But this weekend she will headline the Naturally Isis Braid-On, Economic Liberty March and Rally in Dallas, Texas. Dolezal was invited by Isis Brantley, a celebrity stylist, natural hair activist, and owner of the Institute of Ancestral Braiding.
The announcement about Dolezal, posted on Brantley’s Facebook pages, sent formidable shock waves throughout the natural hair community as baffled naturalistas struggled to understand why a champion of an African cultural art form would invite a white woman accused of appropriating black culture to be a featured speaker at a black cultural event.
Dolezal, who lives in Spokane, Washington, says that she had no ill intent when Brantley approached her through Facebook in February to invite her. She said it was a few months before she accepted because she was close to giving birth to her third child.
“I’m not coming as a curiosity or for any controversy,” said Dolezal, who agreed to a phone interview on the condition Brantley be interviewed at the same time. “My intention is to support Isis and the braid freedom movement in whatever way it will be most helpful. I don’t want to be a liability for anyone. It’s a justice issue and I’ve been a social justice activist for years. It’s really that simple.”
Since resigning from the NAACP and losing her job as an adjunct instructor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, Dolezal said she now makes her living as a braider. Dolezal once taught a course in the politics of black hair—now she works braiding it. She specializes in creating styles that are popular among African-American women.
Dolezal kept the media pretty busy last year digging up details about her background. She insisted that a black man, Albert Wilkerson, was her father, even though he repeatedly denied it and her estranged biological parents, who are white, produced photographs and a birth certificate as proof that she is white. Her cover was blown after she was suspected of planting a package in the post office box of the NAACP that was addressed to her and filled with racial threats and epithets. What was mysterious was that the package had no postmark that would indicate that was actually mailed to the post office box which had only two keys. The postal workers who were cleared in the investigation had access to one key, Dolezal had the other.
Brantley, who insists that she did not know about Dolezal’s reputation and controversial past, says the backlash and critical social media messages took her by surprise.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she told The Daily Beast during the interview call. “People threatened to boycott me. They are calling me a sellout and saying that I am ‘Massa’s girl’ or some mess like that. I just stopped looking and blocked everybody.”
Brantley says that Dolezal’s braiding skills that she caught glimpses of on television “impressed” her and she wanted to ask her to come to the hair event to celebrate and join them in rallying for braiders’ rights.
“This would make a great connection or union,” Brantley said. “If we could just come together we can spread this love across the country and see that braiders are free to work in all 50 states.”
She said that Dolezal’s role will have more to do with solidarity, meeting and greeting but not serving as a keynote speaker.
Reactions to Brantley’s decision to invite Dolezal were emotional, ranging from ear-shattering wails of disbelief, expletives, and social media postings that either ranted or mocked what she did. Because Brantley is a revered leader in the community, many of the disappointed ones preferred to keep their comments off the record.
“Strange bedfellows,” says L. Michelle Smith, a Dallas PR executive and former client of Brantley who joins the chorus of the confused. “Isis is everyone’s natural hair hero and Dolezal is the queen of cultural appropriation.”
“Sisters are hotter than a straightening comb in a beauty shop full of women on the day before Easter,” says Olinka Green, a Dallas community activist who asked whether Dolezal had any magical skills that helped her get invited.
“Can she touch scalps and instantly get rid of aleopecia?” Green said. “Can she restore growth? Does she have the Midas touch? Apparently she does because she went from being pale white to golden brown.
“Rachel wants the black girl magic and the glory and attribution,” she said, “but she can’t put up with what we go through day to day.”
“Bringing her is a slap right in our faces,” said Tonia Lawson, a longtime Brantley admirer from Detroit. Lawson saw the Facebook announcement, which had a photo of Brantley wearing her trademark puffy, free-flowing curls, posed next to Dolezal who wore long blond locs. “It was absolutely a Twilight Zone moment for me,” Lawson said. “I started to unfriend her I was so mad.”
Brantley’s critics flooded her Facebook page with their complaints and accusations of betrayal before she deleted the posts. Many don’t believe that she was unaware of Dolezal’s background since the media was saturated with stories of her exploits that also dominated conversations and debates about racial identity for months.
