The story of Pholk Beauty is vast and varied. Before launching the brand, Niambi Cacchioli spent years traveling, teaching, and studying African history around the world. When she found herself feeling out of place in natural beauty stores and saw a gap in the market for clean, natural beauty products for women of color, she knew she had to create something for us. She took her knowledge of plants from tending to farms and gardens in her home state of Kentucky and studied to be an esthetician. From there, Pholk Beauty was born. “Soul Food for the skin,” the brand borrows and shares ingredients from all over the African Diaspora. For more on the journey, we sat down with the founder herself.
In Conversation with Pholk Beauty Founder, Niambi Cacchioli (Part One)
Diversity and the Global Realities of the African Diaspora
My background is African diaspora social history but I looked at it through the Middle Eastern lens. All my doctorate was about African descendants in Iran, and more generally, my field was African diaspora in the Middle East in the Indian Ocean. So I would have such a different experience of really interrogating Blackness. That was my question:
How far can you stretch the concept of Blackness?
If you go to a small fishing town in the south of Iran are people who have African ancestry even wanting to think of themselves as Black? And if so, why and what does that look like? At the end of the day, I was asking myself these questions. I’m so loyal to my Black American heritage. It shaped how I move in the world. The people that I grew up with, I consider to be superheroes, even in their everyday lives. Just the things that they manage, the fullness and the joy that they managed to cultivate while they were transforming my town. I am really amazed and loyal so I didn’t really want to pick apart, Black American culture.
Travel Often Leads to The Enlightenment of Nuance
I traveled a lot after I graduated from college, but in my head, I was always on the move. I always had these questions, “How diverse are we?” “How creative are we?” I would go to all these different countries for research or working in cultural outreach programs when living abroad. It was fascinating to me how I could connect with people who look like me or look like my grandmother, but are speaking Turkish or they’re speaking Hindi and sat in awe of just how dynamic we all are. I dedicated 15 years of my career to writing the stories of Black folk across the globe – particularly Black folk in Iran, Turkey, and India.
I lived in London for seven years, while pursuing my Ph.D. where I met my husband, who’s French. Eventually we moved to Paris, and lived there for five years. While in Paris, I worked for this UNESCO program called, The Slavery Project. In my studies, I was like, “Oh my god, they’re putting it out there – they’re embracing the word ‘slave’” and I was really really into it. I think some people were shocked by the name, but I found it very healing to work in this office that embraced such a taboo. I dealt mainly with North Africa, and [the] Indian Ocean because that was my background that’s why they brought me in. We had a PowerPoint deck that my boss would call the “trauma gallery”.
In essence, you have to talk about the trauma to get to the triumph.
I worked in this office and I wrote all these essays and articles about the Black experience in this region. It was really interesting and important work for me to tell these stories that even in like the diaspora we just didn’t know about. I started to focus more on emancipation, art, and a lot of healing traditions in the diaspora, because that is so much of the lived experience.
The taught experience is trauma, but the lived experience is healing.
After a while, I felt like I had done enough and it was okay for me to release that part of my work. When I moved back to the US in 2008 I took a job teaching at the state school Rutgers. I found that it was tricky for me to even teach these narratives because I wanted people to learn. I wanted to put some context of why – into the current state of Black culture. To do that you really have to start with some hard history.
Tackling the Hard History of Black Culture
After a while, I was bringing in dance teachers to my seminars and we would do dance workshops talking about things like essential oils, slave medicine, ‘Mojo’, and all of that. I wanted to break my students out of this trauma narrative. I also became a mom during that time. Either I was teaching African diasporic history or the history of women in the Middle East. Most of my students were students of color; Haitian, Nigerian, Pakistani, Iranian, some Black Americans but a lot were first-generation students.
After class, they would come up to me and they’d be like, “We never had a teacher like you, you were making it fun. We didn’t know any of this history.” “How is it that you’re a Black girl from Kentucky, teaching Iranian history or women of Middle East ?” There were often statements like, “I really want to be a fashion designer” or “I really want to be a journalist, but my parents came to this country so that I could have a better life for myself – a stable life – and they want me to go into law or medicine.” I was having these conversations every week after class with different students.
