Throughout American history barbershops have been a cornerstone in the African American community, whether that be through wealth creation or congregation. Since the decline of color line barbershops in the mid twentieth century, these space have become much more reminiscent of what we see today, a place to connect, share experiences, and stay updated on happenings local and abroad as well as share commentary about social events. The barbershop has also been seen as a place to engage in leisure activity and access the black press, acting as a hub for the dissemination of information important to the people of the community. To quote Quincy T. Mills "It was a place you didn't feel threatened, nor threatening." A place where older men congregated and young men got insight into what it was to socialize with others outside the home. It was our fully accessible version of a men's club (though not exclusively so).
It was a place you didn't feel threatened, nor threatening.
But is that still true, and is today's experience merely a reflection of the changes we see in society as a whole?
Sitting in the right barbershop on a Friday or Saturday is still an experience. Sports, Social Issues, Fashion, Food, Sex, anything you can think of is open game. The degree of candor may vary out of respect for the presence of women, children, and 'old school', but that only lasts so long. The comedic dialogue in the shop at times can be infectious. Our communities are full of vibrant personalities and brilliant minds, and for some their stage is still the barbershop. But as you may expect, for many, especially younger patrons, that stage has shifted to social media. Barbershops have always been a reflection of larger society as a whole.
"Black barbershops were products of both the rise of Jim Crow and Progressive-era labor reform, as well as blacks' increasing support of the concept of black autonomy." - Q. Mills (Cutting Along the Color Line)
Unlike 20 years ago, today we are interconnected 24/7. There is no need to wait till you get to work tomorrow or the barbershop next week to comment and share your thoughts on current events. Anyone who has a desire to hear your thoughts or see your actions can simply follow you on social media. I can't imagine anyone today that is not already aware of the behavioral changes technology has created. But it's not all doom and gloom, with this access also comes awareness. While we are inundated nowadays with slanted news and content, we have access to information in real time. This access provides the spark for many impromptu interactions in the barbershop.
Case in point.
I was in the barbershop when news started circulating about the comments Houston Texans' Owner Bob McNair made in reference to NFL players, and was able to immediately get a pulse on the sentiment of my community. Anger, resentment, but very little surprise in the shop, and the conversation quickly turned into a discussion on what the players should do, and what they would do if they played for that team. The commentary during the next hour or so could have been spliced right into a movie. The energy in the black barbershop today is still alive and well. So why does it feel so different?
I believe it is the cultural shift in society reflected. When you are watching the world through your phone and television there is a disconnect. Who is 'they'? Don't you mean 'we'? Why is it that in his prime 'I am Tiger Woods', but in struggle 'He is Colin Kaepernick'? As a society we have become spectators in the world around us.
A great deal of that comes from the overwhelming amount of access we have that desensitizes us to the horrors of the world, because these tragic events have become so common. Taking action and showing up means a much different thing today than in days past.
So in today's barbershop you are much more likely to see a deep dive dialogue into the hottest new online video or meme than you are the heinous acts in NY and Texas, because it's overwhelming and we are disassociated. It fights for the same attention in our lives as does that viral video everyone is sharing to distract themselves, because life is hard enough.
So why do we care?
We care because the dialogue in barbershops can be deep and thought provoking. There is a reason that many a civil rights action launched in this environment. It is where men of shared experiences came together to become likeminded in order to take action. You don't get that through social media, because those important conversations happen in too big of a forum, with too many distractions, and less emotional investment.
It is important that as a culture, we stay connected and rooted in the communities we love so that our cultural identity isn't diluted by virtual content and mass communication messaging. Over 60% of black men go to a barbershop to get their hair cut at least once a month. We must protect our barbershops, their culture, and the communities they serve. Providing a safe haven for dialogue without repercussion. Where a conversation about a haircut can spark a dialogue about revolution, e.g. The Afro. But more importantly we must inform and educate the men that are serviced in our barbershops, inspire purposeful dialogue, and continue to facilitate the barbershop as an exploratory space for social impact.
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