Commodifying the Gift: Two Ethnic Braiding Salons in Baton Rouge

By Sylviane Greensword



From U.S. slavery era until the 1950's, popular culture commonly presented black women with wild and kinky hair (Pieterse 1995; Madison 2011) or as asexual "Mammies" with handkerchiefs over their heads (Collins 2004; Stephens and Phillips 2005; Roberts 2010). Many African American women embraced this spite for wooly hair (Byrd and Tharps 2014), which explains the excitement and euphoria that followed the commercialization of the first hair relaxers (Robinson 2011). Black nationalists denounced the adherence to European beauty standards and called for black women to reclaim black natural beauty (Davis 1994). Afros became increasingly popular in the 1960's and 1970's. In the 1980's, the modernization of this Afrocentric/pan-African paradigm led black pop culture and media to increase connections with contemporary Africa and the Caribbean (hence the production of movies and shows such as Roots, Chaka Zulu, and Coming to America). This relatively new interest, in combination with the increasing number of African immigrants in the U.S., popularized the use of African forenames, as well as African clothing styles, fabric prints, jewelry accents, and African hairstyles such as cornrows and microbraids.

Figure 1: Individual braids are a common style. The extension is knotted or otherwise attached at the root, then braided downward. Depending on thickness and size of the base, various names may be used such as box braids or microbraids. Photo by Sylviane Greensword.

Although straight hair remains a standard of class and sophistication in black American communities, hair braiding is now an important cultural tradition for many African Americans throughout the United States. While in Africa and the Caribbean, women often braid each other's hair at home and socialize with each other (as braiding can take several hours), braiding is most often performed in salons by professional braiders in the U.S., for reasons I discuss later in this narrative.

With its 32.5% African-American population, Louisiana is an ideal venue for hair braiding salons (U.S. Census Bureau 2016). Here, as in other parts of the United States, quality hair braiding is often associated with foreign stylists from the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa,1 although salon customers are almost exclusively African American. While most black salons in Baton Rouge treat chemically relaxed hair, braiding services are part of the contemporary movement in the black aesthetics that promotes a certain "return to African roots" and more natural hair care.2 Yet braided hair is such a common sight in the city's African American community that one could argue that braiding salons have visibly transformed Baton Rouge's black American landscape.

One reason why hair braiding has become popular among African Americans is that African hair can be complex to handle, compared to that of other ethnic groups. Braids offer a convenient alternative to counter the effects of Louisiana's weather: when an individual's hair is pulled and locked in one position, humidity and rain have little effect on its curliness (Greaves 2017; Parks 2014; Collins 2004). In addition, braided styles are easy to maintain. Cornrows can be kept for up to three weeks, and micro-braids and weaves can be kept for six weeks to two months without any major damage. They are therefore a time-effective option for women who want a polished look without much upkeep.

African American stylists who perform braiding services typically work in beauty shops that do not exclusively specialize in braiding. These establishments also occasionally hire African braiders. Mo' Hair, whose owner is originally from St. Lucia, is an example of a multi-service salon that provides chemical and natural hair treatments. The salon employs African and African American braiders. Likewise, the Hair Tamers Studio provides a diversity of black hair care services. The braiding services they offer (twisting, box braids, and cornrows) are listed as "African Hair Braiding" on their menu, as their hired braider is Congolese.

It is quite challenging for immigrant women to set up their own braiding salons, because they must first satisfy governmental regulations for training and licensing. The Louisiana Board of Cosmetology refers to techniques such as twisting, wrapping, weaving, and braiding as "alternative hair design." Braiders must take 500 hours of coursework and pass an examination before they can obtain a special permit that allows them to offer alternative hair design (LSBC 2011).3 Their success depends heavily on extensive planning and years of perseverance.

Although it has always been common for immigrant African braiders to serve their customers unofficially in the braider's home, the emergence of branded "African braiding" salons is a relatively new phenomenon. In Baton Rouge, these salons are located in areas close to African American neighborhoods. Most of them lie along Florida Boulevard, one of the most navigated arteries in the city.

