Friday, April 24, 2009

Damn, can a brother get a 'cut?

Tolu Olorunda is a Columnist for, and a Staff Writer at

"More than any other place, however, the barbershop is the black man's way station, point of contact, and universal home. Here he always finds a welcome--a friendly audience as he tells his story and a native to give him the word on local doings."

--Trudier Harris, "The Barbershop in Black Literature," 1979.

If you're a Black male, chances are you frequent a Black-owned barbershop to get a tight haircut every other week, or, for some of our more high-maintenance Brothas, every week. The barbershop is the Black man's home away from home. For many-a-married Black men, the barbershop is also their refuge away from the burdens of domestic life.

It's the one place where they can kick off their shoes, yell as loud as they want, cuss in indecipherable tones, and argue the hot-button issues of the day.

In "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought" (2004), Princeton professor, Melissa Harris Lacewell, describes Black barbershops as "a central gathering place for African-American men." These forums, in her words, "function as racialized public spaces with the potential to contribute to the development of black politics."

It's the only safe haven, apart from the Black church, where Black men are welcomed to articulate their rage against the discriminatory practices they encounter in our, as Tears for Fears put it, "mad world."

Unfortunately, they seem to have now become fertile ground for police officers to impede upon the free speech rights of Black males. According to a recently filed ACLU report, cops in California have been raiding Black barbershops, without warrants, and intimidating the customers. The reports account incidents where SWAT teams bum-rushed the shops, with guns and bulletproof vests, randomly searching and questioning Black clients.

Peter Bibring, an ACLU staff attorney, challenged the motives, given the context that "[t]here was no evidence of criminal activity at these locations and no reason that these once-thriving businesses were singled out other than racial profiling." Under the erroneous guise of health inspections, the suit alleges, law enforcement officers invaded these shops, running criminal warrant checks on both barbers and customers. One barber who objected, says the ACLU, was detained in a police car for 10 minutes. He was afterward released.

In a news release from the ACLU, one of the barbers described the emotional and financial toll the incident took upon him. "It was sickening," he said. "I have lost good customers and had my reputation called into question in a community where I've been working for 20 years. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."

This report demands a question we must all answer: Why are police officers barging into centers of isolated Black discourse, and disturbing the peace amongst innocent people?

The answer might be that Black barbershops represent one of the last emblems of our Black community. The fact that these shops promote a cultural intimacy that other "stations," to use Harris's words, refuse to offer, can single-handedly arouse the curious eye of the FBI and other federal agencies.

Black barbershop conversations revel in proselytizing what renowned singer Sade called the "sweetest taboo." Nothing is off limits, and no holds are barred. Black men can say what they want and how they like it be said. The dominant culture that subjects Black men--and, of course, Black women--to an inferior status, gets aired out, with convenience, in these "stations."

The sacredness of this holy ground is now being threatened--just as the prophetic tradition of the Black church was, last year.

More appalling than these reports, I think, is that a mere two years ago, President Barack Obama could so easily have fallen victim to any of those unfortunate search-and-frisk practices.

In a popular clip from October 2007, Obama is seen walking into a Marion, SC barbershop, swimming comfortably in the pool of Black dialect. He starts by riffing on a Brotha's shoes: "Check out those shoes, too... What is that? You got some alligator? If I wore those shoes, I'll win in a hot second." Obama moved through the crowd of Black faces, fitting right in. He left no one doubting his familiarity with the radical tradition of the Black barbershop.

Obama's very own barbershop, Hyde Park Hair Salon, is Black-owned. For 13 years, he claims to have bowed his head to the same barber's clippers--a Black man named, Zariff. If this is true, and it sure seems so, what would have happened if, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, police officers stormed in, asking for some identification, and running search warrants on the current president of the United States? Chances are those officers would have been terminated--at once.

And with this, a final question begs an answer: Why, then, should WE put up with it?


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