Naturally Criminal: Isis Brantley

Isis Brantley is a rebel with a cause. She has been arrested twice, taken to court and found guilty of her crimes against the state. She has stood before the highest court in Texas as a defendant and two years later, found herself before the federal courts as a plaintiff. She is considered a Civil Rights icon and a fierce supporter of bootstrapping young women out of poverty through entrepreneurial means. What Miss Isis is not is a violent criminal. She is not a drug lord - she is actually a vegan- and she is not a terrorist, a spy, or hacker. So in 1997, when seven Dallas officers kicked in her salon door, handcuffed her in front of her clients, and threw her in jail, she initially thought it was a joke. Her crime? Braiding hair without a cosmetology license.

In late 2017 when I first began to put together the idea of Black in the Day, I was looking for interesting people to cover whom most probably were not familiar with. As I scoured Pinterest history boards, I came across a beautiful color photo of a brown skinned woman wearing an African style head dress, hands raised above her head victoriously though both wrists were handcuffed. I was intrigued by the description “Isis Brantley. Civil Rights Activist for Black Hair.”  I immediately Googled her and found that she actually lived in Dallas, less than 20 minutes from my apartment and her salon -The Institute of Ancestral Braiding is the only natural hair school in the State of Texas. I quickly emailed her at the address listed on her Naturally Isis website

Not two days later Miss Isis called my cell phone. An interview time was arranged  in our studio.

Despite her diminutive stature, when I met Miss Isis, I was bowled over by her presence. She arrived at our studios near DFW airport directly on time with her manager/ brother in tow, wrapped in a glittering scarf and bangles dripping from every available space on her body. My conservative, mostly white coworkers watched from their open space work area as we passed their glass walls; they stared from their seats not bothering to conceal their confusion, their fascination, their intrigue. The Urban Outfitters crowd had rarely encountered someone so unapologetically BLACK in their millennial lives, so gorgeous in her vegan brown paper bag skin. I can’t blame them. In this political circle, Candace Owens is one of their only Black American representatives - a darker skinned embodiment of Tomi Lahren but more self hating - and minorities of the party are not to be seen or heard unless the platform calls for proof of their “open mindedness” during election years. Then, the show begins and it seems as if there is an Uncle Ruckus style narrative being played on repeat, an old bed wench house nigger hymnal with a good beat. Produced by Kanye, of course.

Nevertheless, Isis either failed to notice or care. When one meets Isis Brantley, her authentic spirit is one of the first things that causes you to fall in love with her. She is who she is wherever she is. The second thing I noted was her terrible strength of character and resilience, a trait that makes her a Dallas area celebrity and a highly regarded African Braiding expert. These traits are also what led to her being handcuffed and dragged from her salon by seven undercover Dallas agents for the surreal crime of braiding hair without a cosmetology license. “As soon as I opened up the shop, wow, the red tape was wrapped around my hands,” she said. “Seven cops came in, in front of my clients, and arrested me and took me to jail like a common criminal. The crime was braiding without a cosmetology license.” After her release, she was required to pay a $600 fine for the offense.

