Barbering for Freedom

I went to that black barbershop for the reason millions like me have done so before—to feel at home. But for years, as Quincy Mills’s fascinating Cutting Across the Color Line reveals, black barbershops in America were unavailable to people of my lineage and color. Though they became a stereotypical image of a black social institution, crystallized best in Barbershop, they began as institutions of segregation and white supremacy. In the antebellum era, but also well into the period of Reconstruction, black barbershops—predominantly in the South but often in the North—only served white men.

Segregation, separatism, and the history of black barbershops

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Quincy T. Mills. Cutting Across the Color Line. University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2013.

When I was 19 I moved to New York for the summer to write a novel. I’m a black, Jamaican immigrant; my novel was, creatively enough, about a black, Jamaican immigrant living in New York. I found a place in Queens with a white friend working in theater and another white friend looking for a job in publishing. Not knowing many people in the city, besides some family in Flatbush, I mostly hung out with them. I spent virtually no time with other black folks.

That summer, I so lost myself in my thoughts and my terrible novel that I barely noticed myself in the mirror. By the end of July, though, I couldn’t help but notice that my afro, curling into itself, threatened to become dreadlocks.

I searched for black barbershops online and stumbled onto Diamond Cuts, a barbershop across from Port Authority, which one online reviewer claimed was her favorite place to get her afro puffed. Another reviewer wrote that they gave the freshest lineups. As I walked along Eighth Avenue, Desmond, a cornrowed man standing out front quickly eyed me up and down and told me, “You need a haircut.”

Signed pictures of famous black boxers sitting in the shop and autographed headshots of black actors lined the walls. A constant chatter overrode the buzz of shavers. A barber shaving a client muttered, “Man, my wife’s always getting on my case about looking at other women.”

“Are you?” asked the short man with a high-top getting shaved.

Yeah, but I don’t want her to know that.”

When I sat down in the chair, D asked what rappers I listened to. I mentioned obscure underground artists (One Be Lo, Cannibal Ox, and some rappers I found on the mostly defunct MySpace Music whose names I’ve thankfully forgotten), and he told me to text him their names. Then he told me I should drop by one of the parties he was DJing the following week. After a moment of silence, D asked where I was from. I said, “Jamaica.”

“Word? Me too. Do you have family in Flatbush?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said. “We stayed there when we first moved to the States. You hang out there?”

“It’s too crazy. I don’t go down there anymore.”

I agreed with him. This was not the sort of talk I exchanged with my white friends. It was too embarrassing to admit to middle-class folks, whom I did not want to think of me as a stereotype: a poor, black immigrant who once lived in the hood and who still had family in the hood. But with a few sentences D disarmed those fears. Even though I knew his job depended upon making me feel at home, D felt like the first black friend I had made in New York.

I went to that black barbershop for the reason millions like me have done so before—to feel at home. But for years, as Quincy Mills’s fascinating Cutting Across the Color Line reveals, black barbershops in America were unavailable to people of my lineage and color. Though they became a stereotypical image of a black social institution, crystallized best in Barbershop, they began as institutions of segregation and white supremacy. In the antebellum era, but also well into the period of Reconstruction, black barbershops—predominantly in the South but often in the North—only served white men. Prohibiting black men from cutting black hair for a profit allowed slave owners to control their slaves’ relationship to their own and to other black bodies. At the same time, slave owners profited from their enslaved barbers by hiring their slaves out to cut the hair of white townspeople. If the barber was lucky, his owner allowed him to take a percentage of the profits, which he sometimes used to purchase his freedom.

Their distance from harsh, manual labor made these positions relatively privileged ones, leading Mills to argue that barbers initially occupied an unstable class position. “As captive capitalists in a slave society,” Mills writes, free barbers represented “both the possibilities and limits of freedom for African Americans in the antebellum period.” Cutting hair granted a barber control of his time, a rarity for black people, and, if he owned his own shop, the resources to enter the black middle class.

Barbering created an unstable relationship between black men and white men. As barbers, black men gained the opportunity to befriend white patrons, who might help them avoid illegal enslavement. White customers also felt a license to speak freely in barbershops—as if the black barbers were not there—making barbers into information hubs essential to abolitionists and fugitive slaves. (In Boston, Peter Howard’s barbershop, which both white abolitionists and black men patronized, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.) Yet barbers still faced a punitive system that supported white violence against black people, and were susceptible to capture and illegal re-enslavement. If they provided anything less than total deference, they faced economic and violent consequences, and possibly re-enslavement.

