The scene in the soft-pink interior of Elegance Nails is as tranquil as an opium den. Aromatic smoke from an incense burner wafts above the cash register. Several women sit contentedly in cushioned chairs, offering their hands to masked technicians, silent masters of the ancient ritual of fingernail painting. Three male employees quietly play cards near the front window.
There’s none of the gossip and chatter found in a typical neighborhood beauty salon. It’s so quiet you can hear the patient scraping of emery boards. Orderly and almost coldly efficient, the well-lit shop is adorned with a few hundred sets of fake nails hanging from the walls, their acrylic designs glittering with all the colors of the rainbow.
A visit here brings some magic that press-on nails simply can’t provide. The transformation is remarkable, as customers leave the U Street salon sighing the satisfied purrs of pampered cats given shiny new claws.
But the scene outside the shop is not so serene. On the sidewalk, Ako Yamro paces back and forth, wielding a sign that says, “No Blacks, No Green,” and handing out fliers to the stream of afternoon pedestrians. A woman strolls by clutching a paperback of The Woodchip Murders and her lunch bag: “Ma’am, are you aware of our boycott?” asks Yamro. “We have a boycott against this nail parlor because they do not hire black people.” The woman peers in the neon-drenched window, grimaces, and assures him, “Oh, well, they won’t get my business.”
With his simple message and alarmist fliers, Yamro is three months into a lone crusade to strip Elegance Nails of its clientele. On his lunch breaks and afterwork hours, Yamro preaches his unrelenting stand against the salon, a gleaming jewel on a rejuvenated block of U Street NW. Like other enterprises on the year-old commercial strip, including a Pizza Hut and a Rite Aid, Elegance Nails has been enjoying brisk business.
Yamro says he won’t give up until the Vietnamese-owned shop hires enough African-Americans to equal 60 percent of its overall staff, reflecting the District’s black population.
“They don’t have any black employees, and 99 percent of their customer base is African-American,” explains Yamro, a 45-year-old artist and office manager. “My message to my people is to not patronize those that will not give back to our community.” Yamro’s flier phrases it a bit more pointedly: “They have come in as the vampires of previous generations have….These people are obvious to the seeing eye. They do not look like us, racially, and in their contempt for us, they do not see the need to hire us even in their businesses in our neighborhoods.”
What triggered Yamro’s crusade was a dark vision of sorts. During his frequent walks in the neighborhood where he lives and works, he saw how black women crowded into Elegance Nails day in and day out: “I’d see black women sitting in there, stacked on top of one another, waiting their turn to get their nails done,” he says. “It looked like a slave ship.”
Then Yamro says he looked even closer and summoned another vision all his own. “You’d see black women sitting there in chairs and on the opposite sides you’d see Asians all in masks, looking like thieves trying to rob someplace….With their masks on and their weapons, with their [technician’s] utensils, it looked like a stick-up.”
Black boycotts against Asian businesses are nothing new in big cities, but Yamro’s lone effort claims no allegiance to any group or organization. Yamro links his mission to an older tradition of black resistance to social injustice, particularly here on this stretch of U Street, the former so-called “black Connecticut Avenue” that was the cultural and business center of a flourishing black community before the ’68 riots. “What I’m doing has a history in this corridor,” says Yamro, citing a 1933 picket and boycott against a drug store that had Jim Crow hiring policies.
Yamro scoffs at the so-called “new” U Street, peppered with boutiques and cafes for an upscale bohemia. He’s seen the trendy bars packed with yuppies, and he doesn’t like the spectacle. “We have a history of other folks trying to come into our community and take wealth out and not give anything back, and they always call it something elsethe word they’re using now is ‘rejuvenation,’ but it ain’t being rejuvenated for black people,” he says.
There is a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Elegance Nails, and owner Tran My, the shop’s Vietnamese entrepreneur, says he has no qualms about hiring black employees. So far, he claims, no applicantsblack or otherwisehave had the nail technician’s license needed to practice in D.C. Moreover, Tran says that Yamro’s demand for a 60-percent African-American staff simply isn’t possible for a shop with only a half-dozen employees, all of whom are relatives.
“It’s a small family business, and I cannot afford that,” says Tran. “When we get stronger, maybe we could hire more people. Right now I only need one more person.”
A few blocks away, a black business owner says he has no sympathy for Yamro’s daily demonstration. “It’s not fair for him to do what he’s doing,” says the merchant. “I wouldn’t want to be picketed in a white community because of the color of my skin or because I didn’t hire a white person. It’s a businessit’s not about race or anything. Let the people make their money to survive….The customers have a right to spend their money any way they want to.”
Yamro remains adamant and says he’ll keep trying to discourage customers until the salon meets his demands. It’s nothing personal against Elegance Nails, he insists. The real targets, Yamro says, are the customers who betray their own peoplesimply by getting their nails done. “I will remind them that when they go in there and do what is against their own best interests, they’re also spitting on the graves of all the black people who fought and died to get black people to this point,” he says.
There are plenty of black-owned and
-staffed nail parlors in the neighborhood for locals to patronize, says Yamro, but instead they’ve been seduced by the bright, fancy neon and easy convenience of Elegance Nails: “A lot of customers go in there because they believe that everybody other than black people does a better job of providing services to black people,” he says. “They feel that these people do a better job than black parlors. That’s not the truth, that’s just a perception….That’s a problem that black people have, an internal problem that we have to deal with.”
So far, Yamro’s picket has certainly put a dent in business, according to both Yamro and Elegance Nails. But for every person who joins Yamro’s boycott, there’s another who emerges from the salon with a smile, harpoons Yamro’s flier with a snazzy set of nails, and heads down the street without even glancing at the lone crusader.Eddie Dean