Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Real History: The Political Economy of Black Hair and Jim Crow Barbershops

Black barbers seemed to infuriate their antebellum critics because they appeared to have traded their racial pride for a good livelihood, which explains the recurring charge that barbers had surrendered their manhood, when in fact they served as the breadwinners within their household and beyond...
For inclusion in a true middle class. These members of the black middle class fiercely guarded their recently won status, and segregation rebuked their self-image as nothing else did. Hence, they attacked black barbers even though it was a commonplace that integrated or black-only shops would fail. From the point of view of the black elite, black barbers acted contrary to the interests of their class more than of their race. Only a tiny minority of African Americans possessed the wherewithal to patronize middle-class establishments, while the majority remained stuck in menial jobs that placed them at the beck and call of white employers.
While the anecdote rings odd (and I would not at all be surprised if the story was ultimately proven untrue), Herman Cain's teachable moment about being refused service in a black barbershop has some deep historical roots.

Black barbershops and hair salons have been identified in almost worshipful terms as one of the few remaining autonomous, indigenous, and private spaces in the black community. There, black folks are able to talk free of the white gaze; black barbershops and hair salons are symbols of black self-reliance and economic independence.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. Koreans, Egyptians and others have come to dominate the at 9 billion dollar a year market for black women's hair care (alarmingly, black Americans spend approximately 500 billion dollars a year on personal care products, what is half of their total buying power). Black barbershops are booming despite the economy, while black hair salons are closing down and their stylists going to work for "mainstream," i.e. white beauty parlors. In all, as Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair suggested, if you need a barometer for the mental, financial, and social health of Black America look no farther than our barbershops and hair salons.

As we moved from slavery to freedom, black barbershops and hair salons were reflections of that journey. Consequently, Jim and Jane Crow hovered over those contingently black spaces. One cannot forget that white racism was both de jure (the law) and de facto (a set of social codes and norms). It was a cradle to the grave system that governed every social interaction between people of color and whites--and yes, even those which occurred in barbershops.

Sharing as is my habit, the book Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom does a great job of working through the complex and rich history of black barbershops in the Black Public Sphere, and what it reveals about race and race making.
Most black barbershop owners felt that they had little choice but to hold on to their white customers, which would be unlikely if they integrated their shops. Several tried opening "equal rights" barbershops, only to meet with failure. In Philadelphia, a handful of black-owned barbershops did manage to serve an integrated clientele, but white prejudice forced the overwhelming majority of black barbers to serve one race exclusively. The option of serving black men seemed poor business to most.
This animus toward black barbers reflected, in part, a concern that their businesses legitimized segregation. At least one white editor confirmed his argument by citing the refusal of black barbers to serve African Americas as a justification for segregation. According to the editor, businessmen, regardless of their color, turned away certain people simply because "the best paying class of customers can be retained by excluding those who for any reason are objectionable to their fastidious notions."
Traditional, "old school" racism is largely fixated on notions of contamination, threat, and impurity. The act of cutting a person's hair is profoundly intimate and personal. For the racial imagination of Jim and Jane Crow (and even today) the following are potent images: a black man has a razor at a white man's throat while giving him a shave; a black barber's hands touching a white woman's neck and hair; the clippers and shears that were used on a black person's hair potentially "befouling" a white person's pristine and racially uncontaminated personage. Jim Crow laws removed many of these dilemmas. Informal social conventions solved the rest.

During the post-Reconstruction era black barbers had to skillfully negotiate the colorline. They were upwardly mobile and skilled technicians with the capacity to be leaders for the race. However, white folks had the money. Black folks as a group did not. The market was a monopoly of sorts where the former group demanded that they would be served exclusive to all others. Here, racial integration was not a path to economic success for black barbers.
Convinced that the survival of their businesses and hence their middle-class status was at stake, black barbers thwarted anti-discrimination laws with ingenuity and the help of sympathetic judges. Some barbershop proprietors in the District of Columbia made black customers wait unduly long for service and posted exorbitant prices, such as "Haircut $30, Shampoo $40" with an addendum below promising "a liberal our regular customers."...When black men in the District of Columbia won lawsuits against local barbershops, they received only token damages, which in tern led black barbers there to be more assertive of their right to refuse service to African Americans.
One of the city's barbershop owners went so far as to take out an advertisement in the Washington Bee, a black newspaper:
Preston's Pension Office Barbershop, first class in every particular.
Devoted Strictly to White Trade.
The rumor that this shop has been serving any colored trade is false in every particular.

The personal truly is the political. Sometimes this is quite literal, where bodies are (in what we call "bio-politics") made an object of power. In other instances the observation is more general, where the rules governing personal interactions reveal a society's larger macro-level social and political dynamics.

Historically and into the present, the black barbershop possesses both of these traits in abundance.

Please share. What is the state of affairs in the black barbershops and hair salons in your communities? If they are in fact a thermometer for the health of Black America, what is her prognosis?


Charles Fortner said...

Thank you for your blog. I continue to learn and love it.

Bryan said...

Very interesting article. It makes me think of how much cutting hair has changed in 50+ years. White barbers in the traditional sense (that don't work at Supercuts) are almost completely extinct and Black barbershops or barbershops that cater mostly to Blacks are generally the only place left to get a decent haircut for under $20. Many barbers that cater almost exclusively to whites will charge you $40-60, and "stylists" always going to cost much than that. I've seen plenty of white people in a barbershop were they were the glaring minority for this very reason. Some of us just can't afford or just don't like going to the stylist. I wonder what happened to those old-school Black barbers guys as segregation slowly fell apart? I'm enjoying the blog

gordon gartrelle said...

The only white guys I used to see getting cuts at black barbershops were broke grad students. Now, I see white professionals getting cut there too. They seem pretty comfortable.

chaunceydevega said...

@Bryan. I will never take my kid, if I have one, to supercuts. It is an abomination. I have a theory that the black kids who went to supercuts instead of black barbershops ended up with totally different political orientations as adults. Those are black spaces and a rite of passage. Moreover, and this is armchair sociology here, the black kids I knew in elementary and middle school on up who went to supercuts usually have 1) a white mother and their dads weren't present or 2) were adopted by people who were not black.

Random anecdote, when I almost married someone who was not black, she and I had to talk about these issues and she was really cool and bright on these things and she finally agreed that if I were to die our kids would continue to go to black barbershops and hair salons. Little things matter.

@Gordon. Those are spies trying to get into our spaces or they are agents trying to go back to Jim Crow. You have to keep your eyes on folks as you can be a bit too trusting at times.

Bryan said...

@ Chauncey It's good to know I'm not the only one who thinks Supercuts is a societal abomination. The social aspect of going to the barber is really overlooked. Most barbers treat kids as adults much earlier than their parents do, and the conversation is always priceless. The little things are what keep you grounded, no doubt.
I had the same barber for half my life and followed him when he moved shop. When he retired it was a very sad day. It did force me to branch out, and it has been very interesting.
I had no idea before the dude retired and I started going to Black barbershops that youngish Black dudes watched soaps. I learned it's actually the best way to study crazy white folks from a safe distance. Speaking as a member of that fraternity, it's true.