Celebrating melanin

The 25th anniversary of Philadelphia’s International Locks Conference

5 minute read
Celebrating melanin: panelists at a past year’s Locks Conference event. (Image courtesy of the Locks Conference.)
Celebrating melanin: panelists at a past year’s Locks Conference event. (Image courtesy of the Locks Conference.)

Every strong institution has its beginning, and that beginning is generally far humbler than its subsequent growth suggests. Philadelphia’s own International Locks Conference Natural Hair, Wholistic Health, and Beauty Expo is no different. This year, the conference celebrates its 25th anniversary when it commences as it always has on the first weekend in October.

I spoke with program director MaMa Akosua Ali-Sabree about where the conference has been, where it is, and where it’s headed. She partially attributes the conference’s success and long life to the reliability of the date. “When we first started there was nothing happening in the first week of October. We have Odunde in the summer, but it’s rare to have this caliber of activity in October.”

The Kuumba Sisters

The first annual Locks Conference was the brainchild of the Kuumba Sisterhood, before the planning went coed and became the Kuumba Family. Back then it happened in a room on Temple University’s campus at the invitation of the Black Student Union.

The original Kuumba Sisters were Sharon L. Goodman, Yvette Smalls, and Zakiyyah Ali, says Ali-Sabree. Goodman, a journalist, was also a poet and dollmaker who had her own locks, which is how she connected to Smalls, a renowned hair braider. And they both connected to Ali, a master chef, through her food.

“They were thinking about how to promote their businesses and also how to get the word out about celebrating our natural hair and share resources,” the program director explains. Goodman passed away in 2005. Smalls, whose documentary Hair Story toured film festivals and was broadcast on WYBE-TV, passed away in 2012. Ali still consults and presents for the conference.

The Big Chop

While the original conference was getting off the ground, another plan was coming into fruition. At the invitation of my big sister, who was going to Temple for graduate school, I had decided to make Philadelphia my new home. I had vague plans of going to college and getting my adult life started. It was an exciting and auspicious time. I had recently discovered The Roots, Philadelphia-based and now world-famous. The year prior, I had done The Big Chop, cutting all of the chemically straightened hair off my head, so I was sporting a close-cut natural.

That’s why it felt positively serendipitous when I met the vibrant and beautiful Goodman on a bus trip commemorating Malcolm X’s birthday, months before the Locks Conference. I was still trying to figure out the groove of this new city. Not long before moving here, I’d had the surreal experience of a woman (on the New York subway, of all places) speaking loudly and with distaste about folks “deciding not to comb their hair anymore” while she was seated behind my natural-hair-sporting friends and me.

A family reunion

Finding the Locks Conference so early in my life in Philly was extremely grounding. In the Locks Conference, I found an intergenerational community filled with entrepreneurs, artisans, and thinkers who were rooted in a diaspora-affirming way of life. And that was by design from the beginning. “Sharon, Zakiyyah, and Yvette reached out to us in the community,” Ali-Sabree remembers. “We live in a country where melanin is not always celebrated or highlighted, so the conference really provides a much-needed safe space that helps to elevate and educate.”

"The conference is opened to everyone," but it’s especially meaningful for some, she continues. Seeing “all these beautifully dressed and groomed Black people from around the world is an experience people actually pray for. [The Locks Conference] is like a harmonious family reunion in the fall.”

Creating a safe space to elevate and educate: MaMa Akosua Ali-Sabree before the 2019 Locks Conference. (Photo by Crystal Sparrow.)
Creating a safe space to elevate and educate: MaMa Akosua Ali-Sabree before the 2019 Locks Conference. (Photo by Crystal Sparrow.)

Arts, business, and health

Today the Locks Conference takes over the entire ground floor of the Universal Audenried Charter High School on 33rd and Tasker, including two gyms, a cafeteria, and an auditorium. Its growth profoundly impacts the artistic, business, and health communities.

“There are very few places for African diaspora craftspeople to display their wares and be in an environment where people who are coming really appreciate what they have,” Ali-Sabree says of the local artistic community. “In terms of the business community, people say they can’t find Black-owned businesses, and when they come to the conference, they are surprised to find an optometrist or financial planner.” This difficulty finding Black-owned businesses is an unfortunate reality here: despite a majority of Philly residents being people of color (with Black people making up 43 percent of the city's population), we have an unjustifiably low number of Black-owned businesses.

As far as wellness goes, the conference does its part to connect folks with services they may not encounter in their day-to-day lives. “People have heard about what they call ‘alternative health’ but what we call traditional,” Ali-Sabree says. “They’re able to interact with acupuncturists, reflexologists, or herbalists from around the country. We also make sure that the soaps and skincare are actually beneficial to melanated skin. It’s not just a fad. There is actually a political, spiritual, and cultural expression.”

Still growing

The conference itself is just one arm of a larger body, and it’s still growing. “We just opened a Philadelphia location for the Kuumba Family Institute. A lot of people think the Locks Conference is just an event, but really, it’s a fundraiser for the other things we do,” Ali-Sabree adds. “For years we’ve sent things to Africa, to Haiti, the Bahamas. The institute also does workshops so that the energy and information that flows at the Locks Conference is something that continues throughout the year.”

Returning to my natural hair in my late teens was a decision that I’ve never regretted. I’ve worn my hair in a closely shorn fade, chunky uncultivated locks, an afro, and now waist-length salon locks. Throughout this journey, I have gone to the Locks Conference, purchased authentic fashion and art, and connected with beautiful, talented people. Like The International Locks Conference, I see myself as a work in progress even after 25 years. We are both evolving and we are both happy to be nappy.

An extended interview with MaMa Akosua Ali-Sabree, and five fascinating facts about the Locks Conference, are available here.

What, When, Where

The International Locks Conference Natural Hair, Wholistic Health, and Beauty Expo. October 5 and 6, 2019, at Universal Audenried Charter High School, 3301 Tasker Street, Philadelphia. (215) 438-8189 or locksconference.com.

The school is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

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