For as long as I can remember, I have hated going to the barbershop. Every 10 days I was sitting in the barber’s chair, a function of how quickly my hair grows and expectations around black male aesthetics. Going to the barbershop was more than just a trip to sit in a chair and having my hair trimmed; instead, it was a trip to an institution that was incredibly black, incredibly male and incredibly stereotyped. It was part of an experience of performing black maleness that stood in stark comparison to how black maleness was performed in my home environment. It was part of how black maleness was constructed for, with and by me, and how I eventually decided to perform black maleness (primer on gender performance) over the course of my adolescence and early adulthood.
I grew up knowing that my mother had always outearned my father, that she was the disciplinarian and that she would answer my endless lines of questions. I learned the importance of self-sufficiency from her, as her answers to my questions were replaced by guiding me to resources that would allow me to answer my own questions. My father was physically present throughout my entire life, but lessons I learned from my father were quite different. Like many caregivers who had to overcome their own alcoholism, my father’s journey to self-sufficiency was delayed. For this reason, among others, alcoholism inhibited his ability to serve as an optimal role model for how to perform personhood, maleness or black maleness.
My father is a black man. And he performed black maleness. He provided a model, and his life situation actually provided more distance for me to understand that the performance and its construction could be shaped by my own desires and interests. I did not have to simply replicate the primary model I saw, as many are not able to or exposed to nuanced and varied performances. Moreover, my parents lived in the same home with my maternal grandparents until I was 10 years old, which provided two additional models of black maleness from my grandfather and uncle.
My maternal grandparents’ relationship was rooted in a Biblical and often conservative framework: he was the head of the household, he had the final word, and things in the home belonged to him. But in reality, my grandparents were progressive Southern Protestants. He was the head of the household, but she heavily informed and influenced nearly all decisions; importantly, his word only really mattered if she thought it mattered.
I have to acknowledge that I often wrongly remembered them as being more traditional in their roles seeing her cook and him do outwork. Now, I understand the broader context of a gendered society that they had to navigate. And even more so within a Southern Christian context which involved reconciling their beliefs and existence vis a vis black maleness and black femaleness.
His church taught that she ought to be subordinate and sit in the backseat both literally and metaphorically. Her church had no such rules and she refused to ride anywhere but in the front seat. As I remembered them and how they performed their gendered roles, his black maleness that was not unrelenting nor always dominant to black femaleness. She saw herself as an equal. He saw her as an equal. And they died believing they were equals. It was a black love between a man and woman that was complex and nuanced: not perfect but with depth and gray areas that made clear balance mattered.
In constrast, my parents’ relationship seemed much more black and white. It seemed (then to be) one-sided where black maleness through the role of provider, primary earner and disciplinarian did not hold. Observing these two models of male-female partnership gave me reason to believe that there was no singular way. I had internalized that I had agency in how I would choose to perform black maleness because of the observed differences in how black maleness was constructed, observed and performed.
Going to the barbershop was painstakingly long, at times uncomfortable and almost always boring. A trip to the shop involved choosing the right time of the week to avoid the crowds and hoping that your barber was present: calling ahead was not reliable. Making it to the chair — if you could successfully avoid being skipped in line for the barber’s forgetful omission if you did not speak up or someone who had said they were previously there waiting for the barber to show or someone who had been promised a cut in some arrangement you never saw but understood as a code you should respect — tested all of the patience I never had.
When my father was present, I would have to sit through his complaints of my being sassy and talking back, a true test to confirm his words or remain silent. In a way this was a social grooming of a way to be and a way to not be. The inquisitiveness I exhibited in private never came alive in the barbershop. The conversations were often inaccessible to me because of how young I was or how subtext laden they were or the content was foreign to my upbringing. I seemed to understand that this was not the place to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask. It was a literal silencing and extinguishing of what is considered not black maleness.
