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Barbershop Harmony

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 1998

  Style Showcase

    'Barbershop Talk'
This would be an unconventional book-signing bash even if Melvin Murphy hadn't brought the Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The room, hidden on a side street in suburbia where parking is chancy, has limited seating and fuzzy black clumps scattered across the floor.

But on this sunny Saturday morning, amid the high-pitched hum of small machinery and the higher-pitched snickers of small children, Murphy knows he has chosen the right place: Smitty's Barbershop in Falls Church. A place where the barbers know his name – and more important, know his head.

The book? "Barbershop Talk: The Other Side of Black Men," published by Murphy himself.

"I think our black men are at their best in the barbershop," says Ruth Johnson, whose three adult sons grew up at Smitty's and who has stopped by to purchase a copy of the book on her way home from Rita's Beauty Shop next door. "They can be themselves there. Forget the job, forget the problems, and just have a real good time."

There is the black church. The black college. The black newspaper. But perhaps no black institution has been more romanticized than the black barbershop. Spike Lee's award-winning student film about a black barbershop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn launched his career. The black barbershop has served as a backdrop for Nike commercials and a key listening post for politicians. It's right up there with the diner as a favorite stop for reporters in times of crisis: What do African Americans think about the Gulf War? The L.A. riots? O.J.? And in that context, it has become almost a cliche.

But there is something preciously authentic about the black barbershop. It's the last refuge, really, a kind of fraternal lodge for black males of all stripes, where knowledge can be traded, disputes resolved, wacky theories tested without penalty. At the barbershop, class schisms disappear and so does fear. Where else in America can the bank president and the ex-con sit side by side and find something in common? Where else can the neighborhood elder reach the otherwise inaccessible pro athlete?

Oliver W. Harrington, the author and cartoonist from Harlem, writes how in the 1930s the Elite Barber Shop was the true cultural center of his famous New York neighborhood, where "each Saturday morning some of America's top second-class citizens filled the Elite air with spirited public debate on such varied subjects as women, horses, politics, show business, surgery (both amateur and professional) and on what the s.o.b.'s were doing to keep the colored man down."

"The barber shop has provided an emotional safe-haven for men who have endured exploitation for more than two hundred years as African-American males."

They don't hold anything back in the black barbershop. The kind of lively debate Harrington described continues today, and not just in the Harlems of the nation, but also in the Gaithersburgs and Falls Churches of this land. As African Americans continue to find happiness outside central cities, they are bringing to majority-white suburbs the essential totems of their culture.

The black barbershop, says Raleigh Neal, a retired World Bank official, is "one of the few things that survived integration. Why did it survive integration? Our desire to have our own groomers. You ever hear of a Chinese barbershop or a German barbershop? No. But everyone knows of the black barbershop.

"As a kid, I remember listening to the arguments, the egos. Why did the barbershop create that environment, an arrangement in which you can argue aggressively and not come to blows? And the guy on the side listening is like a judge, saying, 'He made a good argument. He didn't.' That's a dynamic."

Neal, who has just stepped out of the barber's chair at Smitty's, is deep into barbershop philosophy now.

"What is the future of black barbershops? Is it that our grooming is so important, they'll always be in existence? Or is it that as we become more worldly and we learn more about each other, we find that we're not so much different as we thought? I don't know."

It's not that there is anything uniquely black about barbering, said to be the world's oldest legal profession. From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, barbers not only tended to hair but sewed up wounds, pulled teeth and performed bloodletting – once a common medical procedure thought to cleanse the blood.

The tonics, talcs, razors and padded reclining chairs with steel footrests are staples of all barbershops. And to be sure, the barbershop has long been a bonding and conversation center for males of all races.

But Murphy, 36, a Fairfax resident who is making a career of motivational speaking, wrote his book as an expression of something he believes is peculiar to black men. It is more about reflection and representation than anything else.

    Derrick Penny Smitty's barber Derrick Penny pays a bit of special attention. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)
"As I go to the barbershop," he says, "I see all the interesting sociological aspects of life for black males." But that rainbow is often not reflected in the movies he sees, the news he watches, the literature he reads. "If we can change the negative image of African American males, we can strengthen civil society and possibly have a blueprint for ending racism in America."

Tall ambition. Murphy's book is hardly the first to try to explore black men in their many dimensions. The book contains interviews with former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and former National Urban League president John Jacob. It is not a sophisticated work; the prose is not polished, the insights are not particularly new. But the book is an earnest attempt to mine the barbershop for what it symbolizes.

The barbershop is "one of the few places where African American men gather and do not feel threatened as black men," Murphy writes.

"The barber shop has provided an emotional safe-haven for men who have endured exploitation for more than two hundred years as African-American males."

Cutting to the Chase

Smitty's is a six-chair shop, so informal that customers answer the phone. It's a pinball machine of colliding conversations, sometimes refereed by debater laureate Rennie Williams, who doubles as a barber.

"I don't know about keeping the debates going," he says, "but I can debate."

Herman Smith, 58, has been running the shop since the late 1960s. A Navy man, he has a formal air to him, the only one of his team clad in traditional white dentist smock. He's cut thousands and thousands of heads during his career – but no more than 20 a day now.

"In the early '60s and '70s, people would come here for everything they wanted – cut off warts, cut off moles, stitches," he says, enjoying the history lesson he's giving. "In the '60s, guys came in to play the guitar and sing. We had shoeshines. Yeah, this was the shop back in the '60s and '70s. Even if they didn't want a haircut, they'd come down to play checkers. This was the only black shop in Fairfax County, I guess."

Since only 335 of Falls Church's estimated 9,862 residents are black – probably not enough heads to keep Smitty's in business – it's a good thing the shop draws patrons from throughout suburban Virginia.

Sometime during the '60s, Smitty's became the home barbershop for black Washington Redskins players, many of whom lived in or around Herndon. Art Monk, Monte Coleman, Dexter Manley, Doug Williams were all Smitty's regulars. Gary Clark and Wilber Marshall, no longer Skins, still come.

Smitty's was NBA All-Star Grant Hill's barbershop when he was growing up in Reston. Rodney Carter, his barber, likes to tell the story of when Hill appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in college with a "bad haircut I didn't do."

This was no minor matter. Reputations were at stake.

Derrick Penny, a newcomer to Smitty's stable, explains what the haircut means to the barber: "It's a walking advertisement. It's your billboard. You want people to ask, 'Who cut your hair?' "

But that ugly high-top fadeaway Hill was sporting? Nobody at Smitty's wanted to claim that. Thankfully, Carter recounts, Hill was kind enough to note in an ESPN interview that the haircut of ill repute was not given by his regular barber.

It's early, but the conversation at Smitty's is already sizzling – about the NBA draft, tonight's concert at Carter Barron, the "old days" when you could buy a pair of P.F. Flyers for $10 and the new days when a black man can get dragged to his death because he doesn't have the right pigmentation. Which seems an awful lot like the old days.

Nonetheless, "Soul Train" is on the TV, and business is good.

"I've been coming since eighth grade," says Darryl Franklin, a former American University basketball player now in law school at the College of William and Mary. "It's kind of like a family atmosphere. You just come in and hang out. It provides a little comedy on a Saturday morning. You can come in here and spend two hours and not even know it."

Melvin Murphy has been here for more than two hours, greeting customers, enjoying the ambiance of his barbershop. A rolling luggage cart stacked with his books is never far away, and Murphy is happy. Many of the black men in the shop are reading. They are reading about themselves.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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