Black barbershops and salons provide a window into our nation’s complicated racial dynamics.
Historically, these venues have acted as a Black townhall, providing an inspiring example for how communities can come together to create positive change.
According to Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops, for many African Americans, getting a haircut is more than a commodity—it’s an experience that builds community and shapes political action. As both a proud symbol of African American entrepreneurship and a relic of an era when Black labor exclusively benefitted whites, Black barbershops provide a window into our nation’s complicated racial dynamics.
The ongoing pandemic and intensifying urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement are even more poignant for Black men and women who are more likely to face financial fallout, severe illness, and even morbidity from the economic, social, medical, and political conflagration that is consuming our nation.
African Americans are no strangers to tragedy, loss, and injustice. In fact, our history is uniquely defined by them, which is why we have had to find ways to come together as a community and find strength in what makes us the same rather than what makes us different as people.
One way we’ve done this is by identifying safe spaces where we as a people can go to be ourselves, share our culture, and exchange information about the most pressing issues of the day. Historically, salons and barbershops have been such safe spaces, and are second only to church in importance to Black men and women, because they represent more than just a place to recharge and attend to personal care. African American salons and barbershops are a sacred space where men and women can go to connect with others in their communities and exchange ideas about news, politics, health, and entertainment.
Black barbershops and salons are often referred to as “the original Black Twitter.”
To understand this dynamic, you have to understand the beginnings of Black salons and barbershops in America. Before the late 1800’s, Black barbers primarily worked as slaves for white men and listened in to the political conversations those men had—particularly about slavery—as they provided haircuts and shaves. Some white men even used Black barbers as sounding boards and as a link to the Black community. When slavery was abolished, many Black men and women stopped working for white men and opened their own shops where they could serve their own communities. But they kept the political conversations going. These are trusted environments,
“That’s why spaces like black barbershops and salons are important, because you can cut through that jazz and get to the heart of what we should do about these issues.” Says Quincy T. Mills, author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. “Black people don’t have full access to public spaces at this time and so barbershops were one of the few public spaces that they had not just access to, but they could escape the surveillance of a larger white public.”
In short, Black lives mattered in Black barbershops and salons before the Black Lives Matter movement. Black barbershops and salons acted as a townhall for African Americans, and as such, they have played a key role in Black culture and politics ever since. It wasn’t just barbershops either. Madam T.J. Walker, one of the first women to create Black haircare products and America’s first female millionaire, created a chain of beauty schools that taught other women how to care for African American hair. Her national spokesperson and one of her chief advisers, Marjorie Stewart Joyner, started out taking classes from Walker, and ended up building a network of over 200 beauty schools, where she oversaw the training of more than 15,000 stylists. Joyner, like Walker before her, learned to leverage that network to make political gains for the Black community. Her network was so effective, President Lyndon B. Johnson personally recruited her to help turn out black voters for his campaign in 1964.
Because Black salons and barbershops were Black-owned, free spaces, they were central to civil rights activism and often moonlighted as literal townhalls where Black men and women could gather to organize and expand their political networks. Profits from these businesses were often funneled into political movements to support marches, create protest signs, and even bail protesters out of jail.
Today, salons and barbershops continue to hold their place in the Black community, and still act as more than a place to get a fade or perm. Stylists and barbers do more than just shape hair—they shape the culture one style at a time.
They also offer a place of respite from a culture that relentlessly demands that we be something other than we are.
In the shops, we can literally and figuratively let our hair down and celebrate our own culture. They are a mirror that shows the true reflection of who we can be, and they help ensure that when we look into the mirror, we also see ourselves for who we really are.
Before I started my marketing agency, I worked behind the salon chair for 20 years, and I saw every day the ways—large and small—that the salon acted as a hub of my community. People would cook and bring their food there to sell (what I call the original Uber eats). They would bring in CDs of music they wanted to share, and they would bring stories. In Black beauty shops there is no such thing as the mezzanine, because you have a standing R.S.V.P. for the front row of these festivities. But it goes even deeper than that. In these spaces, if someone’s son gets into college, we celebrate together. If someone is sick, we rally to help them. If someone dies, we mourn together.
This is how America is supposed to work, but in many communities today we are separated not just by zip codes, but by codes of conduct and political divides so deep we might as well be on another planet from one another. But the blueprint is there. Black folks have differences too. We’re not monolithic. We don’t all vote the same, praise the same, or live the same way. At the salon or barbershop, it doesn’t matter. We are free to join the conversation and share our thoughts, and we can watch as others pick them up and study them like stones they found on a beach. Others may chime in and add to what we said. They may say they heard differently. But what they won’t say is, “You don’t belong here,” because, at the end of the day, we are brothers and sisters. We all belong. If only America could embrace that sentiment, our country could be stronger than ever before.
No matter which side of the political aisle we are on, we are all in the same valley of suffering, carrying around pain, trauma, and fear thanks to this pandemic and the social unrest that is simmering all across the country.
Imagine if we could all simply spend a day, side by side, at the salon or barbershop and wash away our misunderstandings. If we could untangle our anger and uncertainty or shave away racism, fragility, and entitlement and style it into the shape of a society that we can be proud of.
Human beings are social creatures, and we need a place to come together. A place where we aren’t being torn apart. Black salons and barbershops have been that place for African Americans for hundreds of years, and so far, the results have been beautiful. That’s because in a barbershop or salon, every patron is equal, and everyone’s story matters. Children are brought there by their parents who take their own kids there when they are grown. Black barbershop and salon owners are the architects of a blueprint Black society can’t survive without. People feel safe, cared for, and respected in Black beauty venues. We should all have a chance to feel that way in America, too. We have a blueprint for it, we just have to use it.