Friday, February 20, 2009

The Art of Barbering


Barber comes from the Latin word Barba, which means beard.  A barber as defined by Webster's dictionary as one whose business is cutting and dressing hair, shaving beards, and performing related services.  In medieval times, Barbers also performed surgery on customers as well as tooth extractions.  The Barbershop can be viewed as the cornerstone for bonding, yet based on our hair textures and neighborhoods; it often mandates the social aspect of our engagements. 

Today, Barbershops serve as a communal place where men (African American (AA) men, more than any other race, based on our generational disturbances) can engage each other as peers, where nothing is out of bounds for conversation, and where the concept of discovering and breaking it down, goes on.  This forum of dialogue has served as a social, cultural and political tradition for Black Americans.  The Barbershop's symbolism and social activity has greater informative, social and bonding precedence than the black church, schools, or black radio. (1)  Barbershops create an unbiased space to express yourself, on a peer level, in which educational degree or stature is not required.  Everyone has the floor to speak his opinion.  

From Slavery to freedom, barbers have constituted the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs in the African American (AA) community. In the Pre Civil-War (Pre Emancipation Proclamation, prior to 1865, i.e, before slaves were freed by Lincoln) blacks held a monopoly in the barbering profession, primarily serving wealthy whites, often-prominent businessmen and politicians. Many black barbers served only white customers, and others owned separate shops for blacks and whites. A small capital investment in a barbershop attracted many black entrepreneurs (2).

The attitude and stigma of whites was that the servility was work for blacks. (3) In cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington, DC, Atlanta, And Charleston, blacks were the dominant entrepreneurs. The most successful Northern black barbers owned exclusive shops, either as separate businesses in the urban white business districts or in exclusive hotels. Both as slaves and as free men black barbers used both monopoly and their white consumer base to their advantage.  Their profession provided them with power, prestige and status in the black community.

Lewis Woodson, 
Barber & Co-Founder of Wilberforce University

AA barbers often used their status and wealth to uplift their community.  Many purchased their enslaved family members or helped build black churches.  Barbers Lewis Woodson and John Vashon co-founded Wilberforce University, in Wilberforce, OH (4) the first all-black university and the oldest private AA University in the U.S.  Even when AA barbers were serving primarily white clientele, their fortunes and status were frequently reinvested in black communities, a reality that made them a center for black life in the nineteenth century.

By early 19th  Century, Northern Italian and Irish immigrants became owners of the previously black owned shops in downtown business districts across the U.S.  This was partially attributed to their persuasion to allow their fellow white customers to become their barbers, while other contributing factors included barber unions, licensing laws, and technological innovations such as the safety razors. The black owned barbershops were displaced from downtown and urban business districts.  

of Booker T. Washington, 1901, he wrote:

"Twenty years ago every large and paying barbershop over the country was in the hands of black men, today in all the large cities you cannot find a single large or first class barber shop operated by colored men.  The black men had had a monopoly of that industry, but had gone on from day to day in the same old monotonous way, without improving anything about the industry.  As a result, the white man has taken it up, put brains into it, watched all the fine points, improved and progressed until his shop today was not known as a barbershop, but as a tonsorial parlor."

The Barbershop remains the cornerstone for African American Culture, unless you are raised in a male influenced family unit or engage in organized sports, (65% of AA households are led by single women) SHINE is clear that this type of male bonding is exclusive and paramount.

In my research of African American barbershops, I realized that by nature of my female presence in the barbershops, I was disrupting the natural flow of dynamics in this all male safe-haven.  I was welcomed, but it was clear that their tongues were stiffened.  I have a great amount of respect for the space where men can commune in their way to discuss social, political, sports, current events;  where they can discover that they can agree to disagree and it stays there; and more importantly where they learn more about themselves and the world we live in.

Shine Supports our Barbershop Brothers!

Levels Barbershop, (NYC) , 
female Barber JAZ and Lee Burgess (SC) myspace. lbmasterbarber

1,2,3,4) Lacewell-Harris, Melissa Victoria.  Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, Princeton University Press Chapter 5 (July 13, 2006) co-written by Mills, Quincy T. Asst. Prof. of History, Vassor College

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish all barbers knew how critical they are to our socialization...

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