salamata says. “They braid hair to feed their children while getting their life on track. I think it’s a job that helps us keep our dignity.”
And lets women like Salamata celebrate their heritage.
“It’s a gift. Nobody really teaches you. It has to be inside of you. I’ve been standing here since eight in the morning just braiding this [one woman’s hair]. It’s a passion. It’s a gift.”
When I visited the shop, Salamata was in the middle of an eight hour braiding appointment with Karen Hendersen.
“It’s pride,” Karen says. “I used to get the perms and the weaves and the straight hair. It’s not about that anymore. It’s about pride, dignity. I love natural beauty.”
Karen hopes that the Department of Licensing will start respecting what women like Salamata do.
“I had a connection with her when I called her up, I just fell in love with her. It’s my first time here. I’m tearing up, she has a beautiful, wonderful spirit. I feel comfortable like I’ve known her all my life. I think it’s the spirit, the spirit of God. It’s not man’s connection, it’s not human. It’s a spiritual thing.”
A court date has yet to be set, but Paul says they have filed several similar lawsuits in states around the country.