By Rashad Phillips Photography By Djuana “DFitz” Lewis
For the past thirty years, Isis Brantley, a natural hair stylist, educator, and founder of Sisters of Isis natural hair product line, has been a pioneer for The Natural Hair Movement. Brantley led the fight for Braiding Freedom and Economic Liberty for natural hair stylists against the state of Texas. In 1997, Brantley was arrested for braiding hair without a license. At the time of her arrest, no Texas law required hair braiders to hold a license. Isis Brantley was targeted by the state of Texas because of her reputation for teaching homeless and low-income women the ancient art of Ancestral Braiding.
Brantley was not intimidated by the state’s unlawful action, and she was determined to fight and defend the rights of natural hair stylists. Brantley fought back against the state of Texas for her right to earn a living, to have the ability to teach other women how to earn a living, and to protect her civil rights. In 2007, after countless meetings and conversations with state officials, Isis Brantley was ‘grandfathered’ in as a natural hair care licensee by the state of Texas. Brantley received the prestigious honor of being the first natural hair care expert in Texas. Earlier this year, after a twenty year battle with Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 2717, which exempts hair braiders from having to acquire a cosmetology license to operate within the state.
Brantley has become an international natural hair celebrity because of her victory against the state of Texas. Brantley’s unusual encounters with The United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) created media buzz and resulted in policy changes to the way TSA agents search women with natural hair. Her story has been covered by major news outlets such as Forbes Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Black Enterprise, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dallas Morning News, and The Huffington Post. Below is my in depth interview with Isis Brantley about her childhood, natural hair journey, legal battle with the state of Texas, and how she defines beauty.
Phillips: During your childhood, did you ever get a relaxer?
Brantley: No, when I was a child we were pressing our hair. When I was 13 years old, I got my first relaxer when my mother left my sister and I home alone. We went to the store and purchased a box of Just For Me (a chemical hair relaxer) and tried it on ourselves. We didn’t know what we were doing so we burned our scalps and had scars everywhere. Even after my first bad experience with a relaxer, I continued to relax my hair. I was enthralled with the show I Dream Of Jeannie and wanted to look my favorite character on the show. So, I would get relaxers and pull my hair back.
When I went to college, I transitioned from relaxers to natural hair. During my college experience, I met my first husband and he introduced me to culture. I started reading, learning, and meeting people who loved themselves and this caused me to change my outlook on life. My exposure to culture is what caused me to transition to natural hair and to begin to focus on braiding hair. Initially, when I started braiding hair, I still had a relaxer but I was in the process of transition. During my childhood, I was influenced by I Dream Of Jeannie but during college I was influenced by Soul Train and I wanted my hair to look more like the sisters on TV.
Phillips: When did you learn to braid hair?
Brantley: The name of my school is The Art of Ancestral Braiding because braiding is a part of my ancestry. My mother, grandmother, and the community braided hair which made me a natural braider. When I was a child, I would sit and watch the elders braid and mimic what they were doing. After I began to develop my skills, people started asking me to braid their hair. When I was a child, we braided hair because it was just what we did. We didn’t get paid but we were perfecting our craft. I didn’t get paid for braiding my first head until I was in college. After getting paid for braiding my first client, my eyes were open to a way that I could make money and potentially earn a living by doing what I loved.
Phillips: When did Erykah Badu become your client?
Brantley: She saw the sign on my front door with an image of a woman with long braids. Erykah told her grandmother that she wanted her hair like that [pointing to the woman on Brantley’s sign]. She was nine years old when she came into my salon and we bonded instantly. We talked about how she wanted her hair styled, how long it would take to style her hair, and how much it would cost to maintain her hair. Erykah and I developed a relationship beyond a stylist-client relationship because we made a cultural connection. She was very observant and culturally astute. Erykah paid very close attention to us when we were dancing, singing, and setting up our braiding stations at The Harambee Festivals. She remembered me from the festivals and coming to get her hair braided was a part of her spiritual evolution.
Phillips: Can you tell our readers about your experience being jailed for braiding hair?
Brantley: It was a shock. It was the day that changed the rest of my life. On the day of my arrest, I was in my salon braiding a local news reporter’s hair. Two undercover officers came into the salon and asked me if I could braid their hair. After I showed the undercover officers pictures of my work, one officer said “Isis you are under arrest for braiding hair.” I thought the whole thing was a joke and I said, “You’re just kidding with me, right?” The officer said, “No, I’m not kidding. You do my sister’s hair and my cousin’s hair, but you cannot braid hair in this salon anymore. Now, I have to take you to jail.” I asked the officers if I could call my kids. The officers allowed me to call my children and then I was placed under arrest. The officers made me remove my head wrap and placed hand cuffs on my wrist. Initially it was only two officers but when I was placed in handcuffs, then three more officers came into my salon. At that time, I knew this wasn’t a joke and that I was going to jail.
When I got to jail, they finger printed me, took my mugshot, and I was thrown in a jail cell with criminals. After I was released from jail, I learned that I was charged with braiding hair without a cosmetology license. The government placed an injunction on my business which prevented me from working in my salon. Because I could no longer work, my five children and I became homeless. I was confused and didn’t understand how the state of Texas had the authority to regulate a cultural art form. Braiding hair was my way of life, how I fed my children, and a form of spiritual expression. How can a state government regulate our hair, our culture, and our way of legally earning a living?