Because his status depended upon his deference, the black barber could be seen as a trickster. The classic example of this is the barber Babo in Melville’s Benito Cereno. “Babo plays the role of loyal servant,” Mills writes, “to evoke the common perception of the paternal master-slave relationship.” Under this disguise, Babo leads a slave rebellion and mutiny, symbolizing historical black barbers who submitted to their masters in order to exercise greater freedom and, in some cases, advance black rights.

It is the barbers’ simultaneous advancing of black rights and climb up the social ladder into the middle class that leads Mills to his primary argument: the history of black barbershops “suggests that individual and collective interests need not be diametrically opposed.” In the 19th century, for instance, black barbers gained more wealth than other black freedmen, and certainly more than slaves, but also utilized their privilege to aid abolition movements. In the 20th century, black barbers profited off of their customers while helping black men conform to black masculine aesthetics, functioning as “conduits of black community formation and national belonging.” Looking forward to what barbershops can tell us about the future, Mills argues that barbershops “symbolize the ways a shop owner’s financial independence and political consciousness and a community’s culture and congregation can facilitate African Americans’ individual and collective dreams and realities of freedom.” If there is anything about this argument that we ought to be suspicious of, it is the number of variables (“financial independence,” “political consciousness,” community “culture and congregation”) that must align to make black middle-class shop owners liberatory. Unsurprisingly, then, Cutting Along the Color Lines reveals that dissonance, and not harmony, amongst these variables dominates the history of the black barbershops.

The barbers’ relative privilege was ultimately threatened, in the post–Civil War era, by the old quarrel between racialized civil and labor rights. In the late 19th century, Northern white barbering unions saw that black barbers often charged less than white barbers, which undermined union attempts to negotiate for higher wages. Writing in the trade magazine The Journeyman Barber, Leon Worthall called black barbers a “competing factor” and a “perplexing problem,” while other union organizers referred to black barbers as “the negro problem.” Black barbers in turn perceived union organizing as organizing against black businesses. This led George Myers, barber and political hand in the Republican Party, to write in a 1919 letter to his former patron, the historian James Rhodes, “I have little use for Organized Labor. It is inimical to the Negro.”

While holding labor unions at a distance, some black barbers defended shops that only served white patrons because this practice secured higher earnings than catering only to black customers. This financial advantage also offered a rebuttal to the criticism of black opponents, who detested the required submission to white customers and derisively labeled the whites-only establishments “Color-Line Barbershops.” Following Booker T. Washington’s discourse of racial uplift, “Color-Line” barbers and their defenders claimed that economic progress and property ownership, even if based on segregated shops, would eventually aid the entire race. In response to the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina riot over the election of Black Republicans to the state legislature, the “Color-line” barber John Merrick said, “Had the Negroes of Wilmington owned half the city . . . there wouldn’t anything happened to compare with what did. Let us think more of our employment and what it takes to keep peace and to build us a little house and stop thinking we are the whole Republican Party.” For Merrick, politics provided no safety. Instead, any kind of paid work, even Jim Crow work, secured black people economic security and, consequently, physical safety.

The issue of segregated shops persisted well into the Civil Rights era. In 1963, the New York Times reported that Jim Crow businesses in Washington DC had refused to serve at least twenty African diplomats over the previous year and a half. In 1964, a barbershop turned away Prince Godfrey K. Katanywa of Uganda, who filed a formal complaint with the state department. Such complaints worried the State Department, which feared losing international credibility and losing influence over African nations to the USSR during the cold war.

In response to the Prince Katanywa incident, Corporation Counsel Chester Grey of the State Department spearheaded a State Department effort to desegregate barbershops by pushing for new legislation that required licensed barbers to learn to cut “all types of hair.” White barbering unions argued against such a bill; one even hired an attorney who testified that it would take a white barber six months to learn to cut black hair. The State Department ultimately deferred the bill, assuming that the pending Civil Rights Act would solve the problem.

