Between the cusps that is Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it makes no other sense for us than to look into a niche population within the University of Connecticut: Black women, particularly those who style hair.
Dating back to 3000 B.C. Africa, braiding has been a technique used for many reasons besides locking in moisture and maintaining hair. It has been a dictator of prestige, importance and survival. A woman being able to afford a braided style and sit for several hours would indicate that she was from a wealthy family or high class, such as a priestess.
“In Africa, braids were a way to show people who you were,” Star Donaldson, the senior media editor of Byrdie, says. “They signified your tribe, your marital status, your wealth, religion and more.”
Cornrows were a very common hairstyle during South and North American Slavery. Seen as a tool, captured Africans would store seeds inside their plaits to survive the voyage. Hair was often cut off as a form of dehumanization and alienation from culture, while slave owners used the excuse of the hair looking “untidy.” Tightly braided to their scalp, cornrows were the more acceptable option. They could also relay messages to one another by the number of rows, how big the plaits were or which way they were braided.
Since the mid-1960s, modern exploration of Black hair exploded. Following the Civil Rights Movement, styles such as the Jheri curl, locs and box braids became more commonplace. Specifically, locs and braids became popularized in the 1980s and ‘90s when celebrities like Lenny Kravitz and Lauryn Hill began to freely rock them. “Poetic Justice” braids, a common name for box braids, erupted in the Black community after Janet Jackson sported them in the ‘90s film of the same name.
Black Hair at UConn
According to UConn’s Office of Admissions, Black and African American students make up 9% of the enrollment population across all campuses. On the Storrs campus particularly, there is a lack of resources when it comes to doing Black hair. Unlike city campuses like Waterbury and Stamford, there is no real access to Black hair products in rural Storrs. Besides the CVS in Storrs Center — which doesn’t have the biggest variety compared to the conventional beauty supply store — there isn’t much around. There’s also the problem for those who don’t wear their hair naturally. The closest salon that treats Black hair is most likely located around Hartford, which can mean a lot of travel for some.
UCurls was created for exactly this reason. UConn’s natural hair organization, the club celebrates curly, kinky hair and teaches students how to manage theirs throughout the semester. Jewel Booker, the current club president, and hair braider herself, spoke to The Daily Campus in February about the club and what it’s like braiding hair on campus.
“College is already stressful. We don’t need to be stressing about our hair on top of that. So we just try to help the community by teaching better ways to take care of their hair with tips and tricks,” Booker said.
The club recently organized Crown Day, a celebration of natural hair and the C.R.O.W.N. Act. The event allowed students to seek out hair services such as haircuts and twists.
Their annual Curl Fest will also be happening again this year, where students can showcase small natural hair businesses and products.
When Booker isn’t running the club or studying, she’s helping clients — many of whom are men. Booker feels that sometimes she has to start from the very beginning when showing them how to maintain their hair. It’s not necessarily the client’s fault, she said, but the environment they grew in. With some students coming from densely white areas, they may not have had a community to show them the best products for their hair type.
“It’s less of me providing you with service and more of me just educating you,” Booker said. “I’ve watched a lot of my clients’ hair grow from when I started in the fall semester last year to now.”
Sojourner Fontellio is also a hairstylist on campus, working with mostly women clients. She started her services in 2021 because she had more free time between online classes.
“Since I was like 14, I’ve always done my own hair because I remember I always used to go to the hair salons and I would hate it,” Fontellio said. “But then I would go home and fix it to my liking.”
Fontellio likes her job because she understands there is a struggle when arranging to get your hair done while being a student.
“If you go to other [stylists] that are out of state or back home, the prices are really expensive. So I thought to provide a service that a lot of girls can use and make it reasonably priced,” she said. “It has to be affordable to college students because those are my main clients and college life is expensive.”
Fontellio takes great pride in how her hair looks — and she’s not alone. Societal pressures tell Black girls how their hair should look in public, and while studying at a PWI (predominantly white institution), there might be more pressure to conform.
According to CNN Health, “a 2020 Michigan State University study found about 80% of Black women say they alter their hair from its natural state because they consider it essential to social and economic success.”
“Because we already get stares,” Booker said. “You get more stares when your hair’s not done. Like there’s nothing you can really do about that.”
On top of external influences, both Booker and Fontellio have worked with clients who also face familial adversity as well.
“A lot of people are like, ‘I don’t wanna do this color, it’s too bright,’” Fontellio said. “And that’s fine, you know, like that’s your preference. But sometimes that can come from when we were younger.”
Hesitancy against color and length is a common problem between Black parents and their children. Long braids passing the mid-back and bright colors — such as pinks and blues — are sometimes protested against by family members because they presumably make the child look older or “mature.”
There can be even more hardships for Black men who want to get their hair braided. On top of disapproval from family, their hair can carry a symbol of how “masculine” they are.
“I don’t understand why daughters can go to the African braiding shop and get their hair braided, but when their son wants to do it — no. That doesn’t make sense,” Booker said. “And they’re just running around these circles of ‘Long hair is cool. Long hair isn’t cool. Waves are in. Waves are out.’”
But despite the judgment, the stress and the inward criticism, Black hair is a form of expression and freedom. It gives meaning to a part of us that is often dismissed, mocked or shamed and lets us indulge in self care and beauty, no matter who we are.