Princess African Hair Braiding (PAHB)

Jojo, the owner of PAHB, is originally from Togo, a Francophone country in West Africa. I interviewed Jojo on several occasions over the course of five years, and often observed her at work. Sometimes I mixed business with pleasure as she braided my hair. Now 28 years old, Jojo came to Louisiana as a refugee in 2000 when her father, a former military man, received death threats following the country's regime change. The family first escaped to Benin. Jojo spent most of her childhood there before landing in Baton Rouge. She speaks Mina, French, and now English.

Upon arrival in Louisiana, her family was directed to an apartment complex, off Brightside Drive, where most refugee and immigrant families from Africa were placed. Although this complex no longer exists, the Brightside families have remained in contact, and see one another at graduations, weddings, and other gatherings. Jojo was placed in her middle-school's English as Second Language (ESL) program, where she met most of her lifelong friends, and continued the program through her high-school years at Robert E. Lee High School. She then attended Baton Rouge Community College, where she pursued a medical assistant degree, with the intention of returning to Togo and contributing to her country's progress in the medical field.

Early Years

Unlike most of her African counterparts, Jojo did not learn how to braid at a young age. She has an older sister who married when Jojo was still young and now resides in Togo. Jojo thus grew up as the only girl among her four brothers. She spent her childhood with very short, natural hair, as girls did in Beninese schools (Projet Enagnon Dandan 2013). As she grew up, she enjoyed growing her malleable hair, and kept it relaxed and loose. In her teenage years, however, she started to anticipate getting married (although she was not engaged until last year) and having a large family:

I always knew I would have a lot of kids and especially a lot of girls. But in this country, I don't know where I would take them to get their hair done. So I started to read and search around about how to take care of hair, and I really got into the whole braiding thing. I learned everything on my own. I practiced on my friends. I watched videos, and it became my passion.

Her frequent trips to Togo fueled her enthusiasm and helped her keep up with the latest fashions, extension styles, and techniques. When she returned to America, she would develop creative ways to incorporate what she had learned into the African American aesthetic. It was always a success. She now often does her own hair, but she also lets her helpers braid her hair for practice.

Jojo earned her stylist license while pursuing a medical assistant degree simultaneously. She would assist her sister-in-law, who operated a braiding salon, in the summer. Her first customers where older, African women, some were her mother's friends. At that time, Jojo was also a singer in the African band Voice of Praise, which performs at Living Together in Christ International Church. This establishment is a place of gathering and networking for numerous members of the African community in Baton Rouge, and her membership has helped her business bloom with African customers. The Christian atmosphere in her salon helped generate publicity. Yet, she noticed that customers would often ask to pay for her services at some undetermined time ("later"), and most of them—"mostly Nigerians," she added, laughing—ended up not paying at all. Because of the respect younger Africans are traditionally expected to show their elders, Jojo did not pursue these women in quest of her wage. Remaining in good standing with fellow Africans was a priority. Instead, Jojo resolved to avoid African customers altogether.

While in training, she decided to rent a booth in the Salon Mall under the name PAHB, which she shared with an African American fellow trainee, Erica, who provided relaxing and other styling services for relaxed hair. The shop was a spacious room on the second floor of Hammond Aire Plaza, which Jojo and her roommate designed as a soothing environment. Its theme color, purple, covered the walls, and decorations and accessories such as blow dryers and baskets were mauve, lavender, and violet. Within a year, she was so overbooked that the now full-time medical assistant had to hire helpers. Her reputation grew, and customers returned.

When Jojo was not tending to patients or at the salon, she would consult, negotiate, and plan with customers from home, where she felt more comfortable. Although her initial decision to open a formal shop was based on beauty school requirements, her customers preferred the formal environment of a salon as a public sphere rather that the private home. Salons provide a space where socio-cultural stances are determined, and everyone knows their place: customers dictated what they wanted, and Jojo complied. In contrast, neither the customer nor Jojo was "in charge" in her parents' house. Jojo was expected to remain out of the living room where her father would watch the France 24 newscast and read the newspaper. She had to make sure the hair extension strands remained out of the kitchen where her mother would prepare the meals. On the other hand, the customer was required by protocol to behave as a respectful guest there, and was not in a position to make demands that could potentially debase Jojo as a service provider.

