When we moved to Florida in 1980, my parents decided it was cheaper to cut my hair themselves. I was five at the time, with no reason to protest. Back then, haircuts were only $8 in comparison to today’s standard $20-25. Things were affordable, but my stepfather didn’t believe in paying people to do things you could do yourself.
Over the years, my mother experimented as styles changed. She did a decent job at just getting everything low and even, but she couldn’t do much more than that. I often came home asking her to try new techniques—high-top fades, line-ups, etc. On one occasion, I wanted a sharp line-up to define my haircut, not just the usual cut with no real definition she had always given me. To make sure she got the line just right, she drew it onto my skin using a marker and a ruler first, then cut according to the line. We found out later that she had overlooked the fact that the marker was permanent.
On another occasion I wanted a high-top fade in the style of Kid & Play. So she put a bowl on my head and cut around it. She stopped there because she didn’t know how to blend it or create a gradient on the sides. It should go without saying that I was laughed all the way back home from the bus stop. At this point it was clear that it was time for me to return to the barber shop, no matter the cost. So I did.
As I grew older and became increasingly aware of my budding sexuality, I developed a particular disdain for the barber shop. My experience there was always characterized by endless arguments over sports (which I had no interest in), hypocritical barbers who shoved religion down every customer’s throat and kept a bible on their station vanity (but also made lewd comments about the women who brought their sons in for haircuts … Wooo Brotha! That ASS!), and overwhelming hyper-masculine posturing performed through unnecessarily loud voice, clothing, and recapitulations of previous night’s or planned and upcoming night’s sexual escapades. These are/were, for me, the hallmarks of the black barbershop.
In the black barber shop, good customer service is deeply buried treasure. Do not expect, “Hello, how can I help you?” upon entry. This is due in part to the perception that courteousness is feminine. Trash-talk about customers who just left is acceptable and common. Comments critical of queer sexuality are welcome and supported (because of Jesus, you know; and because why the hell would a man not want pussy?). While we do not socially engage one another, we are still socially engaging. There is a script. There are performers and roles. There are expectations. There is always an ongoing process of measurement and assessment attached to the body; a ceaseless project of comparison. It makes the man “real.” It pulls him into or ejects him from an almost inescapable gender-obsessed community of already overdetermined, hyper-sexualized, hyper-masculinized bodies. There is always a looming threat, an energy in the air that something mildly violent could happen at any moment—if someone disagrees, if someone got the short shrift on a bet, if someone sits too close to another on the couch.
As you might imagine, my trips to the barbershop required a degree of closeting and “safe” performance that probably no one believed. Still, it always felt like a requirement. So before going to get a haircut I went through the ritual of making certain my jeans weren’t too tight and my footwear was “respectable.”
In college, since my mother was no longer around to cut my hair, I learned to do it myself. But I always found it particularly challenging to cut the back, to blend in the sides, and sometimes my lines just weren’t straight. (Of course, as quiet as it was still kept, neither was I). So eventually, despite how much I hated the experience, I was forced to return to the barber shop in order to avoid the barrage of jokes about my bad haircuts from my friends.
Not much had changed. Black men were still black men—striving to be as publicly black and manly as they could possibly manage. I understood it as a performance of necessity. I understood that black men felt threatened every day, and as a result felt the need to be threatening in whatever way possible. Sometimes that meant loud voice, hip slang, attire, grimacing looks—whatever made the point. I understood it as a feeble attempt not just to protect the individual, but to maintain a menacing facade of fearlessness—an unfuckwithable veneer—that somehow, and through some voiceless and ageless corporate consensus had been adopted as a suitable protection of us all. I knew that for men the barber shop was/is the seat of masculine “tune-up.” It is a location that does the work of holding in place, of maintaining really, certain attributes of manliness—for black women, for white society, and for other black men. But I also knew that, in and of itself, it was a vaguely queer space, invaded by nebulous queer politics of male interaction, where men touched other men and depended on them for affirmation of their appearance. In the barber shop, the act of cutting, carves men out of and into a certain kind of ruggedness that keeps them acceptable members of a “community.” It thrives on conditional inclusivity. It is a training ground for boys, and a place to work out the politics of black male being without a need for books, literacy, or any other “feminine” technology. In the barbershop, what you believe as truth is far more important than the truth itself, haircuts are extensions of fantasies of the self that belong as much to others as they do the individual, and men are brought into existence quite literally by the hands and the rhetoric of other men. It is not just a place to shed hair. And for as much as is lost in the barbershop—for good or bad—an equal amount is gained (for good or bad).
