Published on October 2nd, 2015 | by Eve0
FIRST TRIP TO THE BARBER SHOP by Eve
I took my three-year-old son to the barber shop today. Up until now, we’ve managed his soft, thick, curly hair at home, combing it out and conditioning it, and then putting it in twists that last about two to three weeks. This was pragmatic—we weren’t ready to cut it, but he wouldn’t tolerate us combing it out every morning. The protective style allowed him to play and be a kid, and he gets two to three hours of Peppa Pig every couple weeks while we take it down and put it back up again. In Judaism, it is traditional to wait until a boy’s third birthday for the first haircut. In African American culture, it’s common to wait until a boy is at least one. Right around his third birthday, we had an intimate upshirin ceremony with my parents, my maternal and uncle, and one of my best friends from college. It was in Miami, where we travel every year for Passover. We sang some songs, read a book that captures the essence of Jewish ethical teaching in language a preschooler can understand, and he licked Hebrew letters written in Hershey’s chocolate syrup off a plate—it’s supposed to mark the beginning of Jewish education.
Bur we didn’t do a full hair-cut then. We just took a ceremonial clipping (we did strategically choose a strand that was growing oddly longer than the rest of his hair). A couple months after we got home, we found a great barbershop in the South End/Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. First of all, we realized that an aspect of our white privilege for all these years is that we’ve never had to wonder whether a salon had stylists who were capable of cutting our hair. If you’re black, you don’t have this luxury. Hair salons and barbershops are some of the most racially segregated places around. Recently the Boston globe did an article on the “best barbershops” and it appears all their selections were places for white people. Deceptively enough, they even included photos of white stylists cutting black men’s hair. As if that happens. Only if all you want is to shave it off, and even then, not very often.
So we did some research and chose our salon from the ones we heard about by word of mouth, and in part because there were positive Yelp reviews from a butch black woman, which was enough of an indication for us that they were queer positive. An older black man named Christmas cut my son’s hair for the first time–I love the irony. Christmas was patient and gentle and told us stories about himself, turns out he grew up in Roxbury but he was born in Nova Scotia and is actually part Afro-Canadian and part Mi’kmaq Indian.
Being a “conspicuous family” I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racial identity. We were fully prepared for what it would feel like to walk into a mostly black barbershop. Yet, it was uncomfortable at first, but this quickly dissipated because everyone was friendly and welcoming. What I wasn’t prepared for was how it felt to be in a MALE space. I’ve never been to a barbershop before. I don’t even know if my dad goes. I guess he must. I think at times he’s gone to the ubiquitous and unisex Supercuts.
Let’s talk about price, first of all. For $15, including tip, my son got a fabulous haircut. I pay four times that much when I go to the salon. Also–no products for sale, though we went out an purchased the olive-oil hairspray they used to finish off everyone’s styles because we liked it so much. We found it at CVS. In women’s salons, I wouldn’t be surprised if the merch sales are a big part of their profits.
My son is starting to put things together regarding gender. He’s recently started to notice, with some surprise and confusion, that his two moms don’t have penises. He says he wants his hair long like ours. He also wants to wear his sandals whenever I wear my sandals, and insists on wearing pants in 90-degree weather, because I wear pants to work. When we tell him he can have his hair long, but it won’t be just like ours because his hair is different than ours, and then point out boys in his preschool who have a variety of different types of haircuts (short and long), he mostly says he wants it like the boys who have it cut very close to their scalp.
So, back to our first trip to the barbershop. In the world of women’s salons, we get fiercely attached to our stylists, and often resist going anywhere else at great inconvenience to ourselves. In this barbershop, it seemed much more communal. There were no appointments, we just showed up. There were two comfy couches in the middle of the room, which was great because my son could watch everything that was going on before it was his turn. And the stylists all chatted with us, with the guys getting their hair cut, and the other guys waiting. A few guys went before us because they seemed to know particular barbers. We saw three pairs of father and son duos. We chatted with a nice gentleman from Philly who was up in Boston attending Northeastern. (Christmas informed us that they do good business in their location from college students at Northeastern, Berklee, Suffolk, and other colleges). We wound up with Christmas because he was the first one to have an open chair with no one waiting for him.
My son has plenty of men and male role models in his life, but he has very few opportunities to be in mostly-male spaces. I realized that’s just as important for him to experience as mostly-black spaces. I have to admit, the former scares me more. My only context for male-only space prior to being a parent was the male dorms in college. The floors were usually sticky, they were often loud and obnoxious. But,this barbershop was none of that. It wasn’t hypermasculine in the way that I often imagine guys locker rooms must be. Just a bunch of dudes, hanging out, getting their hair cut, watching the Tour de France, celebrating Serena Williams’ amazing tennis career, and admiring some of the cars parked outside on the street.
In ancient times, barbers often performed dentistry or were medicine men, and always highly respected. It makes sense. Especially in a male-dominated world, barbers are one of the chief ways that men shape how they present themselves to the world, and they become a symbol for boys becoming men. It makes sense to imbue the job with a certain magic and wisdom. Today, it seems to be more of a working-class profession, yet some of the magic of the environment remains. Just recently, Larry Wilmore quipped about how barbershops were the kind of place you could say anything and talk about anything, and no one looks at you funny for it. Where else in the world do guys get to do that?
My son wound up getting a “t.w.a.” (teeny weeny Afro) and it looks great. We deliberately instructed Christmas to just give him a trim and clean up the ends for his first cut. We were afraid anything too dramatic would fill him with regret the next morning. I’m not sure if that was for him or us—probably both. We would have been happy to take him back a week later to cut more off if he wanted, but as it turns out, he’s settled into his new routine of me picking out and moisturizing his Afro for five to ten minutes every morning, while he watches fire trucks.
As he would say, “I’m not a baby anymore! I’m big!”