Let’s go back just a bit to explain that red tape that Isis referred to. Occupational licensing, also called occupational licensure, is a form of government regulation that requires a person to earn a license or certificate in order to pursue a particular profession for compensation, especially those that can have a large negative effect on individuals such as physicians and lawyers. This makes a lot of sense; who would visit an unlicensed Nurse Practitioner or a lawyer who hasn’t passed the bar? We want the best care possible when it comes to our health and our rights. In most states in the US, licenses are required for non life and death professions such as electricians, plumbers, Real Estate Agents, even Asbestos Workers. I can’t help thinking about instances when this burden of regulation failed to protect the general public. The infamous podcast Dr Death immediately comes to mind which is interestingly enough based out of a hospital not 10 miles from my home. When designed and implemented carefully though, licensing can offer important health and safety protections to consumers, as well as benefits to workers. But while this argument might make sense for Realtors who must write contracts and calculate payments, it doesn't so much for other professions such as flower arrangers or interior decorators, professions that are subjective, artistically focused, not an inherent risk to life, limb, or property. In other words, if I received a bad floral arrangement, I don’t risk losing custody of my children. However, the current licensing regime in the United States also creates substantial costs, and often the requirements for obtaining a license are not in sync with the skills needed for the job. In the 1950s, only 70 occupations had licensing requirements, and these accounted for 5 percent of all workers. By 2008, more than 800 occupations were licensed in the various states and they accounted for 29 percent of all workers. Prior to 2015, even Eyebrow threaders in Texas were required to pay as much as $9,000 to go to private beauty college and clock about 750 hours of education. Threading is a traditional South Asian method of using cotton thread to remove tiny hairs usually on the face and it has picked up steam in Western culture due to its precision and ease of use. But private beauty schools do not spend even a minute teaching threading. Threaders were forced to spend the equivalent of more than 31 24 hour days learning every beauty technique except the one they actually use in their jobs. Threaders were also required to pass two cosmetology exams, neither of which tests threading. Still, inspectors imposed $2,000 fines on threaders who did not immediately stop working and obtain the state’s useless license which the eyebrow threaders argued that most of the training was not related to health and safety or to what threaders actually do. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in late June 2015 that the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation violated the state constitution when it ordered eyebrow threaders to obtain these 750 hours of conventional cosmetology training. The state conceded that more than 40 percent of the hours were unrelated, although it argued that the licensing requirements were still constitutional. Justice Don Willett, in a concurring opinion joined by justices Debra Lehrmann and John Devine, said the case is about more than the ability to pluck unwanted hair with a thread. "This case is fundamentally about the American Dream and the inalienable human right to pursue happiness without curtsying to government on bended knee," he wrote.

If this all sounds a bit suspect, its because it absolutely is. By definition, occupational licensing is meant to be burdensome.There is evidence that licensing requirements raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across State lines. Too often, policymakers do not carefully weigh these costs and benefits when making decisions about whether or how to regulate a profession through licensing. In Texas it takes 350 days of training to become a cosmetologist; 1,825 days to become a preschool teacher; and $4,800 in fees to be a fisherman. In 24 states, hair braiders need more training than emergency medical technicians. Completing the necessary coursework in one of these 24 states can cost upwards of $20,000 and requires up to 2,100 hours of training. By comparison, EMTs need, on average, about 140 hours for their licenses. Many of the occupations that are the targets of occupational licensing are best suited for people on the first rung of the economic ladder, who don’t have the resources or political power to fight back against unnecessary regulations. Even for jobs where there can be a rationale behind licensing,  the requirements vary drastically from state to state. For instance, manicurists need a license in every state except Connecticut. But the amount of training needed to get that license ranges from a mere three days in Alaska to 163 days in Alabama. The same goes for pest control applicators, which are licensed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. though it takes only $25 and one exam in California and Kentucky, and requires no additional training. But in Tennessee, pest control applicators must have four years of experience and sit for two exams. What?! This makes no sense.

Despite her decades of experience and her many happy customers, the decision that the government put before Miss Brantley in 1995 was difficult, if straightforward: spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to get right with the state — and stop earning money in the meantime — or choose another line of work. This scheme certainly protected licensed cosmetologists from honest competition, such as ProLine hair products owner and close friend of mayor Ron Kirk, Comer Cattrell, but it did nothing to help Isis and her five children. Before she had the chance to fully investigate what this would mean for her, she was arrested.

An injunction was forcibly placed on her building by the city and Isis found herself out on the street literally. Thankfully, because of her many years of philanthropic work in Dallas, she had the support of the community including other grateful business owners who came together and gave Isis a place to stay and helped her to find a attorney to fight this battle. For almost 10 years, Isis went toe to toe with “the man”, fighting Texas legislation on occupational licensing in order to make a living just braiding hair, even though braiders do not use chemicals, tools, barber chairs or sinks.  Brantley told the committee that, like most braiders, she doesn’t even use scissors or combs — just her hands. African style braiding utilizes all natural techniques to manipulate ethnic hair by twisting, braiding, and locking hair into styles that are healthy and protective. Some of those types of styles include sisterlocks, dreadlocks, havana twists, cornrows, etc. The list goes on and on. And for anyone who has ever had their summertime braids installed they know how healthy and simple it is for your hair not to mention a part of your ancestral legacy.

