For many men, especially black men, the barbershop is a second home. It’s not just the place where they get their hair cut. It’s a valued institution that serves its community as a news source, comedy club, and therapist couch. It’s also a refuge from life’s burdens, censorship, needing to use proper etiquette, and sometimes, women. It’s a place where men can be amongst themselves and be themselves unconstrained.
While getting a shape up, businessmen, veterans, preachers, and even the town wino all shaped those around them up to be the men we are today, and still do. When you’re in the chair, you’re a student in a classroom surrounded by professors with generations of knowledge. Sometimes you thought they talked too damn much and just needed to cut your hair – and still do – but here’s what they taught many generations of men.
#1 – How to speak like a boss
I’ll never forget the first time I went to a barbershop without an adult to tell my barber how to cut my hair. “How do you want your haircut, little man” he asked. “I don’t know... like that” I said pointing to a picture of a kid who looked my age, posing on a poster with various images of black men hanging on the wall, which I assumed was for inspiration. As the barber began cutting my hair, I started to notice my hair not morphing into the little boy’s hair in the photo, but I didn’t say anything. By the time my barber brushed the hair off my face and removed the styling cape, my hairline was missing and I had a part on the side of my head the length of the West Side Highway. I told him it's not the cut I asked for and he gave me a stern lecture on “putting base in my voice,” speaking up for myself and speaking clearly.
My mom gave me an asswhopping.
#2 – The importance of loyalty
The trust men develop with their barbers is unmatched. You’re putting your looks in their hands. Once a barber has proven he can be trusted with such responsibility, he’s irreplaceable. He’s now your barber and you’re his client. If he’s out sick, you come back next week. If he’s got two heads before you and there are five empty chairs and you have to get to the hospital to see your first child born, you'll wait. If you even think about going to someone else, you feel like you’re cheating on your guy, so you don’t.
#3 – Entrepreneurship
In the 30 minutes it takes for your barber to hook you up, you’ve lived out an entire episode of “Shark Tank.” You’ve heard a sales pitch from a man with movies on DVD that just came out in the theatres. A man with more jewelry in his jacket than Jared has tried to help you find the perfect Mother’s Day gift. And a woman with a plate of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese stopped by right at lunchtime offering to make lunch and deliver it to men standing on their feet for hours, unable to take a break, with cash in their pockets. At the barbershop, you learned how to promote, persuade, pitch and advertise a side hustle. Because people in the hood always find a way out of no way and people in the hood will give you real-time feedback if you don’t come correct.
#4 Relationships 101
The barbershop is one of the best places to get dating counsel. There are men there who’ve been married for over 30 years who’ll tell you about the ups and downs, men whose first and second wives took everything including the kids and the dog, and bachelors who’ve been playing the field long enough to remember drive-ins and still call dating “courting.” Last weekend, I was getting my haircut in Harlem and a man in the chair was complaining about how his wife spends all of his money on clothes and her hair. The United Nations Negro Counsel gathered around the man and offered their intelligence around setting up weekly financial meetings, setting a budget, cutting up credit cards and setting realistic goals. “You gotta set realistic goals on spending. You want your woman to look like Beyonce, not Beetlejuice. She needs to stay up on her looks,” one barber said to thunderous applause from the congregation. Who knew you could earn your MBA in financial planning at the shop?
#5 The importance of community
I grew up in predominantly white communities. The barbershop was one of the only, if not the only, place I could go to be around other black men. In the barbershop, I saw more positive images of black men than I saw in media. At the barbershop, men walked in and spoke to everyone and called them “my brother.” Guys talked to each other about job opportunities and asked each other how school was going. Men were engaged in the news and current events and had formed opinions. And yes, there may have been some trash talk, womanizing and someone may or may not have had a blade pulled on them for not paying someone back, but the barbershop is a community and it taught me about life and myself – it still does.