When the Civil Rights Act passed, it did not prevent barbershop discrimination, partly because barbershops weren’t among the public accommodations that were required to be integrated. As a result, DC district commissioners passed separate legislation in 1965 prohibiting barbershop discrimination. Such efforts to desegregate barbershops in DC matched legislation and judicial action in states as far apart as California, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. But the integration of white barbershops hardly affected the racial makeup of barbershops. Black people still preferred black barbershops.

For Mills, black community organizing against segregated barbershops demonstrates that the civil rights movement was not driven by the desire of black people to spend time in white public spaces. It was instead driven by the need to “dismantle white supremacy” and to give black people “control over their daily lives.” In other words, movements for integration did not just hope to earn equal quality for services, like education, or to close the physical distance between the races. They were aimed at freedom—including the freedom not to get your hair cut at a white barbershop.

What was the lingering appeal of the black barbershop? In the terminology of contemporary activism, these barbershops provided—and still provide—“safe spaces” for discussion because they lacked a hostile white presence. This, in turn, made them dangerous to the white power structure. In the early 20th century, black barbers could freely support the NAACP and other protest organizations without fear that customers would alert the police. In the same period, barbershops could circulate subversive literature: while customers waited, they could read black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Communist pamphlets, and other radical texts that sat alongside the innocuous piles of magazines found in barbershops everywhere.

Black barbershops also provided a public venue for political conversation free from white surveillance. Black men so valued this space that, in the 1944 article “Dustin off the News” in the Chicago Defender, Lucius Harper wrote,

amid the clatter of scissors, the hum of electric clippers and the like, more questions of local, national, and international moment are brought to light, debated and settled forthwith than are discussed on the floors of Congress. Our American barber shops are the only places where anyone can immediately become “Speaker of the House” without the benefit of the ballot . . . it is one of the most cosmopolitan institutions in our community life.

Churches and fraternal halls similarly provided all-black public spaces for debate, but barbershops, Mills argues, distinguished themselves from those venues because “conversations inside barbershops were not organized and participants were not preselected.”

Yet such liberty depended upon the exclusion not just of white people but of women. From their very inception in the 19th century, black barbershops were the site of debates about black masculinity, because barbering was an all-black-male profession in the 19th century. During the 1848 Colored National Convention, over which Frederick Douglass presided, delegates listed barbering among their list of “unmanly occupations” because it required submission to white men. In their own words, they claimed that “to be dependent is to be degraded” and that white men “may indeed pity us, but they cannot respect us” until black laborers did not rely on white patronage. Here, these thinkers differentiate between white masculinity (and labor) and black masculinity (and labor), setting the historical precedent for discussing black barbers as a means of discussing black masculinity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the “entrance of women to barbershops,” as women flocked to get the bob hairstyle in the 1920s, caused “a hullaballoo . . . by the male clientele which felt that the last stronghold of masculinity was going sissy,” according to the South Side Chicago female barber Margaret West in a 1935 interview. Even today the safety of black barbershops requires privacy from female “surveillance.” Recently, at my barbershop, a man brought in his son, took off his hat, and showed the barber his son’s hair, which disappeared spontaneously in patches. His father said, “My son decided to cut his own hair with scissors. He said he wanted to be bald like his dad. Now how am I supposed to respond to that?”

The barber replied, “Man I’ve never seen a balding little boy.”

“Can you fix his haircut before his mom comes to pick him up? She’ll never let him visit me again if she sees him like this.”

As much as the shop provides a space to recharge our batteries, drained by antiblack spaces and policies, it also provides refuge from gender battles, and it does so at a cost.

Mills’ implication that separation, at least historically, provided black communities security and liberty raises an important question: is integration oppressive to minorities, and is racial separatism the only path to black liberation in this country? If racial autonomy grants freedom of expression in black barbershops, integrated spaces, conversely, limit that freedom for many minorities.

These issues still face black barbershops today. The barbershop as a contemporary political space since the era of civil rights is something to which Mills devotes only five pages (which, in many ways, foregrounds that the book’s real focuses are slavery and civil rights). He touches upon the black power movement’s explicit valuation of natural black hair in the 1960s, but we don’t see what happens to this discourse in the ’80s. Similarly, we never get to see what role black barbers play in creating the cult of black male celebrity in the 1960s and ’70s, from Muhammad Ali to Richard Roundtree as Shaft, nor how barbers respond to the dreadlocks popularized by Reggae culture and how that interaction might shed light upon American cultural appropriation and imperialism.

