Thursday, August 20, 2015

Goodbye Mr. Reaves: Back in Chicago from Visiting New Haven and Pondering the Closing of My Childhood Barbershop

I am back in Chicago after traveling home to Connecticut for a week-long visit.

I now need to reset, get back into my routine, catch up on some writing, and enjoy the final weekend before school begins anew.

[As a bureaucratic matter, I am making my best effort to post this week's installment of The Chauncey DeVega Show with guest Walidah Imarisha later this evening. I apologize for the delay.]

When I return to Connecticut, I am always happy to see my mother--even while her eccentricities are really starting to annoy me, older folks are allowed such illogical quirks--and I am reminded that "home", however defined, is increasingly about the people and friends still there as opposed to physical landmarks and businesses that may now be shuttered and closed. In all, I had a good time (I also put some work in on the outline of the first 12 issues for my graphic novel/series that I will be pitching to some folks in the next few weeks). I also went to the cemetery where my father is buried. I am not morbid. I also do not believe that you can effectively communicate with a person's corpse. But rituals give us power.

[During said visit to the local in the ground body depository, I was reminded that my father is a trickster because I am damn sure the grave marker is not where it was originally put ten years ago. I also went to my grandfather's tombstone--which I was unaware of until a year ago. He is buried next to a member of the Carnegie family. Talk about an ironic outcome.]

And yes, New Haven pizza still reigns supreme over nearly everyone...bonus points if you get the reference.

New Haven, Connecticut is not the downtown of my childhood. Like so many other college or university locales, Yale has gobbled up and robbed it of its personality. Standardization somehow brings comfort to the little snowflakes who are afraid that the place where they will go to college or university will somehow be different from where they grew up. The horror!

But even in the midst of change I dared to hope that the black barbershop, one of the leading and most important historic institutions in the African-American public sphere/counter public, would stand as a redoubt.

This was also a source of disappointment.

In New Haven, and elsewhere, the black barbershop (and hair salon) is under siege. My childhood barber, the man who first cut my semi-straight locks of beautiful "good hair" those 4 decades ago, has retired. Mr. Reaves and his family run business was and remains an institution in New Haven. The transition to a new owner (one who does not seem prepared for success and will undoubtedly fail) is a sign of my/our impending decrepitude and proof of the truism that there is nothing constant but change in life.

Here is a great profile of Mr. George H. Reaves that was written upon the announcement of his retiring.

While home, I formally transitioned to the barbers who cut my father's hair. I am unsure if this is an informal rule in the black community (and those others who still go to real and storied barbershops instead of some horrible salon or corporate hellhole like Supercuts). But, the father and son who cut my father's hair, are now officially, and with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities therein, allowed the honor of touching my head. The symmetry seemed appropriate.

My new/old barber told me the tale of Reaves Barber Shop, dished some gossip, explained how the barber's union in New Haven has been broken, licensing requirements suspended by the state, and how bootleg untrained barbers are opening up everywhere, people who lack the comportment, dignity, and skill of  a proper man in the trade. My new/old barber also told me something that I never would have imagined. Apparently, in black neighborhoods in New York, East Asians, Chinese mostly, are opening up barbershops where they cut "black hair" in 10 minutes, and charge less money than a proper African-American barber shop. This flummoxed me. As the old saying goes, black folks will be the white man's ice because they think it is colder.

If I ever have children, they are going to a black owned barbershop or hair salon (and no, a hair salon run by Egyptians, Arabs, Ethiopians, or some other group does not count as "black"). Such spaces are central to African-American political and social life. At Reaves Barber Shop, I, like so many other young boys and girls who are now men and women, learned lessons about life, politics, respect, humanity, psychology, and economics while sitting there waiting for a cut or being lectured to by he who was and is The Great Master Barber.

To wit. I remembering learning about power when the mayor of New Haven showed up one afternoon, cut ahead of the line, sat in Mr. Reaves' chair, shook his hand, didn't pay, and got up and left like it was just a normal day. Such a power move was pretty damn impressive to a 12-year-old.

[I would bet money that those African-Americans who go to places like Supercuts or white owned and run hair salons have a lower sense of linked fate and political awareness than those black people who go to traditional black barbershops and salons.]

Do share if you would. Have you gone back home to your childhood haunt? What was it like? Any barber or hair salon related politics, ethnography, or social history to share? Are there any institutions in your hometown that were a barometer of change, now gone, for better or worse?

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