I was inspired to write this book while sitting in the Truth and Soul Barber Shop on the South Side of Chicago in the summer of 2000. I was not there to get a haircut—and despite the jokes of imminent attacks by rogue hair clippers, I never did—because I had just started growing dreadlocks one year earlier. But more about my hair later.
I was in Truth and Soul to observe the conversations and interactions among the barbers and customers. Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly Harris-Lacewell) employed me to do this work for her book Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. She was concerned that, as a woman, had she hung out in the shop, she would have altered the nature of the conversations. But even as a black male from the South Side, I have no doubt that I, too, altered the space in some way. While she was interested in how African Americans develop their political worldviews through collective discourse, I could not help but think historically about the space. As I learned more about the owner, how he entered barbering, and how his entrepreneurial activities had shaped his political thought, I had more questions, and I had to go back farther in time.
That fall, I plunged into the archives and stumbled upon George Myers, a black barber in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He groomed William McKinley before he was elected president. In fact, Myers boasted of a large customer base of white, wealthy businessmen and politicians, and the Ohio Historical Society housed eight reels of microfilm of his personal papers. Why would a barber have such extensive papers? And why did he shave only white men in his shop? While few black barbers could say they had shaved a future president of the United States, as I discovered, Myers's practice of shaving white men was by no means an aberration.
Very early in my project, in September 2002, the movie Barbershop came out in theaters, striking a chord with millions of people, but not for the same reasons. Barber shops had long served as central institutions in black communities, so it was no hard sell to black moviegoers. The film grossed $20.6 million in the first weekend and ranked first at the box office. Yet, while many walked in with excitement and left after the movie's end with equal joy, others walked out of the theaters completely stunned. The film put civil rights leadership on trial for the world—particularly the white world—to witness. A controversy ensued, and black America found itself engrossed in heated debates about cinematic stereotypes and historical representation.
The controversial scene is iconic for its representation of barber shop talk, or the kinds of debates that take place in black barber shops among barbers and patrons. In many ways, these conversations are meant to be private. "I wouldn't say this in front of white folks," Eddie prefaced to the other barbers and customers in Barbershop, "but Rosa Parks ain't do nuthin' but sit her black ass down. There was a whole lotta other people that sat down on the bus, and they did it way before Rosa did." The barbers and patrons were completely outraged that he would challenge Parks's actions that led to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Eddie's statement upset not only the shop patrons, but some black movie patrons as well. Although Eddie did not make his statements in front of white folks in the barber shop, they had front-row seats in the theaters. Earlier in the movie, Eddie proclaimed to Calvin, the owner, that the barber shop is "the place where a black man means something, the cornerstone of the neighborhood, the black man's country club." As the men in the shop sternly disagree with Eddie for his statements about Parks, Eddie questioned, "This is the barber shop, ain't it? If a man can't talk straight in the barbershop, then where can he talk?"
The film lifted the veil of what happens in black barber shops, to the chagrin of many, but I grew frustrated that the public was still talking about barber shops in the same ways they had for decades. Though my research for this book was still in its early stages, I knew there had to be more to these shops than our public discourse has allowed to come into focus. Where did George Myers fit in this narrative about barber shops as the "black man's country club"? Surprisingly, there was no article or book on the history of black barber shops that I could consult. This question about the past and the present was critical in piecing together an untold history that might reflect a different story.
But, then, there was the question of my hair. Curious acquaintances, when they heard what I was working on, often made an observation along these lines: "It's interesting that you're researching barber shops and you have such long hair." In 1999, a year before I started this research, I vowed not to cut my hair and submitted my head to a friend's dexterous hands. She twisted my hair in sections to form what would become the birth of my dreadlocks. Year after year, those dreadlocks tangled, some merging to join as one. As each dreadlock grew longer and longer, I plunged deeper and deeper into the archives in search of African Americans who stood behind the barber chair to gain financial security. Nonetheless, it was not interesting to me that I was researching a business I was not patronizing at the moment. The historical research seemed much bigger than me, much more significant than my own hair. At no point did I feel less qualified or committed to represent the history of black barbers and the development of their shops in black communities.
But this question of my personal and professional connections to barber shops proved to be more than a curiosity as I continued my research. As I have written elsewhere, my encounters with southern barbers in hopes of an oral interview resulted in countless rejections but also a clearer insight into the connections between barbers and their shops. With sixteen-inch dreadlocks sprawling down my back, I ventured to Atlanta, Georgia, and Durham, North Carolina, to interview black barbers who owned or worked in a shop any time before 1970. Much to my surprise, they were more interested in my hair than in sharing their histories in the profession. They raised a series of questions that were at once about my hair and the underlying functions of their business. In disapproving of my hair, they foregrounded the tenets of their profession. For example, "I'm in the grooming business," one barber offered his professional opinion, "and you don't look groomed." Another barber pointedly questioned, "What does it mean that you're here to talk to me about barbering, but you haven't cut your hair in I don't know how long?" Yet another barber stated, "If we were depending on people like you, we would be out of business." From my perspective, my hair was distracting. But from their professional perspectives, my hair posed a material threat to their livelihoods. This particular question gave me an opening to reframe our discussion about the past. "Well, you saw this in the 1960s and 1970s," I responded, "when Afros and Naturals emerged on the scene." I asked him, and other barbers I later interviewed, about this highly politicized era of hairstyles. One barber was quick to point out, "They were still coming in for shape-ups or some other service."
I embodied barbers' challenges in the profession over time, which was a history I wanted them to share with me. These encounters had everything to do with how barbers saw their lives and labors. Self-sufficiency has been a key component of the meanings of black freedom since slavery. Barber shops have historically been one of the most accessible paths to business ownership and economic independence. These men thus took their roles as entrepreneurs very seriously. The popular idea that the barber shop is the place where men of all walks of life can talk freely may be partly true and endearing. I suspect homophobia is as much an issue in barber shops as it is in larger society. Barbers, however, kept their eyes on the bottom line. Both my research agenda and my physical presence failed to speak to the lived experiences of southern barbers. If I was attached to my hair, did that mean I was detached from the barber shop?
Cutting Along the Color Line is a product of archival research, interviews, and, most significantly, critical rejections. Because I listened when barbers refused to share their histories, this book will welcome readers into several black-owned barber shops throughout history that might be familiar and unfamiliar. Spending time in the shops revealed to me how over the years they have been both businesses and public spaces. Barbers labored in a service industry where they shaved men and cut their hair. They positioned their shops where they might capture a preferred clientele. With most areas of service consumption, relationships and personal connections matter. The service transaction, though, was rarely limited to an economic exchange. The social organization of barbers' labor to groom men included the value they placed on making men look good, presentable, and respectable. Grooming black men was a way of creating a respectable black masculinity. For the set of barbers I was looking to interview, a neatly groomed face and head could be the difference in getting a job or getting a date. Barbers thus took great pride in the role they played to groom the race, and they had planned to get paid for doing so. Cutting Along the Color Line unravels these connections over time and space to tell a story of black men's individual and collective interests in the barber shop—my own hair notwithstanding.