Mills does, however, focus on the threat of gentrification. Because gentrification is a contemporary facilitator of integration, it threatens the freedom granted by black barbershops. As Mills notes, black men frequently hang out in front of black barbershops, the sight of which makes “urban economic developers cringe.” Developers work to remove black barbershops to attract other businesses, in order ultimately to raise rents and then changes a neighborhood’s demographics. By aiming to remove such institutions, gentrification does not just destroy history; it limits freedom, and especially limits freedom of speech.

Even so, in the 2000s, barbershops continued to facilitate community belonging and continued to be a nexus for black male communities. The South Carolina for Barack Obama Beauty and Barbershop program, for instance, began its pitch by writing that Obama first found a community in Chicago by visiting a barbershop (Smitty’s, where Obama joined “in the familiar barbershop banter of sports and women and yesterday’s headlines, conversation at once intimate and anonymous, among men who’ve agreed to leave their troubles outside”). Recognizing the importance of black barbershops to black communities as likely no presidential candidate had done before, Obama’s campaign staffers canvassed at barbershops across the nation to reach out to black communities during the 2008 election. Similarly, reporters polled black barbershops for African-American opinions on Obama during that election. As Mills repeatedly emphasizes, black men patronize barbershops not just for haircuts but for culture and community. In a more just society, it is this culture and community that would sustain black barbershops. They would not need to perform their other function: spaces of refuge, of freedom from a hostile and unsafe world.

On my first trip to a barber in Philadelphia, I felt the tension between integration and liberation pulling keenly at my stomach. I had just moved, and my life was a mess: I was single and bitter about it, preparing to teach at a nearly all-white prep school wracked my nerves, I didn’t have many friends in the city, and I had an average of three nightmares a week. Looking to put my life back together, I decided to shear my overgrown locks—looking not too different from how they had looked when I entered Diamond Cuts four years ago—at a black barbershop near my new apartment.

When I arrived at the shop, tucked away just north of the University of Pennsylvania, my barber started a conversation about prisons.

“You know Dice Raw”—a rapper associated with The Roots—“I just saw his musical, The Last Jimmy. Man was it good. He created this album that became this musical about black male incarceration, all that stuff they talk about in The New Jim Crow. A lot of it wasn’t new to me. I knew people were locking up brothers a long time ago. But I never thought about the economics. I mean, there’re whole communities thriving off prisons, off putting black folks behind bars.”

“Like Leesburg,” said another barber.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“Leesburg, New Jersey. It’s a poor country town where all these white folks work in the prison. They got maybe three teeth in the whole town but ride around in brand new trucks on 24s because of the prisons.” Everyone laughed. “I’m not kidding! Ask them to roll down their tinted windows and you’ll see. They put all their money in their rims not their mouths.”

“And who’s paying for that?” asked one of the patrons sitting down.

“Shoot, you know it’s the taxpayers,” I said. People nodded.

“Anyway,” continued my barber, “I had to leave during the Q&A because everybody got up and started talking about their resumes and how they got their PhD at this place in this and that subject and how they wrote about whatever. I couldn’t handle that. I’d rather talk about that stuff here.”

I had not felt at home in a long time and had not spoken frankly about politics with my black peers since leaving my last job. That Saturday in the barbershop was coming home to family and a fresh cut, a way to patch my life back together. If I could fortify myself in here by letting my guard down and getting a fresh cut, I could prepare myself for the hostile outside world. It was productive separatism at the small scale: find racial autonomy to protect myself from white supremacy. And I wasn’t doing it alone: if we could armor each other, then we might last.

I left the store feeling good about myself until I saw a blue-eyed Penn student in a red and blue tank. When we locked eyes, I was sure his eyebrow cocked up. Immediately terror set in. Why the stare?

When I got home, I realized that the Penn student might not have judged me (or my haircut). He might have raised his eyebrow at something else entirely. But outside of the barbershop, alone on the integrated streets, I saw no one who believed that a haircut could help me pull my life together.

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