When Jojo's father passed away in 2014, the African community of Baton Rouge mourned for weeks. Returning the body home for a proper Togolese burial, as custom required, demanded more time away from work than Jojo's medical workplace could allow. She decided to resign and flew to Togo to bury her father the African way. When she returned to Baton Rouge a month later, her medical assistant position was no longer available, but one thing remained unchanged: her reputation as a braider. She traded her salon booth for a full suite on Florida Boulevard, which would be the new home of PAHB. Although she has a website for her salon, most of its content has expired as she does little or no website maintenance. "I let my work speak for itself," she said. Beside a large ad on her car's front doors, word of mouth is her primary advertising medium.

Exacerbating the Exotic

Jojo decided that her new salon would reflect its name. She painted the walls and trim white, red, yellow, and green, the colors of the Togolese flag, and her salon window displays jewelry with cowrie shells and gold from the Gold Coast. "Nollywood"4 movies are the main entertainment available on the salon's flat screen TV. It is also common to hear Jojo and her helpers' lively conversations in Mina, "broken English" (as she calls it), pidgin, and "Frenglish," interspersed with loud laughter and phone conversations with customers booking appointments.

Figure 2: Jojo twists hair using extensions. The bold wall colors match her helper's green bazin dress. Photo by Sylviane Greensword.

Despite the bold Africanism, Jojo remains popular with American customers. In fact, she favors them for their financial and professional safety, as opposed to her mother's friends, whose hair she would rather braid for free or not at all. "With African Americans, I don't have to fight," Jojo explains.5 For this reason, Jojo is generally satisfied with the assurance that her American customers arrive aware of the cost required, and they are usually willing and ready to pay upon completion of the service. In African cultures, bargaining is an art at which women often excel (Clark, 1994; Clark, 2010), but to Jojo it is painstaking, time-consuming, and does not generate enough profits.

Jojo's helpers prepare extension strands for her, and sometimes braid, under her supervision. According to the regulations, helpers do not need a license to practice under the business owner. During field observation, I interacted with helpers from Cameroon, Ghana, and Congo. When I asked Jojo why all her helpers are African, she explained that few African American stylists micro-braid. According to Jojo, those who do are outrageously expensive, or they simply do not perform up to her and her customers' standards. In addition, African American customers commonly ask for African braiders. Jojo has met customers who refused to let American braiders touch their head, as if "being served Chinese food by a non-Asian," she joked. Jojo once recruited a U.S.-born friend whose parents are Nigerians, to assist her with a customer. The braider had no foreign accent, which initially made the customer apprehensive. Both braiders assured her the helper was Nigerian. Two weeks later, the customer returned complaining that all braids the helper did had come loose.

Since then, Jojo resolved to make PAHB exclusively African-staffed. The exotic connotation and the presence of African braiders is now an image she utilizes to promote their otherness as a guarantee of the quality of her services. Jojo uses the stigma attached to African manual labor for promotional purposes. Africanness constitutes capital, as it is commodified as a label of authenticity. And it is working, business is booming.

To complement the African experience, customers have the option to bring their own hair extensions or to use some from the salon. During her trips to Togo, Jojo shops for the trendiest extensions. Prices there are relatively low, and packs are twice as full as those sold in U.S. beauty supply stores, so she can buy large amounts for herself and her friends. Customers who want authentic Togolese extensions (though they are made in China), are charged a small extra fee.

Stylist-Customer Interactions during Service

When she worked at the Salon Mall, Jojo and her roommate Erica would often chat with their customers about health, fashion, hair care, and courtship. However, such exchanges were very minimal when Jojo consulted from home. There, it would be common to only hear the TV playing in French and Jojo interacting with her family members in Mina, while the customer remained silent, looking at braiding models and extensions. Likewise, at the new shop, I observed few casual conversations between the customers and Jojo or her helpers, which heavily contrasts with what one might see at an American beauty shop (Toerien and Kitzinger 2007; Solomon, et al. 2004; Martyn 2011; Linnan and Ferguson 2007).