I looked up the Paul Mitchell School’s cosmetology program here in Dallas because I wanted to see what exactly the cost for a cosmetology license like this would be and what would be taught. Paul Mitchell The School Dallas is a member of AACS (American Association of Cosmetology Schools) and is accredited by The Council on Occupational Education (COE), and is also licensed by the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation (TDLR). So graduating from this fully accredited institution would put any stylist on a good foot, as far as perceptions go. This is a respected school: in fact, the website boasts that the Dallas campus “was the first Paul Mitchell Partner School in the Paul Mitchell Schools network.”

Training like this definitely comes at a price:

Tuition: $17,500.00

Application Fee (nonrefundable): $100.00

Kit, Equipment, Textbook, Supplies (nonrefundable): $2,097.00

Sale Tax: $147.00

Drop Fee: $100.00

Nearly $20,000 and 1500 hours for a cosmetology degree that doesn’t even cover African style braiding or culture. Braids, like cornrows, micro braids, and Senegalese twists require no chemicals or heat and provide relatively easy maintenance for our ethnic hair. In contrast, the typical styles offered in American salons often use caustic chemicals and heat to straighten hair. Properly handling those chemicals is one of the skills that cosmetology schools, like Paul Mitchell teaches its students.

So, After ten years of advocacy, in 2007, the Texas Legislature passed, and the governor signed, HB 2106 during the 80th Regular Session, which freed braiders from the state’s cosmetology-licensing requirement.  In its place, HB 2106 created Texas’s 35-hour hair braiding license, and inserted the license under Texas’s barbering statute. Isis Brantley was grandfathered in a awarded a license. Brantley won the right to braid hair. She was ecstatic - the battle she had been fighting for the last decade had officially been won. But her legal battle with the state wasn’t over.

Unfortunately, while HB 2106 freed Isis to braid, it also created new legal challenges. She had already taught hundreds of others to braid, and in 2013 she tried to start teaching formal classes in her shop the Institute of Ancestral Braiding—which she opened almost twenty years ago on South Beckley in Dallas.  Under the new law, however, Isis’s classes could not be used to satisfy Texas’s 35-hour instruction requirement for hair braiders.

At that time, braiding schools were regulated as barber colleges in Texas. The state informed Isis she must convert her modest hair braiding school into a large barber college,a cost of about $25000, and become a state-licensed barber instructor, which requires 2,250 hours of barber education before she can teach the next generation of African hair braiders despite her decades of experience. Once again, she was told she would have to buy barber chairs and wash stations that aren’t necessary for braiding hair, in accordance with Texas Barbering Administrative Rules devised for professional barber schools.

Enough was enough. That is why on October 1, 2013, Brantley contacted The Institute for Justice, a national civil rights law firm that litigates across the country for economic liberty, private property rights, educational choice, free speech, and other vital liberties secured by the United States and state constitutions. IJ supported her cause and argued that the requirements placed on Isis and other ancestral braiders was unconstitutional.  Together, with IJ Attorneys Arif Panju and Matt Miller, Isis Brantley filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Texas arguing that the requirements to open a school violated her 14th Amendment equal protection rights by preventing her, and those who wanted to learn from her, from earning an honest living.

During the trial, Panju said, the state couldn’t identify a single hair braiding school that was able to open under the strict requirements. In January 2015, a federal court declared the three barber school requirements unconstitutional as applied to hair braiding schools.  In the wake of our victory in federal court, IJ and Isis Brantley worked in the Texas Legislature to completely deregulate the practice of natural hair braiding. Those efforts proved successful. HB 2717 was passed unanimously by both the Texas House and Texas Senate. On June 10, 2015, the bill was signed into law and the practice of natural hair braiding was fully deregulated in the Lone Star State.

Brantley said regulations on the hair braiding industry are a major roadblock to the “upward mobility of the impoverished community,” where the art of African hair braiding is most prevalent. “This lawsuit means economic liberty for my community,” Isis said.  “This is our new civil rights movement.”

Miss Isis has helped generations of Dallas residents support their own families by teaching this art form. Children are being fed and clothed one head of Senegalese twists at a time. “That’s the American dream that I want to be a part of,” Brantley said. “Cut the red tape. Help people learn this art and go to work.”