Category Archives: Politics

Soul Scissors: The Black Barbershop (Cuttin’, Groomin’ & Conversation)!!


 

Grooming hair, and the use of hairstyles, as cultural, social and political expression, and even social status – dates back to various regions and peoples of, and on, the African continent.

 

However, the Barbershop, as a distinct institution in the African American community, has its roots in Antebellum America where the coiffeuring services and skills of the Black barber could only be enjoyed by White customers. That’s right – the first barbershops in the United States, Black barbershops, weren’t in business to service Black customers – neither down South nor up North. And the decisions by Black barbers, as business owners – not to service their own, were based solely on financial considerations.

A crowd gathers outside a store and barbershop in Union Point, Georgia, circa 1941. (Photo by Jack Delano, via the Library of Congress.)

Over the passage of time and owing to social, political, cultural and economic factors and forces – Black barbershops changed their practices and, in the twentieth century, the barbershop became an important establishment in the Black community. Ironically, the Black- owned barbershops, with Black barbers, that once barred Black men as customers, eventually became their sanctuary and refuge. The Black “tonsorial parlor” became a place and space where Black males could go and be themselves, among themselves, with themselves and by themselves. Along with the church, the school and the fraternal lodge – the barbershop became one of the essential and valued institutions in the African American community.

All across the United States, the Black barbershop became a distinctive breathing “room” where African American men gathered not just to get groomed to look their best for work five to six days a week; play on the weekends or pray and worship Saturday or Sunday – but to also socialize, share, learn, teach, laugh, truth – telling, truth – stretching, boasting and bragging. People got together to kick- back, relax and have a good time away from others. No matter the state, city, town or community – the barbershop is like unto a village where men folk arrive to congregate, connect, conversate, communicate, cajole, criticize and “cut the fool.”

In the barbershop, everyone’s point of view was welcomed and valued. No subjects or topics were taboo. Whether you were a doctor, janitor, student, teacher, attorney, writer, truck driver, librarian, construction worker, self – employed or unemployed, you could step in, step up and express your position – as long as you were able to substantiate and defend your views if challenged by anyone else in the barbershop— but, especially, a barber who might be facilitating or leading group dialogue. Particularly concerning such important matters as politics and history.  Such is the tradition of the Black barbershop, and some of its kinship rituals, passed down over the centuries and decades.

 

Outside a store and barbershop in Union Point, Georgia, circa 1941. (Photo by Jack Delano, via the Library of Congress.)

“The Black barbershop is a town square in our community…where you get up to the minute news and provocative discussions about politics, entertainment and sports,” shares Kevin Harewood, CEO of EDclectic Entertainment located in Brooklyn, New York.

Universally, no matter in what city, state or neighborhood – the African American barbershop is like a film or theatre set with a cast of similar characters gathered together for the sharing of information and knowledge; to impart or receive counseling and to participate in some young man’s rites of passage with his first haircut and with his initiation into the fraternity that is the barbershop society and its traditions and rituals.

Young Black men learn to sit and patiently wait for their turn. They learn to pay attention when grown folks talk, pontificate, debate and elaborate. Youngsters learn not to talk when adults are running their mouths, especially not when the barbers, as Griots or facilitators, have the floor.  Barbershops are institutions where older Black males, like grandmasters, safely and openly, share and impart their perspectives and experiences about living to younger Black males, as apprentices – hoping and intending to raise their youthful minds into a higher state of social, political and historical awakening, while they are getting their heads groomed and images perfected.

An old shop that still stands but is not operating in Eatonton, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

 

Old clippers used by Emerson Gresham in Greene County, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

 

Robert Scott Adams has worked in radio in Georgia and New York and currently works at a recording studio in Washington, D.C.  He remembers his adolescent barbershop experiences. “I used to marvel at the older guys who came into the shop – their hairstyles, how they dressed, the cars they drove and the stories they told,” he recalls. Laughingly he adds, “Some of the most memorable stories were the ones about women. A lot of those tales influenced my life …how I would and would not relate to women as an adult.” The barbershop was where boys could be boys; men could be men and boys could aspire to manhood.

Well – known Atlanta jazz artist and music educator, Joe Jennings remembers his experiences growing up in Natchez, Mississippi. “The Barber Shop…a community institution where on Saturday afternoons, men – young and old – prepare for a night out or Sunday Church meetings,” Jennings recalls. “The owners are, in most cases, well – versed in many subjects and ready to debate at the drop of a hat. They’re astute philosophers and entrepreneurs.”

 

Another thing that the barbershop served as was an opportunity for economic ambition and financial stability. It was a vehicle and opportunity for Black men to become business owners and, after they opened the door and chairs to Black clientele – work on their own terms and according to their own rules.

Alonzo Herndon, the first African American millionaire and Georgia’s wealthiest Black man during his lifetime, started out as a barber.  Born in 1878, the Social Circle, Walton County – native moved away from his family to Jonesboro, Georgia where, at the age of 20,  he opened his first barbershop. After migrating to Atlanta, Herndon would come to own three barbershops by 1904. Earnings garnered from those three shops would allow him to establish an empire that would include various real estate properties and holdings including a plantation in Florida. In 1905, Herndon would enter into the insurance business and in twenty years, establish and grow the multi-million dollar, Atlanta Life Insurance Company with branches all over the country.  By 1920, it was one of the most successful Black businesses in the United States.