As a result of this entire situation, we lost everything because the government said I could no longer braid hair. Fortunately, a good samaritan who learned about my situation offered me a house for my children and I to live in while I attempted to fight for my right to braid. Once we got situated, I started braiding in the kitchen so that I could begin saving money to hire a lawyer. Sometimes, people ask me why didn’t I give up or just move to another state so that I could braid but I never felt like I was in violation of any law. Also, I wasn’t just fighting for myself, I was defending the rights of salon owners, mothers, children, and our ancestors.
Phillips: In many ancient African traditions, braiding is a part of spirituality. Did you feel like the state of Texas was infringing on your spiritual views?
Brantley: I felt like the state of Texas was infringing on my spiritual way of life because when I touch hair, I heal. My motto and the mission of my Sisters of Isis organic product line is to “heal through hair”. The entire experience of working with a client including Locing, Twisting, and Braiding their hair is sacred. The relationship between Erykah Badu and I is just one example of a sacred relationship between my hands and a client’s hair. I have sacred relationships with my clients and students.
The spiritual connection between the natural stylist and her client dates back thousands of years. State governments have only been regulating cosmetologists who used chemicals for about a hundred years. I don’t use chemicals and I don’t use combs. What right does any state or government have to interfere with the spiritual connection between me and my clients? I am carrying on the traditions of my ancestors which pre-dates cosmetology regulations.
Phillips: What do Naturalistas need to know, but don’t know?
Brantley: Naturalistas need to know that they have to eat for their beauty. Naturalistas aren’t paying attention to the amount of animal-based proteins and how they are contaminating their blood with excessive sugar. Often times, I hear Naturalistas complain about dryness or lack of moisture which is a result of improper diet. What we put in our blood will show in the strands of our hair. The other issues that cause Naturalistas to have dry hair results from using tap water to wash their hair. I observed serious issues with some of my new client’s scalp and their hair which is connected to using tap water. I recommend that Naturalistas use filtered water or alkaline water to wash their hair. All of my Sisters of Isis products are made with Alkaline water. I don’t use tap water because it can harm natural hair. I want your readers to know that we don’t need to shampoo our hair every day, doing so will dry out the natural oils in our hair.
Phillips: When and why did you become Vegan?
Brantley: In 1984, after I became a mother, I was under so much pressure and I became really ill. I was really sure that was going on but I was constantly shaking and unable to talk. During that time, I thought I was eating healthy but I was eating turkey, chicken, and red meat. I met Dick Gregory and he told me that my nervous system was shot because of my diet. He told me that if I want to feel better, then I couldn’t eat chicken, fish, or meat anymore. After I stopped eating meat, all of the shaking went away. I haven’t had another episode of the shakes since I stopped eating meat. Then I started talking to Dr. Sebi because I was having trouble with my hands. Dr. Sebi told me to stop eating tomatoes, potatoes, and nuts for the pain in my hands to go away. After my experiences with Dick Gregory and Dr. Sebi, I was convinced to stay away from animal flesh and animal byproduct. Since 1995, I’ve been a strict Vegan.
Phillips: When and why did you create your Sisters of Isis product line?
Brantley: I created Sisters of Isis product line back in the late 80s when I needed something to moisturize my client’s hair. I used to buy Taliah Waajid’s products and Nature’s Blessings products, but I needed to create something different. I wanted to use my knowledge of natural hair, health, and herbs to create something that would benefit my clients. It would have been unfair for me to create organic and vegan products for myself and not share them with my clients. Pamela Ferrell, my mentor, taught me a wealth of knowledge. When I created Sisters of Isis, I put all of my knowledge to use to help my clients maintain, growth, and heal their hair.
I want 200 of your readers to take The Sisters of Isis Challenge. We invite your readers to try Sisters of Isis and compare it to their favorite natural hair products. I am providing 200 free samples of the Lemongrass Shampoo and Leave-In Conditioner (shipping included). All that I ask is that your readers try the product and compare Sisters of Isis ingredients to their favorite product. Your readers can take the Sisters of Isis Challenge at www.isisbrantley.com
Phillips: Did you always view your dark skin and natural hair as beautiful? If not, what transformed you?
Brantley: No, I thought that having nappy hair was the worst thing ever. When I was growing up, my mother would make fun of our hair. I was the one with the so-called “good hair” because when my hair gets wet it curls, but that didn’t prevent me from hearing negative comments about nappy hair. My sister had darker skin and a tighter curl pattern. I didn’t like when my mother would compare our hair and tried to create a division between us. I didn’t grow up learning or thinking that my hair was beautiful so when I was old enough, I relaxed my hair so that it would be acceptable and I would be accepted. I wanted to go out and do things with other people without my hair being a focal point of attention. Even after I decided to go natural, I still relaxed the edges of my hair because I didn’t believe that my hair was beautiful. Reflecting back on that time, I just didn’t want my hair looking “nappy-headed” as they would say back then.
What lead to my transformation was when I began to learn more about myself, my people, and my culture. I began to study Marcus Garvey and his movement which caused me to start changing how I viewed myself. I know someone is going to read this interview who may have experienced something similar to my story. For those of you who want to feel better about your hair, I suggest that you start with 400 Years Without A Comb, a documentary by Willie Marrow that takes us on a historical journey and explains step by step how society stripped us of our culture and promoted African hair as being uncivilized, prohibited us from teaching each other about our hair, took away our grooming tools, and wouldn’t allow us to look into a mirror. This film changed my life and the lives of other women who used to hate their hair.