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Sanctuaries hidden in plain sight: The cultural significance of black barbershops

How, for black men across the world, the barbers is about so much more than a trim

Sanctuaries hidden in plain sight: The cultural significance of black barbershops
26 October 2017

Rio. November 2016. I’ve only been in Rio two days, and it’s an annoyingly drizzly night, a stark contrast from the almost unbearable heat on a trip earlier that year.

At the city’s ground level, you’re hard-pressed to find a black barbershop, save for a century-old haven located near the city’s bustling Centro metro station, but even that’s hidden away from the precious eyesight of tourists and office job-bound locals alike.

Instead, my friend and I are trekking to a barbershop in Cantagalo, the favela rebelliously etched into a rock both between and above the wealthy ‘Zona Sul’ neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Copacabana. As I walk from the elevator that takes you to the start of Cantagalo, it feels as though I’m being transported into a completely different world. One where the juxtaposition between black and white is even more fierce; the lines between lives coexisting yet running counter to one another even more apparent.

The barbershop is my friend’s regular, and is no larger than a standard sized garden shed. A small TV blares away in a corner (it has been gifted cable due to some creativity on the part of the locals), faded Bible verses have been fixed to the walls and three weathered chairs are placed in the middle of the room, all of them occupied. I have come here as a weary British traveller, caught out in the rain at night, just looking for a place to rest for a few minutes, and yet there is nothing alien about the atmosphere. I put this down to the fact that I look like everyone else in here.

Cantagalo (Flickr/ssedov)

I can speak only a little Portuguese, and my barber is similarly limited in his English. I will have to rely entirely on coded body language. I want my usual - a number one all over - as these days my hairline doesn’t afford me much room for creativity. 

I had no wide-eyed romanticism about Rio de Janeiro, and I don’t see the stereotypes - of little kids running around shoeless and just happy to be playing football - brought to life. The night before, I was told by a friendly local in the lift that there had been a shootout between police and local ‘trafficetes’. Stepping into the community of Cantagalo, I have arrived in the Rio that’s often treated as an irritating afterthought, which is putting it kindly.

The surrounding environment is relatively subdued. Kids as young as eight years old pace around with guns and walkie-talkies, signalling that outsiders were in the area. Life continues, mothers carry their babies, and old men sit talking as they do all over the world. I can’t escape the fact that this is a black space in a place at risk to state violence. The barbershop sits humbly across from a small church. The familiar sounds of fervent jubilation and the hope-laced call and response are comforting. These are two pillars of the black community across the world which both provide a safe space for those who enter to feel renewed.

Despite all of the complexities and dangers of being black in Brazil, the barbershop strips all of that away and the most important thing at that moment was the purring of the clippers in my ear. 

Golden Scissors (Photo: Kwesi McLeod)

Travelling has given me the benefit of seeing a global understanding of the mecca that is the black barbershop, and I wanted to understand why, no matter where I go in the world, nothing seems to match the soothing serenity of this space? Then I start to think: where else besides the barbershop do black men of all ages gather freely in the company of one another?

Shaffra Gray-Read carried out her thesis at LSE studying political communication theory within public spaces. “It was an ethnographic study of a black barbershop in London and how people form identities within public spheres through dialogue and interacting with others,” she told me. Hair is the reason why people gather in the barbershop but there’s something fundamentally profound when you step back and observe the role it plays in lives. Historically, white men have had pubs, sports clubs, private clubs and even the workplace. A barbershop has less significance as a space for community if it’s everywhere you go. At its core, the black barbershop exists because of exclusion, therefore most people visiting share likenesses and commonalities based on a political ideal.

Netflix’s Luke Cage, perhaps unknowingly, highlights the complexities of the existence-by-exclusion black barbershop. In this case, the exclusion comes from lack of knowledge of black haircare in hair salons and barbershops which cater to European hair, leaving black people with few options outside of cities like London.

When depicted in pop culture, there’s another, ever-present theme in the role of the black barbershop: to act as a ground for lobbying and demonstration. In the Barbershop comedy trilogy set in Southside Chicago (yes, even in Barbershop 2, starring Nicki Minaj and Tyga) the storylines always centre on a local political issue in need of resolution. 

