De-romanticizing the Black Barbershop in the 21st Century

Ever since the Black barbershop’s provenance, there has been this pervasive thought that it is a utopian space where all types of liberating discourses take place. The Black barbershop has been widely thought of as a space where Black men “keep it real.” Black-owned barbershops date back as early as 1854 in America (see http://www.chopitupbarbershop.com/html/first-black-owned-barbershops-d5.html), and they have been spaces where men have discussed serious topics and have organized and strategized for substantive change in this country, especially during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.  For this piece, I limit the focus on the Black barbershop to its 21st century epoch, the epoch we currently reside in, of course.  From the outset, I want to admit that my direct experience with Black barbershops is primarily limited to those in the American South and Midwest.  The Black barbershop has certainly lost much of the utopian, liberating, and subversive energies that it once had during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

While I’m not arguing that the Black barbershop has completely lost all of these aforementioned energies, I am contending that the Black barbershop is not as powerful of a space as it was during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Our nostalgia for Black barbershops during those aforementioned movements is conspicuous in how we perceive and discuss Black barbershops. The purpose of this article is to complicate and extend the discourse about the 21st century Black barbershop.

Performativity in the Black Barbershop

While Black men in the barbershop showed serious signs during the 1960s – 1970s of “keeping it real,” this past site of “keeping it real” has largely morphed into a space of performance. In many Black barbershops I’ve visited, many of the Black men in them have traded in the revolutionary spirit of Black men in the 1960s and 1970s for a “cool pose.” Majors and Billson (1992) assert that the idea of “cool pose” is a stress coping strategy that is employed by Black males that features hypermasculine behavior to help them to be able to bear the multifarious barriers and pressures an oppressive, racist, and discriminatory America present them. While the Black barbershop was once a place where Black men were highly focused on talking about subversive ways to resist oppression and discrimination, many of them are now competing with one another in this space to prove who has had sex with the most women.

In many Black barbershops, women are being heavily reified by many Black men to gain the approval of the “audience” in the barbershop.  The Black barbershop is a space where you can witness how important performing hypermasculinity is. Before many Black men leave the barbershop, they want it to be clear that they are the biggest “pimps” in the whole barbershop. When observing many of them, you can tell how much they are laboring to manufacture false narratives about the number of women they have had sexual intercourse with and how many they currently have on their shoulders. The feeling of the need to perform in this way is vital to comprehend because it makes the barbershop a space that is sexist and demeaning to women, especially Black women.

Another way in which many Black men put on performances in the Black barbershop is through the way they present themselves as being so “messed up” from last night. Now, some of the barbers who have cut my hair I could just smell the marijuana and alcohol on them so much that I often felt like I got high from just being in close contact with them. For many of the Black male customers who come into the barbershop, it becomes really hard to believe them that they are still so “messed up” from last night. It seems to me that if you are really “messed up” you will not be able to drive to the barbershop. Now, this is if you are really “messed up.” These types of performances in the barbershop make it a space where drug use, abuse, selling, and possession is celebrated. You will increase your social status by the approval that many people in the barbershop will grant you for persuading them about how “messed up” you got last night and how “messed up” you still are.

Moreover, television programming, namely sports programming, affords many Black men in the barbershop to be able to receive the attention they are seeking. You have many Black men who will try to present themselves as experts and coaches while watching sports programming in the barbershop. Many Black men will speak vociferously and holler just to get attention. Now, they know that they are not at home. I don’t have any problem with you acting like that when you’re at home, but you are only putting on a performance for your “audience” when you do this in a barbershop, a public space where we should have some level of decorum.

Conclusion

Let’s not fool ourselves anymore. The Black barbershop is not simply a space where liberating, subversive, and useful discourse takes place. It is very much a place where unhealthy, demeaning, and unproductive discourse does take place. Yes, useful discourse and activities do take place in the Black barbershop, but let’s not pretend like the Black barbershop is a space where we always “keep it real.”

Reference

Majors, R., & Billson, J.M. (1992). Cool pose: The dilemmas of Black manhood in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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10 comments

  1. I think part of this extends to the business mind set of these barbers. The service is horrible and sometimes the shop aren’t even that well kept. I have personal problem with the business mind set of these barbers. They seem to feel like they are irreplaceable.

    You do a great job tracing the history! Sorry about the mini-rant

        1. The customers have to insist on these barbers changing too. Unfortunately, many of these customers like this unprofessionalism and foolish behavior. I really feel sorry for the really professional men who have to endure this type of behavior when they come into these barbershops. One might say, “Well, they can leave and go to another barbershop,” but in many areas like the one I’m in, there’s not that many Black barbershops available. Madison, Wisconsin is, of course, a predominantly White city and there are numerous cities across the nation like this. There’s limited availability of Black barbershops in the numerous cities across the nation like Madison, Wisconsin.

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