Celebrating Students ’13: Malik Ben-Salahuddin

Black History Month Convocation Speech — January 31, 2010

IMG_1644I could stand here and philosophize about the implications of Black History Month, what we should do to promote solidarity, and pump my fist in the air. This would only be ironic, as I’d be acting out a personality that would be just that: pulled tight and full of hot air.  I’ve always tried to keep it real and not get caught up in ‘ABC movement’ or ‘XYZ movement’ because half of the people in them end up being full of hot air; a whole lot of gust with no direction.  In short, I’m simple, and I can only speak on the simple life I lead at Wesleyan.

One of the best times of my day is sweeping up hair from my large blue tarp. This is partly due to the fact that I can’t stand a dirty room and it bugs me when dust has the audacity to set up camp in my corner of the room. But nonetheless, I love sweeping up hair, because it means I just sent someone on their way with a new look, a new opportunity to present themselves.  As an apprentice barber I’ve seen a lot of heads. But somehow I’m still fascinated by the change I see in people from pre- to post-haircut. There is this aura that seems to spring up as they look into the mirror and see a new person.

Now, I know black folk love their hair. We love to cut it, shape it, curl it, straighten it, pick it out, comb it, brush it, wrap it, set it and wash it, and for those who can afford new clothes everyday, Jeri curl it. Our obsession with our follicles has spawned controversy and multi-billion dollar industries, and I admit I am apart of that love-hate divide. 

But I err on the side of love. I love black hair. I do cut every type of hair, but I get a special feeling from cutting black hair. As a smorgasbord of a people, each black person’s head out there is different. And like a scientist, I enjoy discovering new species. With a customer’s request and my battery of tools and gadgets, I work away in my lab; the barbershop.  I comb, brush, fade, line, clip, straighten, and tease the hair to bend to my will creating something new that conforms to my customer’s vision.

With my research work done and my payment received, I feel as though, in my small way, I am supporting ‘a movement.’ Black folk’s grooming has always been tied deep into our culture, especially in our recent history here as African-Americans. The barbershop or the salon is the place of grooming, the CNN of the neighborhood, the gates from childhood to adulthood, and ultimately a pillar in the community.  I’m not claiming my measly ad-hoc ‘shop is something so monumental. But I do think that by servicing our brothers and sisters on campus, I’m helping support the SOC community at Wesleyan. 

It’s funny what big thoughts come into your mind when you’re obsessively sweeping the floor…