In my conversation with Gray-Read, I was reminded of my visit to the first ‘salao negra’ situated in the outdoor parade of a church at Centro, Rio. It turns out that the first black barbershop in Rio held significance not because of its milestone but because it was also home to many of Brazil’s black priests during the 19th Century. And much like in Cantagalo, both the church and barbershop shared a significant relationship. Its importance within the diaspora becomes clearer with the knowledge that, during slavery - when black Brazilians were often forbidden to gather in public spaces - the barbershop became key to survival.

There has been a lot of discussion about the role which black barbershops play in fostering safe spaces for black men. Nathaniel, who goes to a barbershop in east London, tells me how in some ways it can be a form of self-care. “I like going because it’s a nice thing to do for myself, having someone cut your hair and feeling good afterwards. The shop is also an interesting place because the toilet becomes a community toilet.”

The barbershop I went to frequently as a teenager never really delved too deep into politics that didn’t affect our daily lives, and for the most part the days were filled with idle gossip. And that was fine, it was the only space I had in my life at the time where I saw black men, both old and young, talking and laughing. It became the hub of the black community, where friends and I would often arrange to meet despite some of them being white - which was something Shaffra also noted during her research. While a community might foster around a barbershop - such as renowned north London barber, Slidercuts, it’s the barber who sets the tone and atmosphere. “[The barber] has a role in dictating what kinds of conversations are had but for the most part, people see it as a space where a banker would be sat next to someone who’s signed on,” he said. 

Golden Scissors (Photo: Kwesi McLeod)

Not all black barbershops are created equal, and this was a nuance I had to understand. Having visited a Dominican barbershop in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy, I looked out of place in my very London-centric tracksuit. I could tell this was a barbershop catered predominantly to locals, but it showed that each one has its own culture and politics informed by the lives and experiences of both customer, barber and regular visitor. Some weeks later, I found myself getting a haircut down at Isaac’s on Franklin Ave. It looked similar to the shop I visited in Cantagalo, but this time I was present and a part of the conversation - mostly about boxing. My accent and foreignness became the talking point for the 20 minutes I was in there.

It’s important to remember that realities and experiences aren’t always the same, and that these spaces are still male-dominated and ones in which traditional patriarchal ideas and attitudes may be present. Shaffra noted that for a lot of people, the barbershop is where most young black boys have close interaction with older black men, and given that visits tend to be weekly, this is a space where many of our ideas can be formed.

“When I go into a barbershop, I get that same feeling when I walk down the street past a group of men,” says Suzanne from Brooklyn. “I’ve been into barbershops with boyfriends, and I’ve heard the comments made about me after I’ve left.” This is something else Shaffra had noted to me. Given the discussion surrounding sexual harassment, particularly by men, these familiar anecdotes highlight the need to challenge certain behaviours.

Of his barbershop, Nathaniel admits: “I heard a guy talking about how he wouldn’t let his son watch Family Guy anymore because Stewie was gay.” The reality, which tends to be overlooked in this context, is that many black men still hold regressive and toxic views towards the ‘other’, and while the barbershop is a safe space for black men it begs the question- ‘For which type of black man?’ “I’ve always felt slightly out of place in hyper-masculine places and in my experience, a lot of the barbershops I went to growing up were like that,” Nyasha - who grew up outside of London - mentions.

Golden Scissors (Photo: Kwesi McLeod)

In such instances, these environments are a wider reflection of patriarchal behaviours and attitudes within society in general. The same could indeed be applied to white barbershops - I dread to think of the conversations during Brexit, for example. Where the black barbershop is unique is in its intractable proximity to black men. This nuance itself isn’t without its own sensitivities.

There is an inherited belief that all public space is reserved for white men first and foremost. Black spaces and inventions, forcibly created in the sphere of whiteness, will almost always operate on at least two fundamental levels. Firstly, it’s existence will be a consequence of racial exclusion from spaces traditionally occupied by white people. And secondly, they serve as a hideaway for black people disguised in plain sight, so as to look ordinary and invisible - similar to the favelas in the hills of Rio. They serve a higher purpose beyond its primary function of cutting hair, and it’s warming to witness their uniting effects across the diaspora; the need for community as a common thread connecting us all.

There’s something about being 5,000 miles from home, unable to speak the local language and off the beaten track, with a barber who, despite your tourist status, looks like you and can tell a skin fade from a flat top. Those moments are certainly few and far between, especially where the public space is dominated by whiteness. Going abroad brought to light that as sobering a thought as it is, no matter where we are, all we are trying to do is survive - with a fresh trim.