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