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African Trumpet Edition 25_AFRITRUMPET NEW UK 1/17/2012 10:20 AM Page 10


10 Africantrumpet-The voice of Africans


www.africantrumpet.com is Brought To You From Fordham University, Courtesy The Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP) By Dr. Jane Kani Edward


The period between the late 1980s and mid 1990s wit- nessed a high influx of African immigrants, particularly from West Africa, to the United States of America. A combina- tion of economic and political factors such as seeking better economic and educational opportunities, and political instability motivated many Africans to leave their home- lands and migrate to America. Although, historically, interna- tional immigration was domi- nated by men, in recent decades, many women from Africa have migrated in large numbers seeking refuge partic- ularly in the USA and other Western countries such as Canada, Australia, Britain, Italy and other Scandinavian coun- tries.


Similar to their male counter- parts African immigrant women, join formal and non- formal labor market to sustain their lives and that of their fam- ilies in the United States and their homelands.


Although


African immigrant women entered different sectors of the market in the USA, they mostly work in the service-sector par- ticularly in child daycare cen- ters, homecare, cleaning, cus- tomer services, etc. Few women with educational and professional skills work in the medical profession as doctors, nurses, assistant nurses, and other health-related jobs; or teach in colleges, universities, public schools, or as researchers, and leaders of community organizations, to mention a few. Yet, a sizable number of women work as entrepreneurs running beauty


THE BRONXREPORT MORE THAN HAIR BRAIDING


customers, or women from the Anglophone regions of Africa who neither speak Madingo nor French.


and Hair Braiding Salons, cos- metic and clothing shops, restaurants, and other food services.


This short article seeks to pro- vide preliminary reflections on the ‘African Hair-Braiding Profession’ which dominated by women. It does so by demonstrating how the African Hair-Braiding Salons are not merely sites for hair-braiding, but also dynamic spaces for cultural preservation and exchange, networking, collabo- ration and information sharing.


My experience of having my hair braided at two salons in New Jersey has inspired me to write about this topic. But first let me provide a context. The owners of these Salons are women from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa. Both are married with children, and are Muslims. The majority of their customers are conti- nental African women, and few


African-American women. There are also teen and pre- teen girls accompanied by their parents or guardians visit these salons for hair braiding. The salons’ owners usually employ women from their homeland, mostly family members and friends to serve their cus- tomers. The price for braiding hair varies according to the variety of hairstyles such as corn rows, twist, single braids, etc. In general, prices range from US$50 to US$120 per a person.


Given the fact that the majority of those women who work in the salons including the owners are less fluent in English lan- guage, most of the conversa- tions are either conducted in Madingo, one of the indigenous languages spoken mainly in West Africa, or in French, and occasionally in English. However, English language is only used when those women interact with African-American


Braiding hair is indeed a time consuming activity. Quite often, it might take up to four or five hours to finish ‘single braids’ style for one customer. Hair braiders, thus, often spend long hours in the salons. African music videos, and “Guinean women’s” party videos, with female musicians performing, are usually played to entertain the employees as well as the customers, some of whom are familiar with the music. According to the owner of one of the Hair Braiding Salons, the Guinean women’s parties are organized every year, mainly in the greater New York City area to honor and cel- ebrate women’s achievements and success in various aspects of their lives. Mindful of the long tedious hours that women spend braiding hair, the salon owners, particularly during weekends, bring home-cooked food to be shared by the employees. Occasionally, other African immigrant women who are either friends or close rela- tives who know the salon owner bring their goods such as African attire, perfumes, jewelry, and other accessories to the salon for those cus- tomers who might be interested to buy. Those women earn additional income, by selling their goods in these salons. In one of my visits to the salon, two of those women entrepre- neurs came to the salon in dif- ferent times. They conversed with the owner, and then dis- played their goods on the


counter for the other women to view and possibly buy.


Therefore, based on my obser- vations, I can argue that African Hair Braiding Salons are more than hair braiding sites. They also play multiple roles and functions which are vital for African cultural preser- vation, exchange and collabo- ration. First, the use of Madingo as a medium of com- munication and the play of African music exemplify an act of cultural preservation in the host society.


Second, through listening to African music, and to hair braiders converse in their indigenous language during the time spent in the salon, US- born African-American women customers are exposed to an aspect of African art, culture and language that they might have not been familiar with before such encounters. As for a continental African female customer from a non-West African region, such encoun- ters might provide her with a deeper understanding of the diversity of languages, cul- tures, and identities which exist in the continent.


Thirdly, the fact that many young US-born


African-


American and second-genera- tion African girls and teens are now braiding their hair, demon- strates that the existence of African Hair Braiding Salons in New Jersey and other cities in the USA are changing the views and positions of many people, in particular young “black” girls and teens, about beauty and hairstyle. Thus, the


Dr. Jane Kani Edward is a Clinical Assistance Professor of African Studies & Director of African Immigration Research, the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP), Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, Bronx, New York. She can be reached at edward@fordham.edu


growing demand for hair braid- ing is partly demystifying the long-held Eurocentric assump- tions which associate beautiful hairstyle with “straight hair” particularly in the context of the United States.


Finally, in addition to cultural preservation and exchange, African Hair Braiding Salons are providing employment opportunities to African women who are unable to find job in the formal sector of the econo- my due to various reasons such as lack of English lan- guage proficiency, lack of work permit, absence of proper immigration documentations, among others. For African immigrant women who do not possess valid working papers, for example, the relationships forged within these Hair Braiding Salons are essential sites for social and economic activities. These relationships may provide those women with access to information neces- sary to either adjust their immi- gration status, or facilitate access to more employment opportunities. This kind of group solidarity is critical to the survival of many African immi- grant women in the United States.


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