Sunday, March 17, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Knights of the Razor

Nearly three years ago I posted about a letter I found from a free man of color and black barber named Abraham Meaux to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin concerning matters in the state during the wake of John Brown's raid. As a result I was highly intrigued to learn more about free blacks' occupational choice as barbers.

In my leisure reading I often came across references to both slave and free barbers. Of special significance was the diary of black barber William Johnson. But, I was pleased to finally get a copy of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom by Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr. through my local library on interlibrary loan.

Bristol explains that blacks - especially slaves - came to be barbers mainly due to whites' reluctance to possess occupations that hinted at servitude. Whites often associated their citizenship with independence, and those that served others could not be considered truly independent. Ironically, the barbering trade allowed some blacks - slaves and a number of free men of color - the opportunity to purchase independence (either their freedom or acquire property). Since few white men in the antebellum era, especially in the South, would consider cutting hair and shaving other white men as an honorable occupation, barbering allowed black men the chance to "prosper without inspiring white animosity."

Barbering also allowed blacks the chance to help fellow African Americans. Many of those that established their own shops hired other young black men as apprentices, thus giving them the opportunity to learn the trade in a relatively supportive environment. But, in some instances, black barbers' attempts to obtain even more white patrons and advance ever so slowly in society, led some to distance themselves from other blacks of lower social status. For most though, as Bristol explains, "Black barbers led a double life. In their first-class barbershops, they conformed to the stereotyped roles dictated by their white customers, even as in their communities, they led and inspired others."

One thing that Bristol brings out, and that fits perfectly with the letter I found by Meaux to Gov. Magoffin, is that "free African Americans turned to white patrons for protection." In the case of Meaux, he was concerned that free blacks such as himself would be removed from Kentucky due to white fears that they would support a John Brown-style operation in the Bluegrass state. Meaux wanted to reassure the governor that he had no such sentiments and that he earned his keep through hard work. Bristol explains that due to their unique position, black barbers often served as the bridge between the black and white communities, settling misunderstandings and resolving touchy issues.

As the nation moved toward Civil War, black barbers were already being squeezed out of their previously secured positions. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany increasingly came to the United States with barbering skills and without the servitude hangups that native whites possessed. During Reconstruction, the last part of the nineteenth, and first part of the twentieth century, as white and black society segregated more formally, whites increasingly sought out whites and black increasingly sought out blacks to cut their hair, shave their faces, and to serve as social centers for the exchange of community information and ideas.

I highly recommend Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. The analysis that Bristol provides on this subject and the evidence that he marshals is impressive. He has put together a fine book that is not only highly readable, but one that contributes significantly to our understanding of the antebellum African American world. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4.75.

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