Brigitte Nzali doesn’t recall a time she didn’t know how to braid. Her mother taught her as a child in Cameroon, as soon her fingers were agile enough.
After attending business school in France and settling in New Jersey to raise her children, she saw braiding as a business opportunity. Her first few months at African & American Braiding in Blackwood went off without a hitch, until one day inspectors from the New Jersey Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling showed up to inform her that she was operating illegally and at risk of being shut down.
Hair braiders, they said, needed cosmetology licenses to operate — even though they use no chemicals or sharp tools and only a small part of the cosmetology program teaches anything about braiding. The inspectors gave her a fine.
That was in 2001. Now, Nzali will soon be able to operate without further worry as a result of a law signed Oct. 4 by Gov. Phil Murphy that created a license for hair braiders. Under the law, braiders are precluded from the 1,200 hours of coursework cosmetology licenses require. Instead, they now need only 40 to 50 hours.
“I was very happy. I said, ‘thank god! We can make this right once and for all!’” Nzali said. “I’m a proud New Jerseyan. I’m a mother of three great children, I raised them here in this state and I’m very happy to be a New Jerseyan because my voice was heard.”
A bill precluding hair braiders from any type of coursework was introduced in April by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-31st District, and was accompanied by a bill in the Senate. It passed unanimously in both houses July 1.
“I’d been getting my hair braided for many years and I’ve never thought about [their licensing requirements]. I just know they do good hair and I’m there,” McKnight said. “When [Nzali and others] brought this matter to my attention, I was like, ‘oh no, for real?’ We had to do something about this. We need to update the law so that hair braiders can braid hair without the fear of fines, of losing their establishment [and] so that they can be the entrepreneurs that they are with the skills they were born with.”
After 30 days, however, Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill citing consumer protection. In the veto it was suggested that 40 to 50 hours of coursework be required.
“Just as those who provide hair braiding services are primarily African-American women and African and Caribbean immigrant women, the primary consumers who utilize hair braiding services are African-American women and African and Caribbean immigrant women,” Murphy wrote. “I want to ensure that, by rolling back regulatory requirements for hair braiders, we do not expose those who use hair braiding services to harm.”
Now that the bill has been approved, the Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling has six months to create a program for hair braiders and add two board members with experience owning and operating a hair braiding establishment.
Not everyone, however, is satisfied with the new licensing requirement.
“Braiding is not harmful. It’s so natural. We’re just using our hands and the comb to do what we’re doing. I don’t really know why we have to go to school for 40 hours. How much will it cost us?” asked Hortense Fassu, owner of Elegant Hair Braiding in Hamilton.
Like Nzali, Fassu is from Cameroon and has been braiding since she was a young girl. She opened her shop in 2007 with the blessing of Hamilton City Hall, who she said mistakenly told her she only needed a business license to operate. In 2015, the Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling hit her with a $1,160 fine.
“When I work and pay all of the bills, it’s not like I have a lot of money left,” Fassu said. “It’s enough for me to pay my rent, feed my kids and do what I have to do. At least it helps me not need any help from the government. [The fine of] $1,160 is a lot of money for me, and they told me that if I couldn’t pay it, they’d double the fine.”
The cost of the coursework for the braiding license hasn’t yet been determined, but it will almost surely be less than the $17,000 the cosmetology licensing program required. Hair braiders will need to take time away from their salons to complete it, though, causing them to potentially miss out on business.
According to Brooke Fallon, assistant director of activism at the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice that worked with a coalition of New Jersey hair braiders to lobby for a bill, 25 states have totally exempted hair braiding from cosmetology licensing.
“We haven’t seen any evidence that there have been any negative consequences of that,” Fallon said. “I just hope that as the state cosmetology board works on finalizing the regulations, they keep them to the bare minimum.”
Nzali said she’s ready for the training and hopeful to be picked by the Board of Cosmetology as one of the two African hair braiders to lead the program. Besides running her business, she’s been teaching braiding for years, and many of her students have gone on to open their own hair salons. She said she’s proud of the work she and other braiders have done to put a stop to the days where they worry about fines and potential closure.
“For me, it’s just a fight for fairness and to help my state. I’m not challenging the beauty schools or state board. They’re doing a great job. I just want fairness for the African braiders to practice their culture with no fear,” she said.