I would never leave my hair in the hands of a stranger just to prove a point. In fact, I don’t know one black person that would. That situation only unfolds typically out of extreme desperation and even then is a still an incredible leap of faith that many are not willing to make, unless required.
So when I read that author Rebecca Carroll set out on an unsuccessful mission to find a salon that could cut “black hair” in the hipster mecca of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, I curled up and prepared for the worst.
I won’t pretend to understand the struggle black women have with hair. They are often defined by what grows on their head, and the slightest slip-up can result in an unfair onslaught of criticism or can be taken unfairly as a major political statement, even if it’s not.
Black men do not have such pressures, necessarily. But I also don’t have time to play around with barbers I’m not familiar with. That’s just not worth the time or energy. In my three decades on this Earth, I’d say that maybe 10 to 15 people have cut my hair. No joke.
My first barber was a man named Jasper. He was my father’s barber. He worked in the newly built Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center as the lone barber in a salon on the basement floor. This was long before chic so-called “swagger-jacking” bars lined the block across the way.
Jasper always had a long line. On hot days, my dad would let me run around on the block while we waited. When Jasper finally passed, about 10 years ago, Pops told me that a bunch of dudes showed up to the funeral with all sorts of bad cuts. I had moved on as I grew up. He hadn’t. He stuck with his barber until the guy died.
I made the mistake of going to my best friend’s brother to have my hair cut. He had taught himself, and he was in high school. It was free and convenient, but with each cut came bunch of drama. So as soon as I cared enough, I started going to the barbershop down the street from my house. That was sophomore year of high school. I haven’t stopped going since.
What’s interesting about Carroll’s story is that she felt the need to sacrifice familiarity for community. There’s a sense of obligation and localism that is admirable. Maybe I’m just not man enough to take that kind of risk. I still take the trips to my old neighborhood to get a cut, because to me, it’s the right thing to do.
I need not extol the virtues of the barbershop as a community outpost in black neighborhoods. Countless movies have dramatized, satirized and emphasized that concept. The fact is, it’s true. I love going to the shop. It’s some of the most fun of the week every time I’m there.
But over the past few years, I’ve noticed a trend. There are far more white guys coming into the shop I patronize. And not just military heads looking for a buzz cut, but seemingly regular white dudes who just didn’t have anywhere else to go. It’s obvious that when it comes to experimenting, on a basic level, this fascinates me.
And so, as a bit of a social experiment, I’m going to ask: Who cuts your hair? As a black man, black men and the occasional black woman (what up, Ma!) have put the clippers to my head. It’s always been that way for me, and I don’t know that it will ever change.
But I’m curious as to how this dynamic works in a city and region such as the D.C. area, with so much change and fluid movement. I’ll admit, I’m in a box on this one. When my colleague Tom Jackman wrote about Lorton as one of the most diverse places in America, the photo attached was that of a black man getting his hair cut by a Latina. Frankly, I was impressed.
Maybe it’s my own vanity, personal bias or fear of bizarre disrespect that keeps me from trusting people outside of my immediate circle with a commodity as major as my hair.
On a larger level, I think barbershops will be the last frontier of gentrification and diversification. When black men have no other option or willingly choose to let others cut their hair, this country will truly be a different place.
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