August 20, 2019 | 81° F

HAIRitage conference celebrates Black culture, beauty

Photo by Lorena Pedetti |

As the end of Black History Month approaches, the Livingston Residence Life Council hosted the second annual HAIRitage conference on Saturday. Co-sponsored by the Paul Robeson Cultural Center and the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the all-day event wasn’t just about hair as the title suggests, but rather created a space to discuss, reflect on and celebrate Black and Afro-Latinx culture as a whole. 

Although geared toward Black and Afro-Latinx culture, the all-inclusive event welcomed Rutgers students and non-Rutgers students of all races and ethnicities for an educational experience that featured a keynote speaker, workshops and spoken word performances. 

“When we were planning the event, we sent out template questions — basic questions that any person who may be unfamiliar with the culture might ask, for example, 'what exactly is a curl pattern?'” said Modinat Sanni, a Residence Life coordinator for Ernest A. Lynton Towers. “This was so that they can feel included in the conversation and whoever is attending isn’t left to feel like this isn’t for them.”

The conference was opened with an address from keynote speaker Chris-Tia Donaldson, founder and CEO of Fortune 500 company Thank God It’s Natural (TGIN), a line of all-natural hair and skincare products.

The business mogul, who is a two-time Harvard University graduate and a breast cancer survivor, discussed what led her to start her company, her tips on self-care and the challenges she faced while simultaneously running a successful business and battling breast cancer.

The Detroit-native opened up to the audience about her experience in transitioning from perms and relaxers — harsh chemicals that “relax” curls, making the hair easier to straighten — to her natural hair. Wearing her hair natural was part of an effort to keep her hair healthy and embrace the hair she was born with, but she faced backlash from her college and corporate communities in the process.

As a student preparing for a corporate job, Donaldson’s decision to go natural was criticised by her peers, who warned her that wearing natural styles like braids and dreadlocks, or even natural hair in general is unacceptable within the corporate world. 

“You get your hair pressed, you get it relaxed and you go in there with a part on the side, a little bang, a bob and you keep it moving,” Donaldson said of how people told her she should wear her hair.

People of non-white ethnicities are often told to change who they are and the things that define their culture in order to fit into society’s ideal beauty standards, which include straight hair, light skin and European features. 

Donaldson said she thought if she changed who she was as a Black woman, then she would be perceived as successful. 

It was not until she was told by the head of her department at the time that she didn’t have the tools for success that Donaldson decided to stick with the things that defined her as Black and more importantly as a Black woman. 

“I’m going to wear my hair the way I want to wear it. I’m not going to tamper myself down as a Black person,” Donaldson said of her mindset going forward. “I’m just going to do me, and I’m never going to work for anyone again.”

More than a dozen workshops and four spoken-word performances were held throughout the day. One segment called “Reclaiming Pelo Malo” — a term sometimes used in the Afro-Latinx community meaning “bad hair” — was hosted by brand ambassadors from Design Essentials, a manufacturer of hair products for natural and textured styles.

The company offered various routines to help manage different curl patterns like deep treatments, nightly hair routines and the “pre-poo treatment,” the technique of applying conditioner to hair before washing.

The insightful, hands-on workshop used visual aids and provided encouraging words to those who might be inspired to go natural after losing their curls due to excessive heat damage, harsh chemicals and a lack of hydration. 

“With hair, the biggest thing I would say is (to) read and learn and research about your hair type so you know what to do to make that journey as smooth as possible,” Sanni said. 

The conference concluded with a celebration of the African diaspora, a mass dispersion of peoples from Africa, through culture, art and food. 

Although Black History Month is almost over, the conference was a reminder that Black and Afro-Latinx cultures are too rich and too beautiful to not be celebrated everyday. 

Almier McCoy

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