Friday, March 14, 2014

Just Finished Reading - Cutting Along the Color Line

Locating secondary sources on the history of black barbers has not been easy. It appears that until recently not much scholarship has been published on this topic.

About a year ago I shared that I had read Douglas W. Bristol Jr.'s Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. This insightful book provides much needed background on how African Americans came into the barbering trade. Bristol also shows how in the last years of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century a distinct change developed where white barbers (often German, Irish, and Italian immigrants) began to take over the trade for white customers and African American barbers began cutting other blacks' hair more often than white hair.

Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, by Quincy T. Mills, was just published last year and explores much of the same material that Bristol examines, especially on barbers in the antebellum era. However, Mills takes the story much further than Bristol. Cutting Along the Color Line provides an intriguing analysis of black barbers and their roles in society and in their communities up to the 1970s.

In the 19th century, whites customers visited black barbers to have their hair cut and beards shaved. Black barbers in both the North and South most often served whites exclusively in their shops. If they cut African Americans' hair it was outside of their shops and outside of their normal business hours. However, with the rise of segregation and an emerging black middle class in the early 20th century, black barbers started opening shops in black neighborhoods to serve black customers.

Through the 20th century black barbershops became an important centerpiece of black communities. One might even say that barbershops provided a secular equivalent to black churches. In barbershops black men had the opportunity to freely express their opinions on everything from politics to sports, all without concerns about white repercussions. In black barbershops the important issues of the day were discussed and movements were organized. Black barbershops were truly places of "confidentiality and camaraderie."

Mills also examines how the barbering trade provided the opportunity and financial means for some African American men to enter into other professions such as real estate, insurance, and similar businesses. Also coming in for comment was the role barbering played in the civil rights movement. African Americans that resided in areas remote from black barbers sought equal accommodations from white barbers. White barbers countered that they did not know how to cut black hair. In these instances blacks wanted not so much to "close the social distance between blacks and whites," instead they sought to "dismantle white supremacy and ensure that black people had choices and control over their daily lives."

Mills writes, "In 1961, Ella Baker wrote an article titled "Bigger Than a Hamburger," where she argued that the movement to desegregate lunch counters had nothing to do with consumers' desires to eat hamburgers at the Woolworth's next to white customers, because the hamburgers were not that good anyway. Instead, these college students struggled for the right to equal treatment and justice in public places of accommodation. Baker's reflections on the sit-in movement resonated with the goals of the larger black freedom movement. The movement to desegregate white barber shops, to appropriate Baker's words, was bigger than a haircut, offering a complex episode in the struggle for equal rights and access."

In addition, Mills offers an intriguing discussion on how changing hairstyles challenged black barbers. In the 1940s and 50s the processed hairdo was the rage. Almost all black men wanted to look like Nat King Cole. Barbers professionally set processed dos, while some blacks settled for homemade versions called "conks." If you have seen the movie Malcolm X, you probably saw how his home conk was rendered. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, the natural caught on. The natural in the extreme became the Afro with the rise of the "black is beautiful" movement. Although Afros meant less trips to the barbershop, and thus less money in the barbers' pockets, black barber learned to offer trims and touch ups to keep Afros tight and sharp looking. These hair styles also offered the opportunity for their shops to sell black hair care products and thus potentially increase shop revenue.

This book provided me with what I was looking for - historical context that continued into the 20th century. But it did more than that it. It also provided me with some interesting things which I did not know and had not previously considered. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in African American history. Black barbers are a vital part of black history that had remained obscured for too long. Cutting Along the Color Line does much to remedy this overlooked topic. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.          

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