Revealing the barbershop for what it is: a black man’s safe space
With every snip of the scissors and snatch of his dreadlocks, it’s evident. Andrew Johnson, standing still, body tense and shoulders round, isn’t having his hair cut.
He’s being butchered.
Johnson, a New Jersey high school wrestler, showed up to compete last week, but instead was forced by a referee with a racist incident in his past to have his hair chopped off or forfeit the match.
Johnson asked to push his hair back as he had done before. He had a hair cap for his locs. But it wasn’t sanctioned — something that should have been discussed well before the match when it could have been rectified.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestlers with long hair can secure it in a covering.
Instead, he was given a last-minute ultimatum. Instead, his body was violated, yet another reminder of a system that polices blackness at every turn. It was a reflection of the safety black boys and men do not have.
Not at school, not in their cars, not walking down the street, nor showing up to a wrestling match ready to compete.
This is why barbershops are important to black people and people of color. They provide a safe space, a place to nurture solidarity, a place where black boys and men can let their guards down.
Even if Johnson wanted a haircut, it shouldn’t have been done by a stranger wearing gloves, recklessly swiping scissors in and out of locs that took time to twist, maintain, and grow. Locs that are deeply tied to identity. Locs that require discipline.
As a former wrestler who competed in NJ and MA, I've never heard of anything like this before. I've wrestled against long haired, short hair, and yes, even wrestlers with dreads before, no one was forced to cut their hair. SMH #AlanMaloney #AndrewJohnson #WrestlingWhileBlack https://t.co/jh4BR238gs— Shawn DeRay (@DeRay_Shawn) December 21, 2018
At a barbershop, he might have just gotten his edges lined up, his hair re-twisted. And if he shed them all, the barber would have done so with precision and care.
Maybe they would have talked about wrestling or politics or debated about the king of R&B.
At the American Repertory Theater, “Barber Shop Chronicles” celebrates the camaraderie and intimacy of black barbershops in Africa and England. On stage, the shops come alive with arguments over Nelson Mandela, soccer, family, and music. There is dancing, there are tears, there are secrets shared. Some men come in to get cuts, some are there to just be among friends.
As I watched, it became clear, these shops could have been in Brooklyn, D.C., or Brockton.
I walked into Marvelous Cuts in Brockton on a Sunday, and men were piled in for their Christmas cuts. Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” played. Shop owner Lex Andre Daluz wrapped his client in a cape and asked him how he wanted his beard, the thickness of his edges, and how low to take down his short fro.
Daluz, 31, grew up in barbershops. His dad was a barber.
“The barbershop is a center for community for us, especially in the black community,” Daluz says. “Growing up, I learned a lot about how men get together in the barbershop and share ideas and perspectives. Being a barber is an honor, making people feel happy, talking to people about their problems. A lot of places are structured for service like a dentist’s office or a doctor’s office. But at a barbershop, clients become family over time. There’s a loyalty.”
Playwright Inua Ellams captured that solace in “Barber Shop Chronicles.”
“The need for exclusivity is born out of necessity rather than choice,” Ellams says. “What makes barbershops special is that the men are there primarily to beautify themselves, to look at themselves in the mirror, and be looked at and tended to by other men. This requires a certain amount of vulnerability and release, to be focused and present, yet distant and without control. It is a tender space, and in a world of vilification, such as the one black or African men in the West face, these spaces are sacred.”
Maybe that love and need for barbershops is why one of the most celebrated children’s books of 2018 is “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” by Derrick Barnes. Released in 2017, it won the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers, and honors from Ezra Jack Keats, Caldecott, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King.
The book, about the black boy joy nurtured in barbershops, was written to counter the negative images of boys and men and honor their humanity.
“The black barbershop is not only a safe haven for black thoughts, ideals and intellectual expression,” Barnes says. “But it’s one of the only places that we can go, other than possibly the church or the loving arms of a black woman, to be reminded of who we are and how much power we truly possess. It’s the pillar of sincere black masculinity, fragility.”
Perhaps that’s why LeBron James chose a barbershop as the setting for his HBO series, “The Shop,” where athletes and artists come together to talk candidly. Last Friday, an episode featured James saying, ‘‘In the NFL, they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality.”
When I think of Andrew Johnson, it’s hard not to wonder whether that mentality isn’t rampant in athletics, period.
In that same episode of “The Shop,” Lena Waithe talks about the importance of her getting a hair cut on the show, and what it means to masculine-presenting lesbian representation and inclusion.
In the shop, everyone has a voice.
At Marvelous Cuts, Michael Monteiro waits for his turn in Daluz’s chair. Home for the holidays from Switzerland, he hasn’t had his hair cut in a month. Daluz has been his barber since they were kids. It’s not just about the cut, he says. It’s about esteem.
“The barbershop is not just where we go to look fresh. You feel good,” he says, pressing his fingers into his heart. “Not everybody that comes through that door comes to get their hair cut. You feel better here, you get self-confidence.”
And you get love. There’s a scene in “Barber Shop Chronicles,” which runs through Jan. 5, where a man struggling with alcoholism breaks down and you learn the root to his heartache is his father. His barber offers him help.
This is not an isolated event performed on stage. At barbershops across the world, barbers act as therapists, big brothers, fathers, and uncles. They are the neighborhood friend.
“There is no magic to this,” Ellams says. “All that is required is a chair, something to cut hair with, the need for genuine interaction and communication, and people.”
But in a world where Andrew Johnson can show up ready to wrestle and instead has to go to war over his hair, genuine interaction and a recognition of humanity are magic.
At the barbershop, a chair is a throne in a safe kingdom.