Countless customers admitted that they felt a bit uneasy when surrounded by braiders who do not speak English. Some directly asked "What are you saying, are you talking about me?" Others would jokingly warn, "Don't talk about me, now!" Eventually, customers concluded that they are willing to bear the discomfort, because it was compensated by the quality of care they received and Jojo's affordable prices. Several customers also stated that they enjoyed the exposure to African culture. Getting their hair braided at PAHB allowed them to view Africa and Africans in a new light. They particularly appreciate the Nollywood drama shows that contrast with cable television shows commonly viewed in American salons.

Commodifying Africanness

Through PAHB, Jojo re-creates Africa in a pan-Africanist ideal that extends way beyond her native Togo. Having grown up in a foreign land, but surrounded with friends from Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Liberia, and Kenya inspired her to infuse her business with sensibilities that reflects commonalities within her community. French anthropologist Bourdieu's notion of habitus considers that the schemata and affinities that characterize humans are acquired and learned culturally, not out of biological instinct. These characteristics result from the home-place cosmos constituted by our communities. Our modes of being, thinking, valuing, and behaving are thus rooted in our cultural exposures (Bourdieu 1990; Madison 2011, 12). This cultural identity led Jojo to visibly tailor her salon to be a microcosm of Africanness. She validates the label "African Hair Braiding" through a series of exposures: the colors of her shop, the service she renders (braiding as African aesthetics), the languages she speaks, the clothes and jewelry she advertises, and the nationalities of her staff.

As excluding and limiting as this process might appear, it is also what attracts her African American clientele. Women proudly praise "this African girl who does [their] hair." As they consume her services, they willfully surround themselves with a landscape and soundscape of exotic foreignness, if only for a couple of hours (Feld and Brenneis 2004). They consume Africanness.

Andrea's Hair Studio (AHS)

I first interviewed Andrea in her salon suite, as she was servicing a repeat client with Senegalese twists on a Saturday morning. At that time, she was also working at the Salon Mall, which hosted but a few natural hairstylists: Andrea, Coco, who owned A Natural You, and PAHB. Andrea's shop was a spacious room. With its light emerald walls, it was a relaxing environment. All equipment was neatly stored in straw baskets and trays. Teal blue decorations enhanced the aura.

How It All Began

Like Jojo, Andrea and I have known each other for quite a few years, as we both attended LSU at the same time. Andrea is originally from Jamaica, where she was born and raised. She came here in 2005 after being offered a scholarship to run track at LSU. She recalls her childhood there as "fun." She was a very driven person from a young age:

A lot of young ladies in my community got pregnant and I knew I didn't want to end up like that. So I started running track. I thought, I got the talent, and I can probably use it to propel me to get to where I wanna be, and so. . . I got recruited from my Catholic high-school in Spanish Town put me in the scene and started getting noticed. First in Philadelphia where I won the triple Penn Relay. [. . .] I got recruited by 5 different universities, but I chose LSU because there are a lot of Jamaican athletes [there] so I could fit in more than I would anywhere else.

Although Andrea always admired track athletes, she perceived sports as a way out. She is the first person in her family to finish college. Upon graduating in 2008 with a journalism degree, she started her Master's program in broadcasting. She married soon after, and got pregnant. Along with the bundle of joy came a bundle of bills. More than a degree, Andrea realized she needed income. In her emotionally charged account, she explained that she always wanted better for her and the family she now has (her husband and two sons) than what she had growing up.

Figure 3: Andrea divides her client's hair into 4 sections to pace herself and finish within a maximum of 4 hours. Photo by Sylviane Greensword.

