SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School Students Celebrate “Black HAIRitage” with Dr. Makesha Harris Lee
Elaborate and meticulously crafted braids, cornrows, twists, “locs” and Bantu knots are just a few ways African women wore their hair in their native countries, according to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Makesha Harris Lee, EdD, assistant director for Pre-Collegiate Programs.
Harris Lee presented “Black HAIRitage” to SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School girls on Thursday, Feb. 14 at the East St. Louis Higher Education Campus.
“In Africa, people could tell a person’s marital, economic, community and religious status based on their hairstyles,” Harris told the group of CHS students. “Hairstyles could also be used to determine if a woman had children or the geographic region in which the person lived.”
Harris Lee, who wrote #BlackHairMatters: Exploring the Relationship between Black Women Students and Their Hair in Higher Education in the United States for her dissertation, was accompanied by members of SIUE’s MyCURLFRIENDS, an organization that provides information about and celebrates black hair.
“Black hair does not solely identify us, but is part of our identity,” said Harris Lee. “These are high school students who will go on to college and adulthood. They will run into decisions about their hair, and they will deal with their relationship to their hair.”
“You do face stereotypes in the workforce and in corporate America. Whether an African American woman gets promoted, can be related to how she chooses to wear her hair,” continued Harris Lee. “The hair of those black women who move up the corporate ladder gets shorter and shorter, because they are trying to mirror the images of those around them. White males and black males wear their hair shorter.”
Harris Lee also provided U.S. history of African American women hairstyles, fads and concerns including the Tignon Laws that required black women to cover their hair, and the role of black hairstyles in the civil rights movement.
“I have run into attitudes that black women’s natural hair is unprofessional in the workforce,” said Jayla Howard, president and founder of MyCURLFRIENDS. “Some people will say our natural hair is unprofessional or wild, but our hair is coarse. Black hair can make others feel uncomfortable, because it’s different.”
Howard, a junior majoring in exercise science, began MyCURLFRIENDS at SIUE in October 2017 because there were no natural hair organizations on campus.
“The students enjoyed the knowledge shared by the members of MyCURLFRIENDS and Dr. Makesha Harris Lee,” said Pamela Saffore, CHS guidance counselor. “A lot of the information shared was new to the students. They learned about the intricate history of African American hairstyles, and how the process our ancestors used to style their hair is similar to what we do today.”
Following her presentation, Harris Lee provided materials to make hair masks, which can also be used on the skin.
“One component of the ‘Black HAIRitage’ event at the Charter High School is to expose the students to one example of healthier hair care practices,” said Harris Lee. “The products that are bought in the stores are so dangerous, it is important to teach young women and girls about alternative, healthier, and less expensive options for taking care of their hair without the toxic ingredients.”
“MyCURLFRIENDS members led the demonstration of how to create their own all-natural hair products, and explained the benefits of each ingredient,” continued Harris Lee. “Students were encouraged to share their new knowledge with friends and family, so that they too will be exposed to healthier choices for haircare.”
SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School students and SIUE MyCURLFRIENDS members work on making a hair mask. In the front row (L-R) Persephone Cole, a senior majoring in civil engineering; Jayla Howard, a junior majoring in exercise science; and Jaslene Young, CHS junior. Watching from the back row (L-R) Kayla Dawson, CHS senior; Aleesia Glass, CHS junior; Kaneika Bullard, CHS senior; and SIUE’s Makesha Harris Lee, EdD, assistant director for Pre-Collegiate Programs.
Members of MyCURLFRIENDS participated in “Black HAIRitage” at the SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School. (L-R) Howard, Ashonte Cannon, a junior, and Crystal Hurst, a sophomore, both in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Cole.