By Mia Taper
When you exit the 125th Street subway station in Harlem, they are some of the first people you see. The women park themselves in the station, others post themselves on street corners or in front of shops. They’ll ignore most people unless they view them as a potential customer.
Their ideal customer: a black woman with natural hair.
Source: Su-Chan on Flickr
“Hair braiding?” they’ll ask. “What kind of braid you want?” they’ll ask again in bit of broken English. Even if you pass them, they’ll try to call after you. If you didn’t originally have a particular hair shop in mind, they’ll take you to one, usually within a few blocks radius of 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue, where you’ll then barter on a price before getting your hair done. Aim low, be firm.
But when you’re there, talking with these women can be hard. Many of these women hail from countries in western Africa, with Senegal leading the pack. Some of their English is perfect, others are quiet, and less confident in their English. Many are of Islamic faith, and often wearing hijabs. Their customers are black American women, often with no connection to the Islamic faith. If there is a desire to connect with one another, in this room full of black women there seems to be a barrier in the way but that barrier may be beyond the bounds of language.
“I have engaged in very few conversations primarily because they are always talking amongst each other,” says Chelsea Odufu, 21, of the braiders. Odufu has been several times to get her hair braided on 125th Street. Though Odufu always makes a point to make conversation while in the chair, she noted how many of the customers in the shop tend not to be “inviting” either. There seems to be “an unspoken tension between the African Americans and the Africans,” Odufu says of the shops’ atmospheres. “[Black] americans and Africans have weird feelings toward each other.” Odufu explained that she always makes it known that she is African while in the shop. That mention makes their treatment of her much more positive.
As the African population in the US has grown over the past decade, a 100 percent increase according to the Migration Policy Institute, there’s been quite a bit of media and academic attention on the rift between Africans and black Americans. A 2011 opinion piece in The Guardian argues that the barrier between Africans and black Americans is the result of each groups’ unique experiences and struggles coupled with unfair stereotypes making the relationship not exactly warm.
Wali Mbekeani, 22, agrees with Odufu’s sentiments. She’s a regular at Aminata’s African Hair Braiding off 125th Street, stopping by every two to three months to get touchups. “I don’t engage much with the hair braiders. They usually prefer to speak among themselves in [French],” Mbekeani says.
If regular conversation seems to be an issue, then media attention is a whole other beast. In 2012, Mbekeani tried to make a short documentary about the process of black women transitioning from chemically treated hair to wearing their hair “natural.” During that time, she interviewed the braiders at her regular shop but “they didn’t like to go into too much detail on their personal lives. They don’t like too much public attention,” Mbekeani explains. Her difficulty in interviewing those braiders was one of the reasons she shelved her documentary. It is impossible to know why the women were so hesitant to give Mbekani details. Was it the cultural rift? Immigration issues? Language barriers? Or the protective instinct of people in a cash based business?
Mbekani’s experience reminded me of a similar brush off that I was met with in an attempt to report a story on hair braiders in 2013. In my interview with Aminata Dia, the owner of Sister Aminata Hair Braiding on 125th Street, her lack of disclosing details was more telling than the actual interview itself. I am a regular at Sister Aminata’s and have been for years. In other words, they know me, they recognize me, and we talk. There was a time when I forgot money and they trusted me to return. However, the interview took a different turn. Dia often turned her body away from me, swiveling her chair towards any other place in the shop. When I asked her why start a hair braiding shop in America, she replied, “no, I can’t answer that.” She declined to give her age, how many people worked in the shop, and where the other items she sold (purses and jewelry) came from. When she last turned her back to me, signaling she was through, she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “they told me I couldn’t do interviews anymore.” Who was they, I asked, but she refused to answer.
As I left her shop, Aminata Dia told me to tell my friends at NYU about her business and pointed to her business cards for me to grab. Some of her hair braiders quietly tracked me with their eyes as I walked out the door, returning back to 125th Street. The next time I returned to get my hair braided we returned to our awkward silence.