For the past few months I have been on a quest to find a barber. Let me pause here and explain to the masses why a bald, Black man needs a barber. First, I have facial hair that, if not for the skill of a good barber, can go werewolf very quickly. Second (and more importantly), the Black barbershop is an experience. It’s not just where a Black man goes to get his haircut, it’s also his connection to his community – where he goes to hear what’s happening in the hood (where he may or may not live), how Obamacare is impacting (or not) the daily lives and lived experiences of the people in the community, or how this LA Clippers controversy is interpreted through the opinions of people from a wide range of economic backgrounds. In a community where far too many men are incarcerated or otherwise negatively affected by the “system,” the barbershop is where young Black boys can learn to become young Black men. The Black barbershop is the local news, church, gossip corner, and hangout all wrapped up together. The Black barbershop is a safe place and sacred, hallowed ground for Black men.
So, for the past few months I’ve been searching for a barbershop. Having moved to a new city, I knew that finding a proper barbershop would finally make me feel at home. It turns out, finding a barber (and barbershop) proved to be more difficult than finding a Primary Care Physician. I walked into a few and knew that it didn’t feel like home, or that it’s attempt at “trendy” desecrated the sacredness of the space, or that the people therein were blissfully unaware at the prestige, and therefore responsibility, of the black barbershop.
Finally, today I decided to try another one. I walked into this nondescript storefront and was immediately struck by the smallness of it. After sitting in the first available chair, I noticed something about the space that was old and classic. It reminded me of haircuts in the past. It reminded me of home.
In the middle of my haircut, the owner of the shop (after whom the shop is named) came in and promptly greeted everyone, including me whom she referred to jestingly as “Customer.” I smiled. She smiled. Then two other men came into the shop and she said “is everyone ready?” Now, I have to admit, I was taken aback. I had no idea what was about to happen. But what happened next is the subject of this whole musing. The entire shop lifted their right hands above their bowed heads (including my barber who has temporarily stopped cutting my hair) and she prayed.
Now, there at several powerful moments about the fact that she prayed. First, she prayed. This woman entered a patriarchal space and offered her voice to which all the men responded with respect and affirmation. This is the Black community that I know and love. A community where the voices of our Iyanlas, our “Great Mothers,” were heard and respected because when she spoke, she spoke to or for God. The timbre of her voice resonated with the deep wisdom of the ancestors. Our mothers were worthy of the highest respect and our daughters strived to be just like them.
Not only did she pray, but she prayed. In a world flattened and dulled by anti-religious cynicism and doubt, or worse yet, inflamed and divided by religious lunacy (google “Sarah Palin and Baptism”), where the voices of the faithful are often discouraged from public discourse, she prayed. It was a quick prayer and I was only able and to make out a “Dear Jesus…”, a ” Bless this shop…”, and “Bless all the people in this shop and community”, but her act of prayer nearly moved me to tears. To me, her act of prayer served to further hallow a space that was already sacred ground.
She prayed and this community had made a ritual of inviting the sacred into their mundane lives. This Afrocentric unity between the “sacred” and the “secular” struck a familiar chord with me. The same God who was in Church hearing the prayers of God’s people on Sunday morning was invited to take a seat in the barber’s chair and to hear about how Donald Sterling’s brand of racism was not welcome and that we’re tired of the cold, dreary, rainy weather but glad to be in the land of the living “one more time.”
In the twinkling of an eye the barbershop when back to normal. The low hum of electric clippers mixed with the intermittent pop of handshakes and fraternal “daps” and loving greetings and before I knew it, it was over. My turn in the chair was done. I got up, handed the barber a crisp $20 bill and proceeded to fix my bowtie. As I was doing so, the warm matriarch smiled at me and said, “I’ve not seen you before, are you new here?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied summoning up all my southern charm (I am still a good southern gentleman, after all). “I’ve been looking for a barbershop for a while. I think I just found one.”
“Well, you’re welcome anytime young man. We’re not big and fancy, but we’re a family.”
Being a minister, I am constantly discerning what “the Spirit of the Lord is saying to the Church.” In her statement I am sure that I heard God. I want to fly this woman around the country, to speak to every single church I know. She gave me a salient nugget of wisdom from the ancestors in that last remark. What she prided herself and her shop on was the aspect of family. Not gimmicks. Not complicated marketing strategies. Simply family and community, love and affirmation, the voices of the ancestors and the hallowing of sacred space and time.
What could the Church be if, instead of trying to compete with [insert Mega Church here] with an endless parade of programs, programs, and more programs, churches simply embraced the divine gift of family and community? Imagine the possibilities for the Church if we’d simply live faithfully, build community, and dare to welcome. Imagine…
I tied my bowtie, put on my jacket, dapped up my new barber and waved goodbye to the other people in the shop. As I walked to my car to begin my workday, I knew without a doubt that I had just had an encounter with the divine.
And it all happened because I needed a haircut.
Keep the the faith, and make it COLORFUL!