Black Men Allowed: The Barbershop's Traditional Role in the Black Community

By Bernard Murray

"…is the final spin of the chair…

a reflection of a reflection…

that sting of wintergreen tonic

on the neck of a sleeping snow haired man…

when you realize it is your turn…

you are next"

--Kevin Young

Eddie Priest's Barbershop & Notery... (Closed Mondays)

Directly across the street from the School of Business, marked with the unmistakable symbol of a twirling peppermint stick sentry outside, is arguably the epitome of the black experience. The barbershop.

Old Traditions:

A child fights his father in the swiveling chair, trying his very best to avoid the touch of the buzzing clippers. But it's no use. His father has a vice-grip on his shoulders and the barber has another on his head.

It must feel like an eternity, but the painless process of the child's first haircut takes a little under fifteen minutes. The barber pulls out his powder and brush and applies the finishing touches to the young client. The child hops down from his father's lap wiping his eyes as he follows his father out of the shop, lollipop in hand.

The entire shop has just witnessed what they call the "rites of passage.''

Cyncere Dotson, a junior legal communications major from Decatur, Georgia, walks into the shop. No appointment is needed, as Cyncere waits for his regular barber. Even with five people in front of him, Cyncere bypasses the other barber with the empty chair.

Though unspoken, it's very apparent the one barber isn't put in as high regards as the other four barbers.

That's how the barbershop is run,. The performance of the barber is judged by the masses.

On a Saturday afternoon, the barbershop is packed, standing room only, and the television is turned to CBS. Everyone in the shop hopes to catch a glimpse of Serena Williams playing in the U.S. Open.

As Serena tosses up an ace, the shop breaks into frenzy, which triggers what is known as the "jam session." This is the time when any and every topic is discussed; nothing is sugar coated, nothing is off limits. The topics range from sports, to the dominance of the Williams sisters, to the way Serena's cat suit fits her just right.

The "jam session'' will continue until a woman walks in to drop off her son. After the woman leaves, the "jam session" continues.
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Black Men Allowed: The Barbershop's Traditional Role in the Black Community-- continued

By Bernard Murray
New Traditions:

The experiences mentioned above are just some of the inner workings of a black-owned and operated barbershop.

Dr. Greg Carr, professor of African-American Studies at Howard University, remembers those experiences back in his hometown of Philadelphia, at Tom's Barber Shop. Both he and Rico, master barber at Best Cuts, know the influence of the black barbershop is not as strong as it was in the 1970s, but it still plays a vital role in the black community.

"In a world where time is money, people have very little time to spend chopping it up at the barbershop," said Carr. "There was a time when the black barbershop and the white barber shop were two institutions that operated in two distinctly different manners."

In a white barbershop, the chair with the fewest people was usually the one of choice, people wanted to get in and out. At a black barbershop, the pace was slower. The barber and his client had a brotherly bond, and a man would be willing to wait as long as it took.

But gradually, black barbershops gave way to the demands of today's fast-paced work force.

"I don't even allow walk-ins anymore,'' Rico said. "All cuts are done by appointments only. Also, because appointments are so common, the idea of lingering around the barbershop after a cut no longer exists."

Rico also views the barber apprenticing done by students in their dorms as a threat to barbershops like his.

"The distrust in the D.C. community has separated the students at Howard from its surrounding neighborhood," he said. "Most students don't take advantage of the experience the barbershop can give."

Shops like Best Cuts are also showing other differences from shops of the past. At Best Cuts, no barber looks a day over thirty, which is why some of the traditions of the black barbershop have a new look.

"The nature of conversation in the barbershops of today, differs from those of past,'' explains Carr. "This can be contributed to the generation gap in the black community."

Conversations of history, politics, and sports still occur, but all too often a customer will sit it the chair and talk of the disturbing incidents of last night. Soon followed by countless names of family, friends, and associates who have fallen in the past years.

Still Here:

According to Carr, the barbershop is still "the most accurate assessment of black intellectuals at work." Meaning the barbershop is one of a few examples of a successful black owned and operated business.

Rico and his colleagues also agree the barbershop has changed, but it's still, "the only positive influence any urban neighborhood has to offer." Eventually, the black barbershop should return to its dominance enjoyed in the 70s, they said.

Shops like D.C.'s Best Cuts Barber Shop, Tom's Barber Shop in Philadelphia and Church Street Barber Shop in Chicago give black men around the country a strong sense of pride. Which is why the barbershop will remain one of the few African-American institutions not tainted by white America.
Reprinted from The Hilltop of Howard University
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