At one point in my twenties I decided to grow dred-locs. It wasn’t because of my dislike of barbershops; I just wanted to try something new. I loved my hair then, but the church I was apart of didn’t. After a few years, I surrendered to group identity in pursuit of inclusion—the driving force behind many of my life’s decisions—and I cut my locs off. I quickly came to wish I hadn’t. After cutting my hair I discovered its texture had changed, and I was also beginning to thin at the crown. Where does a thinning man go when he wants to look good, but doesn’t quite have the skills to pull it off himself?Back to the barbershop.
As any black man will tell you, finding a good and consistent barber is difficult. And when you find one, you stick with him. You stick with him, that is, until he gets mad with the other barbers and goes elsewhere, gets fired for coming in late too often, raises his prices unreasonably, or services other customers ahead of you one too many times. At that point you’re back to trying to find a new hair guy. In my case, I didn’t just look for barbers, I needed certain things from the entire experience. I needed to feel safe. Having shed my religious commitments, I needed a place where I wouldn’t be assaulted by Jesus as a free gift with every haircut. Even if the barber was good, if he talked about church too often, I couldn’t be his customer. I needed a barber with fairly balanced masculine/feminine energy, so as not to always feel I was being sized up or judged if my pants happened to be slightly more fitting than black male trends called for at the time. I needed a barber who knew how to be just be a decent, kind person to someone who was about to pay him for presumably good service.
I went through several barbers over the years. I stopped patronizing one in particular after he told me an unconscionably gross story about ass-fucking a 15 year old girl (whom he said “pretended” to be older) in a nightclub bathroom—without a condom. I should add that I didn’t solicit the story, nor did I have one to tell; I sat in silence. It occurs to me now that the ritual of storytelling itself is a generative act by which people create themselves and the “reality” with which they want to be associated. In his case, I’m left to wonder whether or not his articulation of the events might also have been a tacit recognition of his own pathology, or perhaps an attempt to normalize it through open speech. Maybe it was a confession meant to ease the conscience; to solicit absolution from a jury of his peers.
Despite the egregiousness of the act and the moral defiance in re-telling it, there seemed to be a need for vulnerability—in fact, an insistence on it—that defined both the barber and the space in which he carried out his job. The black barbershop is marked by its conflation of both the sacred and the profane, and its existence as a culturally creative/artistic outlet for black men. While I’m certain barbershops offer the same kind of liberatory space for men of other races, there is something signifiant in the availability of a creative space, and the specific modality of barbering—an act infused with a mandate of touch—that is intimate and accessible in ways otherwise socially prohibited for black men. When else do we touch one another? Where else can that happen without judgment?
More than anything, the black barbershop is a place that welcomes and almost requires individual confession. With or without words, when we walk through the door, we give ourselves up. We surrender what we know ourselves to be, in the hope of inclusion, affirmation, and acceptance. What we give up may be perverted, honorable, questionable, spiritual, or sexual. But we leave it there on the floor, along with the remnants of what we were before another black man looked at us to confirm our beauty and his participation in the process of making us so. It is swept up and discarded, and we leave his hands as a recreated thing cleansed and made respectable as much by our confession as by the acts of cutting and trimming. In the aftermath of the cutting, we are embraced as black and beautiful things, despite the dirt and excess we came in with.
That is a summary version of the experience … unless your excesses are legibly queer. It certainly doesn’t describe every black barbershop. Most of what I’ve scrutinized lives beneath the surface, doesn’t account for the occasional secretly or openly gay barber, and doesn’t describe the new and emerging approaches to service found in progressive business models. But this is certainly an old and reliable formula; one that is probably more abundant than progressive versions.
