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A conk hairdo is a hairstyle achieved by the application of a mixture of lye, eggs, and potatoes to the hair, which causes curled hair to straighten. The hair is then slicked back or styled into a pompadour. There are many pros to the hairstyle, including the doors that it opened for people of color and the reactions that it provoked. Cons exist as well, however, including the extremely painful process and significant amount of work it takes to maintain.
This style was popular during the 1920s to the 1960s, worn by African-American men in order to make their hair appear straighter and more "white" in texture. The conk hairdo became unpopular in the 1960s as a result of the black power movement, which encouraged African-Americans to be proud of their heritage. This included their tightly curled hair, which was subsequently worn naturally or braided into traditional styles.
The conk hairdo produces a stylish and sophisticated look and is similar to slicked-back and pompadour styles worn by people in that era who were not of color. This "good hair" subsequently allowed a number of African-American musicians such as Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and Chuck Berry to break down musical barriers. Before this, the music industry was heavily dominated by white musicians. The conk hairdo made black musicians more acceptable to the larger public and allowed them to become significantly more mainstream.
Another pro of the conk hairdo is that it provoked discussions on what it meant to be African-American. This discourse subsequently resulted in a revival of pride as African-Americans rejected the style as a symbol of subjugation and shame, with accusations that wearers wanted to be white. The resulting pride movement strongly continues, with hairstyles now being worn that celebrate the natural characteristics of African-American hair.
There are also significant cons to wearing a conk hairdo. Lye is extremely corrosive and can cause chemical burns and blisters to the scalp and hands. Although potatoes are used to help reduce blistering, the process is still incredibly painful. The lye is also toxic and can ruin the natural hair over time. There is also significant maintenance with this style.
Moisture from sweat or humidity can counteract the effects of the lye, so many men who wear this style cover their hair with a cap or do-rag, during the night and humid weather, to keep the hairstyle as straight as possible. Repeated applications are also required as new hair grows in, making the use of the lye an ongoing process. Finally, the look is now stigmatized due to its previous associations, making it an unpopular style.
Cab Calloway and Chuck Berry did not conk their hair.
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