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Tiffany Gill
Tiffany Gill, the inaugural Cochran Scholar at the University of Delaware, discusses her research on the role of beauticians and beauty shops in the African American politics.

Inaugural Cochran Lecture

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Tiffany Gill talks beauty shop politics at Cochran Lecture

Some of the most fruitful political activism happens in the most unlikely places, Cochran Scholar Tiffany Gill told the audience at the inaugural Cochran Lecture held in the Gore Recital Hall on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus.

And believe it or not, those places can include beauty shops and travel agencies.

“The significant role of beauticians and beauty shops in the African American political tradition has been ignored, for the most part, by historians, even though their presence was screaming out for recognition from the archives,” Gill said during her lecture. “In many ways, the power of beauty shops as sites both of restoration and revolution was illegible to scholars accustomed to looking for political activism in more traditional institutions.”

Gill was named the University’s inaugural Cochran Scholar this year, thanks to a generous contribution from UD Board of Trustees Chairman John Cochran and his wife, Patricia, to establish the Cochran Scholars endowed fund.

At the May 14 Cochran Lecture, UD President Dennis Assanis recognized the Cochrans for their support of this new faculty award to recruit, develop, retain and promote a diverse faculty and support their successful academic career advancement.

“We really thank you deeply from our hearts,” Assanis said.

He went on to say the Cochran scholars program will target “mid-career faculty stars” focused on promoting and exemplifying diversity throughout the UD community, through their exceptional scholarship, teaching and service.

Gill also offered her appreciation to the Cochrans for having the “insight and courage” to create a program that recognizes outstanding UD faculty members whose scholarship and service reflect excellence, creativity and a commitment to inclusiveness, both on campus and beyond.

“Those of us who labor to make this campus and, indeed, the larger academic profession a more inclusive and welcoming place often don’t see our efforts valued in such a public and visible way,” she said. “I am beyond honored to be the first recipient of this prestigious award and am forever grateful for this investment in me as a scholar and a teacher.”

Gill joined the UD faculty in January 2013 as associate professor of Africana studies, with a second appointment in history. Her research and teaching interests include African American history, women’s history, the history of black entrepreneurship, fashion and beauty studies, and travel and migration throughout the African Diaspora.

During her lecture, Gill, author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry, described some of the research she began in graduate school in an attempt to “understand the historical use of the black beauty shop as one of the most important—albeit unique—institutions within African American communities.”

“Black beauticians … were keenly aware of the economic autonomy their profession afforded them, the unique institutional space they controlled and the access they had to black women within their communities,” she said. “They were instrumental in developing a political infrastructure for African American women’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement that was, for the most part, under black female control and under the radar from whites unsympathetic to the cause of racial justice.

“In other words,” she said, “the power of the beauty shop as a political site and beauticians as political activists was precisely because they were dismissed as frivolous in a black woman-centered leisure space.”

Gill is currently working on a book manuscript chronicling the history of black international leisure travel since World War I. During her lecture, she talked about her research for that book, which includes exploration of the “creative and subversive political strategizing” of black leisure travelers.

“While books have engaged the role of black migration in the making of African American culture and history, and there has been increased attention on the perils of navigating American racism while traveling domestically,” Gill said, “international travel is an under-explored, though vital, lens through which to examine African American struggles for dignity, freedom and civil rights.”

She said that by reflecting on the historical and political legacy of these “unlikely activists,” we can all be inspired “to look for possibilities for personal and community empowerment in the non-traditional spaces all around us.”

In that vein, Gill concluded her lecture by challenging the UD community to give serious thought to diversity and inclusion on campus.

“The occasion of the launch of the Cochran Scholars gives all of us in the UD community a chance to reflect and ask ourselves some hard questions,” she said. “What are the lived experiences of students and faculty of color at UD? Do we feel connected to the campus? Is UD a space of joy or oppression? Unless we are willing to listen to the answers to these hard questions, no progress on these issues will ever be made.”

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