“Everybody knows about that controversy,” said Kerin Rodriguez of Dallas, who has attended previous hair events by Brantley. “Isis knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it—to get people to go to her event.”
Rodriguez refers to a Facebook message that Brantley posted in May that causes her to doubt Brantley’s claims of being clueless about Dolezal’s bizarre past. In the message Brantley asked whether Dolezal should be allowed to participate on a team of organizers who would help plan a natural hair event and march that will take place in Washington, D.C., next year. It appears that she did not consult with them about whether Dolezal should attend her Dallas event.
“Why is it necessary that she is there?” said Pamela Ferrell, a prominent D.C. braid salon owner and co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based American Hairbraiders and Natural Haircare Association (AHNHA), which has supported Brantley and hundreds of other braiders in legal battles over regulation of what they consider a cultural art form that should not be government controlled. Ferrell worries whether Dolezal is being handed an unfair advantage and will use the platform as an opportunity to further a personal agenda. “The controversy around this person is her dishonesty,” said Ferrell. “Don’t think of her as someone who has contributed to the years of work we have done to protect this cultural art form. I see it as an opportunity for a white woman to steal this African cultural art form, become an expert and then get opportunities that we have been denied. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
Brantley’s history of braiding and activism in the profession dates back to 1979 when she first started braiding, supporting her four children who are now adults with her earnings. Twelve-year-old Erica Abi Wright, who grew up to be performer Erykah Badu, was one of Brantley’s many clients over the years. For two of the hair event’s six-year history, Badu lent her celebrity and hometown popularity to draw large numbers, which have since dwindled in her absence as headliner. While Dolezal may not have the Badu-level celebrity to guarantee a large event turnout, her notoriety and pending appearance have created enough buzz to draw the curious—and the furious.
Brantley also has a history of controversy from her nearly 20-year-battle with the state of Texas over licensing issues. In the late 1990s, she was arrested for braiding hair without a license, but after the state gave in to lobbying efforts she was later “grandfathered” into a new rule that created a separate category of braiding certification that requires only 35 hours of instruction to braid legally as a business, instead of meeting the 1,500 cosmetology training requirement. In 2013, Brantley fought with the state over rules preventing her from being able to open a braiding school unless she first became a licensed barber and met strict equipment and building requirements. In January, after filing a joint lawsuit with the Institute of Justice (a law firm that represents individuals who have been denied their constitutional rights), a U.S. district court judge ruled that the state regulations prohibiting Brantley and other braiders from seeking an honest living as braid instructors was unconstitutional. The ruling lifted barriers for Brantley and other braiders to work unencumbered by arbitrary state regulations.
Journalist Cheryl Smith, who publishes several black weekly newspapers in the Dallas area, is among those who say they are confused by Brantley’s decision, but understand the complexities of activism and the challenges of getting support from people whose causes they struggle to represent. For that reason, she says she is willing to give Brantley the benefit of the doubt.
“Why can’t people with a consciousness be able to speak out on issues that might not directly impact them? The only thing it appears Rachel did was misrepresent and lie about who she was. I don’t know what her motivation was for lying, but that’s not the issue. If there is someone who does not look like me, but who supports and votes and addresses issues that are of interest to me and what I stand for, they are more valuable to me than the millions who look like me and don’t do anything.”
Dolezal doesn’t seem to be ruffled by the criticism. She says that the social media feedback that she has received has been positive and is looking forward to the visit. In the meantime, she is focusing on braiding and raising a 6-month-old son, Langston, who is named after the late black poet Langston Hughes.
Dolezal says she will soon have an opportunity to tell the full side of her story through her memoir that she says is a few chapters away from completion. She says that her agent shopped her 20,000-word book proposal to more than 30 publishers who passed on it, fearing negative publicity, before independent publisher BenBella books gave her a deal.
The book, she says, will tell about her life and address “the larger issues of race.”
“I agree with Dick Gregory, who says that white isn’t a race, it’s a state of mind,” Dolezal says. “I pay homage to my African ancestry.”