Over the years, I gave up on several barbers who advertised operating hours that they never actually kept. There were a few who were older and never learned newer styles. Some were prone to take phone calls or stop in the middle of cutting my hair to argue with other barbers. That said, good barbers can be hard to find.
In 2012, while in grad school I discovered a barber who could cut my thinning hair just the way I liked it. He didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or judged, and he also happened to be a … “street herbalist.” It seemed like a winning situation. His name was “Scooter.” The barbershop itself was mostly tolerable. The only problematic personality there seemed to be Cedric, the owner.
Cedric was characteristically crass, playfully (but still offensively) sarcastic, and for the most part, bitchy, but in the way cisgendered heterosexual men are allowed to be bitchy so long as they have women or children who can vouch for their sexuality. Since Cedric’s cutting station was a few seats away I could mostly tune him out. On occasion, however, I listened as he talked shit about customers who had just left the shop or who were soon to come. One customer in particular—whom I never saw or met— was named James. Through conversations about James—who was another barber’s customer, not Cedric’s—I learned that the general belief in the shop seemed to be that he was battling AIDS. Knowing that people commonly conflate HIV and AIDS, I assumed the former and attributed references to the latter to run-of-the mill ignorance.
Conversations about James were usually characterized by overuse of a sibilant “s,” and a lot of drawling feminine affect. It never failed to rouse uproarious laughter among the “men.” I rationalized within myself that I continued to go to that barber shop only because I never heard my own barber participate in the shit-talking. Excuse? Maybe. In the process of trying to figure out my responsibility in the situation I asked myself a lot of questions.
I wondered how they knew he had “AIDS”? Had he shared that information himself? As a paying customer, didn’t he deserve the same dignity and respect as any other customer? If they talked shit about him in his absence, what did they say about me when I wasn’t there? Didn’t he deserve a haircut without denigration just like everyone else? Don’t all gay men? Did he know they talked about him this way? Would he care if he did? What part of manhood/masculinity relies on a lack of respect for an individuals right to privacy, or a lack of compassion for their health condition in order to crystallize itself? What part of blackness was this? What part of community was it? By this criteria, am I/we queer and men-loving-men black? Are we in any way really situated in this community that defines so much of itself through and by its capacity to perform over and against all inflections of the feminine? And while we’re on it, why the fuck is the feminine supposedly so valueless?
In June of 2015 I went into that same barber shop—appropriately named Who’s Next?—to get my usual cut. Scooter went about the business of trimming me. Cedric was mostly quiet in his corner booth. Mark, another of the staff barbers came in and began removing his hat and coat.
From Scooter I heard, “Mark! Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaames called for you. Said he’s coming in this morning and wanted to know what time you’d be here.”
The men in the shop began to laugh.
“Who?” Mark asked.
“Jaaaaaaaames,” Scooter replied.
I shifted uneasily in the chair. Cedric chimed in and together they reminded Mark of who James was.
“Jaaaaames! You know who I’m talkin’ ’bout. The nigga with AIDS.”
“Mark keeps cuttin’ these nigga’s hair that got that shit. You gon’ fuck around and get it too. Fuck around and cut them wrong one time, you got to soak your damn clippers for a week to get that shit off. You keep right on, you gon’ have it too.”
I was nearly in tears trying to figure out what exactly I was supposed to do. Part of me felt afraid. And for that reason I also felt like a coward and a traitor. I wasn’t 12 anymore. I wasn’t a boy unsure of himself. I was a fully grown and self-aware man who knew right from wrong, and who knew that to sit through this … and then pay for it and leave silently … would in fact make me a coward.
When Scooter finished cutting, I handed him my money. He reached to shake my hand. I refused.
“Oh shit, here we go … what did I do now,” he asked.