Andrea started braiding at the age of 12 (she is now 33). Unlike Jojo, Andrea grew up in a household where braiding was a routine activity. She quickly got the hang of it, as she argued that this is an innate ability: "It takes natural talent. Not everyone can do it, not everyone can call themselves a braider." During her years at LSU, she would often braid her track and field teammates' hair. By 2013, she was licensed to braid in Louisiana and Texas.

Andrea invests a significant amount of time advertising. She unashamedly exploits any opportunity to promote her art in the social media. Her business cards read: "I let my fingers do the talking." Not only does she use her dexterous hands to express her creativity, but Andrea also insists on letting her visible work speak for itself: 'It's kind of hard to tell someone, "Well, I do hair." That doesn't really mean anything. They really wanna . . . see the work, see what you're capable of doing and that's why I started that fan page on Facebook." In contrast to Jojo, Andrea posts virtually every picture of her work on Facebook, as well as photographs of her own new looks. "I do my own hair, I don't let anyone touch my crown [. . .]. Braids or twists, and I'll wear it like that for about three months at a time, shampooing it bi-weekly, the same thing you would do wearing your own hair. After those three months, I take it down and do a deep conditioning treatment or a hot oil treatment just to make sure my hair is still healthy." This advertising strategy has even attracted numerous African American licensed hair stylists, who visit her suite to learn how to braid.

Staffing the Team

Andrea's first objective in her business venture was to get her station at the Salon Mall in order to stop working from home. She also sees her salon as an opportunity to help young women get a professional future. Her wish list includes selling her own products, funding new braiders' licensing, and hiring them in a salon of her own, and maybe even write a book about how to do all of the above. "The possibilities are endless," she commented. And she is on her way there. In June 2017, she purchased her first business property and new home of AHS. This venue will provide rental space for skilled and licensed stylists in need of a booth.

Andrea does not belong to any specific network of braiders, despite her effort to reach out to others. She deplores the lack of solidarity in the trade. A few years ago, she invited three local stylists with excellent braiding skills to join her business. She offered them greater compensation than what they were making, she said, since her prices are typically on the higher end. They refused her offer. She also left her portfolio in another well-established Baton Rouge salon, but its owner never called her back, despite promising to do so. Andrea attributes braiders' isolation to misconceptions and misunderstandings. Others perceive her as competitive, while her intent is to be more collaborative.

Interacting with Customers

Like Jojo, Andrea had sobering experiences that led her to now filter her clientele, which she describes as "high-end clients:" nurses, doctors, teachers (and their children), a few college and graduate students. She used to accept all customers indiscriminately, until one of them refused to pay, because she did not fancy the resulting style. With customers willing to travel from Houston and New Orleans to get their hair braided, Andrea can afford to profile with whom she wants to work.

Conversations between Andrea and her clients are typically centered on hair care, for which she, authoritatively so, holds her returning customers accountable. She commonly asks them, "Are you eating your fruits and veggies?" "Are you drinking enough water?" She also warns them, "Well, if you don't eat a right diet, how do you think your hair will get healthy?" or "Your hair is a reflection of how you take care of yourself!" In the same lines as Martyn's (2011) or Linnan and Ferguson's (2007) findings, recurrent conversation topics both at AHS and PAHB are family, courtship, traditions, celebrations of the current season, health concerns, and foods. In both salons, customers also express much concern for their weight, but while they spend hours lecturing one another against the ills of diabetes, heart disease, depression, alopecia, and pregnancy, weight gain was often presented as compensable once a woman has a fabulous hair do.

Apart from a few occasional jokes with her helpers, Andrea does not speak Creole (commonly called Jamaican Patois) in front of her customers. She insists on remaining professional at all times. Actually, she emphasizes "good conversation" as part of the treatment she offers. Clients come to get pampered, and therefore they must be given the attention they came for. In contrast with Jojo who immerses her customers in African colors, music, and visual arts, AHS's practice of speech therapy (or speech as therapy) is somewhat reminiscent of the African folkloric practice of palaver. Indeed, Andrea perceives that these women need to be listened to, and they need to release energy "off their chests" through effective communication. Because of her journalism background, she feels quite comfortable centering the conversation on her clients so that they will in turn leave content and affirmed. As braiding provides healing for one's hair, speaking provides healing or care for the inner person.