Get your training in the field that you want to go into.
You’re going to have to dedicate yourself to that field and you’re going to have to work really hard, and hope that your parents or your community will understand on the other side.
So make the decision, and commit yourself to it, but don’t expect your community and your parents to cosign it. They’ll cosign it when they know that you have a future in it. Then I realized I was talking to myself. So I left academics. I felt like I still wanted to explore our stories and explore our diversity but I wanted to really show my experience of the beauty of being a Black woman and the connectivity of being a Black person. I was plant-a-holic so I thought working with plants would be probably the easiest way for me to find myself in that.
How Botanical Discovery Led Me to Pholk Beauty
I had such a botanical childhood, and all of my people were like that. In the Black community everybody had gardens. London was really the first big city that I lived in, but I grew up in Mobile, Kentucky, which is one of the main cities in the state. We like to think of ourselves as very cosmopolitan and I didn’t grow up in a rural area, but I grew up in rural states.
When I moved to London it kind of blew my mind. I spent a lot of time at parks and London has these sprawling semi-wild parks, which are just beautiful and I could catch my breath there. London also has apothecaries. I realized I knew a lot of the plants that were on the shelves because I grew up with them. I would buy them and it just made me feel cozy at home and connected to my kinfolk. It just became like a hobby for me. Anytime I would travel, I would go to the markets and see what they were selling. That was my way of invoking my sense of home. It wasn’t that I discovered herbs and botanicals when I traveled, it was that it was a way for me to feel balanced and normal.
Plants as a Part of Life: Beauty as the Benefactor
Growing up in a family where plants were just a part of plants and gardening, eating simple fresh foods and using very simple raw ingredients to care for our skin. I grew up with basic ingredients like glycerin or witch hazel for breakouts. We had Aloe plants all around the house with broken stalks because my mom would use them if she had a burn, and I would use them if I had a breakout. We had cocoa butter, where you had to scrape it with your fingernail or break it off and warm it in your hands and massage it in your feet. Those are the things that we added to our beauty. It’s not that we didn’t purchase conventional beauty products, we were total beauty junkies.
We just had these additional ingredients in our beauty cupboards and around the house. It’s a very easy and simple way to take care of your skin. My goal is really just to provide a sense of means of taking care of your skin.
In beauty school I was the person in the class asking:
“What does that ingredient do for melanin?”
“How does melanin interact with that ingredient?”
“Will that Beauty instrument tear someone’s skin?”
“Is there hyperpigmentation that will follow?”
I learned that in my esthetician course there wasn’t a lot of teaching about the specific concerns for melanin-rich skin. Even if the ingredients are clean, healthy, or natural, is it going to be too heavy? Is it going to clog someone’s pores? Pore size matters for women of color. Coconut oil is be trending in natural beauty. However, if an Afro-Latina in Ohio is reading about coconut oil, and decides to try it, is that going to break her out?
These kinds of questions weren’t necessarily being asked when formulating in the natural beauty sector. The emphasis was really on clean, natural, holistic. For me, that’s a good start, but it must go deeper. What if a woman of color who has keloid-prone skin? If she decides to scrub her face with coffee grounds, it may tear her skin and create a keloid. You have to be really specific and really think about the unique concerns that come with melanin-rich skin. That is initially how I started Pholk Beauty.
[This concludes Part One of This Multi-Part Interview]
Niambi Cacchioli gifted our Head of Beauty, Chinea Rodriguez, with such rich conversation. We didn’t want to leave anything out for you, Pretty Birds! This first installment centers on the origins of Pholk Beauty by way of Cacchioli’s personal narrative as a Historian and thoughtful pursuit of treating melanin-enriched skin. We encourage you to revisit the series for further discovery into the brand, its holistic ingredients, and the history behind them.