It was also a time to watch my father perform a black maleness that I had not seen anywhere outside of the barbershop. A performance for a group of men whom I did not know well enough to distinguish if this is how one performed black maleness in those spaces or if that was how they always performed it. It was jarring to see the immediate shift in male behavior when my mother had to come into the barbershop for whatever reason. Or to see my father’s shift in performance when we left the barbershop to join my waiting mother. It was as if there were two entirely different worlds that existed, a highly gendered space of the barbershop itself where the performance of black maleness was — perhaps exaggerated or not — performed.
As I finally made it to the chair, I had agency again: I could choose my haircut. The parent present could always veto a choice that was extreme by their standards, but I could choose if I wanted a Caesar, a fade and even if I wanted a straight line, moon part or my name etched somewhere on my head. And then I felt that agency and feeling of power flee again, as I sit in the chair quiet to the conversation at hand in the barbershop more broadly and specifically as the barber-man discussion was used to build rapport. The conversation often centered on the girls I was trying to go after, the girlfriend I had or other things I came to learn I should have or posses by way of inquiry that those were things I ought to have and be doing.
There existed tools of reinforcing black maleness with each trim and each conversation in the shop itself that hammered in a way of being that just did not exist in my home environment. I did not understand what it was then, but understand now that class and gender and race were intersecting in ways unfamiliar to me. On the one hand, black men often gravitate around a way of being in the black barbershop that even my uncle and grandfather participated in situationally. And on the other hand, there was a level of classism at home that made clear that certain topics of conversation, how gender was discussed and even how “lower class” people behaved (differently from us).
We were poor but educated; a distinction that matters in how one constructs their self-image and engages with those they perceive as lower or among themselves. The result was that I had internalized that a specific type of black maleness was performed in the barbershop and at the same time generally by an entire class of people that I was taught I was better than. In a society where class and race narrow the “acceptable” range of male performance and black bodies (male and female) are hypersexualized, a self-conception of class as it relates to male performance has significant implications.
In this lens, I grew up privileged in part because I never believed I was lower class (construction) and in part because I had several models of black maleness (observation) that led me to believe I had a choice in how to be (performance).
As a young teen, I grew more impatient with the every 10-day ritual yet assented to the social pressures that govern (lower class) black male aesthetics. By this time, we had moved out of my grandparents’ house and to a neighborhood with a different set of social, cultural and economic dynamics. The $12 pre-tip haircut for a 30-minute haircut that could easily be accomplished in 8 minutes if not for the unnecessary and unwanted conversation. The time spent traveling to get a haircut one-way was the length of the haircut. It all just seemed pointless until the teasing started as I slipped away from 10-days to 14-days and introduced a new dynamic for my relationship with my brother.
A visible widow’s peak for a poor black male is the equivalent to dirty sneakers: a product of natural use and yet a thing that must be undone at all costs to maintain a spotless appearance. I never saw myself as poor, even when we were, but instead as someone with temporarily fewer means: I had known a world of getting what I needed and not wanting for much though never being spoiled. It is possible my brother and I could be from different social classes, despite sharing a room for nearly 12 years. It is more likely how we internalized class and how we wanted to perform black maleness is what put a strain on our relationship.
As the older brother, he was socialized and explicitly told that it was his responsibility to defend his brother. We were also told to present a united front no matter what, we were expected to have each other’s back. Yet, in private my brother started to tease me when I did not want to get a haircut. And in public his friends would tease me.
There existed a tension between not just what to do about hair, but about safety for him, myself and the two of us. Social capital in poorer neighborhoods is a necessary form of capital that can be the difference between life and death. Being likable won’t protect you from a stray bullet, but it prevents fights from ever starting and induces others to intervene if you might be in trouble. I could make decisions that were selfish, or I could think about the collective unit we were. Does hair really matter? Do I really need to get my brother into another argument because he is expected to defend me and how I decide to perform black maleness? What is fair and to whom?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series on black maleness and hair next week. A helpful pre-read: Selfless Mothers & Care-free Sons.