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Monday, November 18, 2019

The Barber Shop as a Sacred Space

Photo: Marc Brenner
By Matthew Allen

One of the bastions of unfiltered African-American discourse—the barber shop—is the setting for a Next Wave show. When contemplating where a Black man can have a safe space to express his feelings and engage in unbridled debate and dialogue, a business where one gets haircuts may be the last place that comes to mind, but it’s true. Making its New York debut on December 3 at the Harvey Theater at BAM Strong, Barber Shop Chronicles (Fuel/National Theatre/Leeds Playhouse) finds six cities throughout the African Diaspora united by two commonalities—getting a fresh trim and speaking your mind.

Stemming from slavery and running all the way to the age of Trump, the Black American male has scarcely had a place or platform where he could fearlessly express his thoughts and observations. The origin of the barber is traced to Ancient Egypt, as far back as 5000 BC. While the foundation of the “business” derives from Africa, barber shop “culture” is strong throughout the African diaspora. In the 20th century, aside from his home and the church, the barber shop was traditionally all he had to call his own—the only place untainted by the dreaded white gaze. To understand the importance of the barber shop, observe such evidence in over 50 years of pop culture.

Photo: Marc Brenner

First and foremost is the obvious—the desire to look good. From Afros and dark caesars, to high-top fades and faux-hawks, grooming can be paramount to the Black man, whether to look presentable for an interview, or impress a date. But you might have to wait, as not every head is fit for every cutter, so when you find the right barber, you’ll wait no matter what—whether there are three people ahead or two vacant barbers with nothing to do.

In a 2018 episode of FX’s Emmy-winning comedy Atlanta, we bust a gut watching Paper Boi falling folly after ridiculous folly with his barber, Bibby, all to get his hair cut in exactly the way he wants and needs it. It’s hilarious, but it also speaks to an underlying theme that comes with your barber: trust. Reliability is paramount—knowing what you’re going to get, which can sometimes only attributed to negative things, like police harassment, for one.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Honest discourse is the key to fostering healthy communication and solutions to social ills. For Black American males, the barber shop has been a forum for examining race relations and interaction between the sexes. You’ll see this in Wattstax (1973), for instance. The documentary on the titular music festival commemorating the 1967 Watts Riots in LA not only featured performances from Isaac Hayes, Allen King, and The Bar-Kays, but also commentary from Watts natives. It’s no accident that many Black citizens were interviewed in local barber shops and beauty salons—safe spaces—speaking unwaveringly on topics like the relations between Black men and Black women, and the pitfalls of being called a nigger at school for the first time.

Debates in barber shops have arguably become a part of Black American folklore. The raucous energy and unapologetic opinions—ranging from the best rappers, ball players, and political antics—are welcome and encouraged. Take Showtime’s The Shop (2019), for example. Executive-produced by NBA superstar LeBron James, the program finds athletes, musicians, and entertainers expounding on topics of the day, with hot takes flying about. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael spoke candidly about his disdain for Broadway musical Hamilton, an otherwise celebrated multi-cultural phenomenon. Or John Landis’ Coming to America (1988) starring Eddie Murphy, which featured hysterically iconic barber shop disagreements about boxers.

Finally, there’s ownership. In the 1800s, the first Black barbers, both free and unfree, almost exclusively served wealthy whites. Following emancipation, the establishments soon became sacred institutions for African-Americans and opportunities for Black men to become proprietors of their own businesses. Being a master of your own fate is a luxury for most men, but for Black men, it’s especially not to be taken for granted. It’s fitting that James used The Shop as the place where California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing college athletes to benefit financially when universities use their likeness, name, and image. This will do what many barber shops do all over the world: empower Black men.

Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based TV producer and music journalist whose work can be found in Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, BRIC Community Media, and PBS’ All Arts.

Barber Shop Chronicles
 will be at BAM Dec 3—8.

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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