Conclusion and Reflections: Internationalizing African American Fashion and Resisting Alienation

From the Congolese sapeur to the New Orleans churchgoer or the Harlem poet, black peoples worldwide have a history of making iconic fashion statements through a polished appearance (Bazanquisa 1992; Hanon 2006; James 2015; Hobdy 2016). The salon customers I observed and interviewed adhered to this standard of fashionability. The fact that immigrant women contribute to this statement of blackness and this sense of the fabulous in such a direct manner is noteworthy. While I do not argue that blackness alone defines Baton Rouge, it is evidently one of its distinguishingly visible attributes. Thus, the braided hair care that helps shape the black cultural landscape is part of a new phase in African American cultural history. This phase is by far more internationalized than any other since slavery days. Indeed, for a few hours, customers and their foreign stylist form an intimate bond through the physical contact of the braider's fingers with the clients' scalp and hair. They have the options of consuming Africanness in a shop like PAHB, or Americanizing the African experience at AHS. Either way, they leave the shop fabulous, yet with a more global consciousness of their own blackness. This consciousness will be re-ignited every time they are asked the question, "Who did your hair?" which has become such a quintessential part of the African American soundscape.

It could be tempting to view Jojo as yet another immigrant manual laborer and Andrea as an elitist. However, this report sought to highlight their respective complexities. Jojo does not simply manufacture a service tailored to the client's desire. She influences what they desire. She imported not only her skill, but also new hairstyles from West Africa that she flaunts with her own head. Her customers and surrounding community might not have been otherwise exposed to this African aesthetic. On the other hand, Andrea chose to service natural hair styles historically associated with unrefined social class to "higher end" customers. By doing so, she is helping re-define social norms. She is contributing to remedying the stigma of hegemonically-defined appropriateness and straight hair as a function of status.


1. Black immigrants are a small minority in the U.S., and there is little literature available on this specific population. In Baton Rouge, only 5.4% of the population is foreign-born (U.S. Census Bureau 2016), and people of African and Caribbean descent are a minority among this demographic group.

2. Baton Rouge has 125,000 black inhabitants; they constitute 54% of the city's population (U.S. Census Bureau 2016).

3. Until 2003, Louisiana braiders had to possess a cosmetology license, which required 1500 hours of coursework, covered within a minimum of 36 weeks. Out of the curriculum's 20 courses, only 5 were somewhat related to skills needed for braiding. The Board now issues braiders a special permit, valid for one year. While 26 states still require a cosmetology license for braiders, alternative hair design licenses are more and more common nationwide (AACS 2016). In March 2017, Louisiana Representative Julie Emerson (Carencro-R) authored and filed House Concurrent Resolution 5 (Emerson 2017, HRC5) to eliminate the law for alternative hair design, and House Bill 468 (Emerson 2017, HB468) that would allow hair braiding to be an unregulated practice. Emerson echoed the braiders' complaints as she argued that no school in Louisiana offers the 500 hours required by the Cosmetology Board as listed. The House Committee passed and moved the two measures in May 2017. The Cosmetology Board expressed that sanitation coursework should remain mandatory. The bill is currently subject to call at the Senate. Across states, governors and legislators usually support deregulation, because it helps improve employment rates, but trade boards generally lobby against deregulation (Bergal 2015).

4. "Nollywood," which combines the names "Hollywood" and "Nigeria," is a popular term for the Nigerian film industry and its products, much like popular Indian films are referred to as "Bollywood."

5. Jacobs-Huey (1996) analyzed the linguistic implications of price negotiation between African American stylists and customers. She explained that various discursive stances are employed and that price negotiation is often client-initiated. Nevertheless, because the black American salon is a site of performance as well as social positioning, the stylist/client stances are usually understood and abided by.


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This article was first published in the 2017 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Sylviane Greensword is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. Her research interests include performance and Afro-diasporic studies. It is included as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.