I was full—rage, shame, guilt, fear, and tears that wanted room to roll. I knew what to say, so most of my energy was devoted to controlling my breathing, to not looking afraid when I said it. I have never been one of those stoic people capable of delivering the coup de grace with a straight and unmoved demeanor. When I’m angry I cry. Sometimes it’s not as much a sign of pain as it is swelling wrath. I am conscious of the perception of tears as male weakness, so to this day I still try desperately to control that urge until I am somewhere safe and alone.
“Scooter … how long have you been cutting my hair?”
Leaning on the back of his swiveling barber’s chair, he looked confused .
“I don’t know,” he replied. “A few years now, I guess.”
I stared at him and tried to maintain my composure; to not break.
“Scooter, you should really be careful what you allow to come out of your mouth. And a little education would do you all some good. You never know, Scooter, if the person sitting in your chair may be dealing with the same shit you’re ridiculing your other customer for—who by the way isn’t here, but comes in regularly to give you his hard earned money, only to be degraded when he leaves.”
I paused, took a breath. At this point the realization of what was happening, what was really being said, settled in across the barbershop. Silence wrapped itself around us.
“Scooter, never … in the history of ever … has anyone contracted HIV from giving a person a haircut. It’s not possible. But you’re standing here laughing and degrading that man … and those of us with similar or the same condition, spouting ignorance as fact. The reality is, you’re more of a threat to him … to me … than I am to you. As a matter of fact every other time I come in here you’ve got a cold … your nose is running right now. But you’re worried about getting a disease … one that is not a threat to you in this setting … from someone else. What about the threat you pose, Scooter?”
With that, I turned, walked out of the barbershop and did not look back. I didn’t want to see their faces. I didn’t hold my head down. I didn’t walk fast. I didn’t look at anyone on the way out the door.
I looked at the marquis before completely exiting the building. Who’s Next? …. I guess it’s me now, I thought.
Once I got in my car, I wept for quite a while, torn between feeling somehow strangely empowered, but also shaken, fearful, and vulnerable in a way I’d never been before. I had just stood in a barbershop full of black men and told everyone that I have HIV. What would they do with that information? Did it really matter? Would this somehow come back to haunt me? Did I do the right thing? Should I have just kept my mouth shut and never gone back?
You should know that some of these questions are not barbershop specific. These are the same questions I ask myself when filling out questionnaire’s for massage therapy appointments, non-invasive physical therapy, and my most recent employment application that includes HIV among its list of “disabilities.”
The last question I asked myself that day was, who will cut my hair now?
I found a new barbershop, and was fine there for nearly a year. Then one day in walked Mark—formerly of Who’s Next? Apparently he left there following disputes with management and was now to run a chair in the new place I had found. I didn’t know if he would share the gossip I had made of myself with this new community of barbers. I didn’t know if he would even remember me. But I knew I had to once again find a new barbershop. I knew that, for one reason or another, I am always searching for a home.
Almost a year ago I decided that probably the best thing for me, in light of the fact that I’m thinning and also hate barber shops, was to just go bald; to shave it all off.
I look good bald. Damn good. But I now contemplate what it means to “thin”—to become less; to lose parts of yourself; to be publicly marked as one who is thin/less/shrinking. I think about barber shops as not just cultural spaces, but as spaces of cultivation. I wonder what these experiences, and in particular that day, made of me. I think about choosing to have nothing at all rather than submit to the scrutiny of trying desperately to maintain a little bit (of dignity, of manliness, masculinity). I think about what it means to not be a part of a dominant segment of masculine community—of black masculine community. And while I realize that I never really was a part of it, for a while I occupied a role and gave performances that in strange ways completed the pageantry—the endless spectrum— of black masculinities without which the space itself doesn’t really exist among its own traditions and distinctions. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a black barber shop where queerness didn’t complete the painted picture. I can’t imagine that there aren’t scores of other black men who think twice about their pants and their shoes; who rifle through their vernacular rolodex to find words and lies that will allow them to participate in conversations about inconsequential escapades by which they are socially defined. I feel pity for their inability to define themselves.
As I think about the act of trimming excesses and formulating aesthetic definitions, I wonder how all of those haircuts and all of those men have “shaped” me. What did they cut off beyond my hair?