Alex Yarde rediscovers the simple joy of community on trip to a Black Barbershop.
I obviously can’t speak for other ethnicities, and I acknowledge I take a risk speaking for an entire group, even one I am a member of, but in my experience, black men are very particular about where they get their haircut. Admittedly, when I was a younger, single man, I paid much more attention to such vanities. A weekly trip to keep my lines sharp was a necessity. Today, now that I’m a stay at home dad and editor, I pay less attention (practically no attention). My weekly schedule is always pretty hectic and dragging two small kids to the barber shop never seems worth it. Which is why this Christmas Eve (at the instance of my loving wife) I took the time and finally stopped by Lucky 7 a local black owned and operated barbershop.
As soon as I crossed the threshold, it felt like I was back at my old barbershop in the Bronx, decades ago. And I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the experience. The weekly ritual of going down to the barber is a luxury in a way. It may sound strange but it’s one of the few places I feel I can be myself and be totally at ease. I’ve gone to various barbers of different ethnicities, some were excellent, but most importantly I enjoy the easy acceptance of a black barbershop. I’m over six foot and walking into most establishments draws attention. Here, I’m just another brother looking to get a cut. And it’s refreshing.
Now if the shop is popular, like any other establishment, there’s a wait (if there is no wait turn around just like an empty restaurant). Certain protocols must also be adhered to, like checking in with the head chair and inquiring on the wait because there is a pecking order among the barbers and new clientele can become regular customers. If one is not a regular or even if one is, expect some playful ribbing. On Christmas Eve, when the owner looked at me, he declared to the whole shop “the Black Grizzly Adams has finally wandered out of the wilderness for a cut!” Everybody, including myself, started to laugh.
After my cordial welcome, I was designated a chair. I sat on a long crowded couch awaiting my turn. A teenage boy and his younger sibling, obviously regulars by the way they were greeted, sat down next to me. We exchanged salutations. As I waited, I began to recall long ago trips with my father to his barbershop. My dad went to barbershops like some people attend church. The familiar static buzz of the clippers, short metallic snips of scissors, chuckles of tall tales. The smell of talc powder and that blue liquid they still put combs in. My dad’s barbershop offered a few extras like shoe shines, whiskey and Playboy magazines. My dad would occasionally scold me about reading them but, as he chatted with the owners and other regulars, he mostly would allow me to do as I pleased. It was great fun. But it was also educational. Overhearing snippets of conversations I was too young too hear but old enough to be curious about. The constant observational study boys do on their way to becoming men.
I was snapped out of my memories by my barber’s call. He was a very cool dread and, as I would learn, an avid music lover named “L” Da’ Barber (it’s on his business cards). He asked me what I wanted, as he agreed with my wife, a cut was long overdue. Inevitably politics, religion, sports, and entertainment came up in conversation as old timers and youngbloods cutting hair, getting cuts and waiting for cuts intermixed. An older gentlemen getting his dreads oiled and re-twisted had some great observations about New Jersey Charter schools. I gazed around at a dozen different shades, knowing a plethora of different backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, and educational experiences were represented at the establishment. All were jovial about the holidays and were enjoying the conversations. Everyone respectful, fully present and engaged.
The touchstone for all was our blackness and the shared experience living in an America that, despite the daily grind and indignities we all endure from the President on down, also strengthens our resolve to advance as the blade is honed and sharpened on the whetstone. To paraphrase “America” by Claude McKay—“There is much I do not love about America, but what I do love, I love a lot.” This sentiment gives one an appreciation for an oasis like this black barbershop. Any typical black barbershop is full of uncles, cousins, and nephews that one never knew one had. People from the Atlanta to Compton from Chicago to Houston or anywhere in between. Folks from Guyana to Ghana, Brooklyn, Newark, Philly or D.C. sharing good times and bad news, victories and frustrations, teaching and learning. Remarkably it flows easily. A vast dysporya of academic thought, popular culture, and ancient and modern history blending together.
I always learn something. As hair is cut, the tunes from the deepest, richest and oldest music catalog on earth play. An unbroken musical tree with its roots firmly in the African Continent from the heartbeat, to the drum, Delta blues, Jazz, Rock-n-Roll, Motown and Hip Hop. “L” Da Barber, when I recognized Sly and The Family Stones’ “I want to Thank You for Letting Me be Myself”—after discussing local building codes while expertly taming my scraggly beard—pointed out that the go to producers of the 90’s, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, lifted the guitar riff for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation straight from Sly note for note. Take a listen to the break, he is right. I didn’t know that before.
It is so comfortable being in a group who share more than just skin color. We have an immediately relatable experience that I’m unsure any other demographic in America shares. When we walk past each other in the street (particularly in a homogeneously white environment), we are going to give and get the slight nod of acknowledgement, which is subtle but tactile. Black men have always strived to connect and through those connections build a bulwark against threats from the dominant society both on our culture and (unfortunately) our persons. It is important to enjoy the company of those that (like me) society tries to convince are statistically the biggest threats. We are not that. We really are just a larger extension of family. Thank you to the Lucky 7 Barbershop for the cut and the convo—this is really what the holidays are all about.
Photo by author