Another African American businessman who parlayed barbering and ownership of barbershops into a multi-million dollar business empire was North Carolina native John Merrick.

In 1880, Merrick and a friend relocated from Clinton to Durham to start a new barbershop business. It took six months before Merrick actually bought shares in the shop to become co-owner. Twelve years later, after acquisitioning the remaining shares in the company from his friend, Merrick became sole proprietor. Eventually John Merrick would become owner of eight barbershops in Durham – some exclusively catering to white customers and others to African Americans. He would go on to accomplish a very impressive and major level of success in publishing, real estate, banking and insurance.

Black men viewed barbering and barbershop ownership as an entrepreneurial endeavor that provided opportunity to achieve financial security, middle class status, wealth, and social standing.

March, 25, 2017. It’s Friday mid – afternoon, at KMP Barbershop in historic downtown Greensboro, and Johnny Lewis, Jr. is grooming the head of the much disciplined nine – year – old Elijah Williams who, accompanied by his mother, Latrice Williams, is clearly accustomed to the barber chair.

There are two sections of the entire barbershop owned by Lewis: the smaller, more intimate “Upstairs” and the more spacious, frenetic “Valley of the Kings.” Downstairs, in “the Valley of the Kings” there is much more space and there are two barbers, two chairs – and where the more “traditional” activities occur. This is where the younger crowd congregates in larger numbers waiting for their cuts. Lewis works in and from the VIP section where he, personally offers more than just barbering services to his clients.

“Here is where I offer an experience for my more “mature” clients and those who want a more family feel and environment, utters Lewis who is also an ordained minister. “Counseling, life – coaching and deeper, more confidential kinds of dialogue happens here.”

On the walls and on top of shelves, surrounding the one barber chair –  are all kinds of items like sports paraphernalia, the obligatory grooming price list, a photograph of former POTUS Barack Obama and Lewis’ “Master Barber” plaque. Lewis remembers the elder African American men who were the barbers throughout Greene County, he approximates – from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Gus Terrell in the railroad community; Cosby Brown in Canaan; Emerson Gresham in the Bush Street community; Willie Chester and Eugene Scott on Main Street In Greensboro and, his great – great grandfather, who was his first teacher, Roosevelt Champion, in Siloam.

 “My grandfather used to cut hair for twenty – five cents.”

The average price for the basic cut, nowadays, is around fifteen dollars. Lewis exclaims, “These men were the master barbers and business role models in the community. Mr. Willie Chester owned ‘Chester and Sons’ on Main Street…right where Wahl’s law firm is now.”

Although Lewis graduated from Ogeechee Technical School’s barbering program decades ago, he was nine years old when he first learned the fundamentals of barbering from his great, great grandfather Roosevelt Champion and the elder barber’s twin grandson’s – Donald and Ronald, who helped pass the skills down. “Barbering is part of the family history and legacy,” Lewis affirms.  “I became a barber at nine years old at the feet of my great, great grandfather”, he proudly adds. It wasn’t until he was in his early twenties, however, that he actually established his very own first barbershop.

From the approach that Willie Chester took in operating his barbershop; a sixteen year old Lewis learned that cutting hair wasn’t the only service you could offer in a shop. “Chester and Sons” was a barbershop, music shop and snack shop. “During the course of a Saturday, we were there for so many hours…he had a captivated audience…” Lewis reminisces. “So, he offered his customers additional services to make their wait a little more enjoyable.”Having been influenced by the forward – thinking of Willie Chester, Lewis offers various business services at KMP such as tax preparation, print services, obituary production and graphic design. The craft of barbering, and the barbershop as a business, has proven to be financially lucrative for Lewis and his family.

“I have been able to, not only provide for my family but to help others, as well,” he testifies. “My own barbershop allows me to manage my own time and be in control of my own economic destiny.”

Saturday, March 25th. Eleven – thirty in the morning.  Ruff Cuts Barbershop: historic downtown Greensboro. Barbershop’s motto: “Your Solution To A Rough Day.”

Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Paynes” sets the ambience for the several customers in the shop – especially the eight-year old sitting next to me who is cracking up at the slap stick comedy. Although I don’t normally watch the show – I must admit that I, too, am quite amused. Something about the collective barbershop experience that really is contagious.

On the walls and around the shop there is the obligatory hair cut price list; UGA paraphernalia; refreshments for sale and the signs: “WE ARE BLESSED” and “NO CREDIT PLEASE DON’T ASK.”

There isn’t any conversation or discussion going on. Instead, Master barber Dennis Ruff, and his apprentice barber, Marcus Mallory, are working on the heads of respective clients like sculptor Augusta Savage approached her craft and created her masterpieces: with exactitude, deliberation and meticulousness – each barber intent on fashioning a magnum opus worthy of acceptance and praise by the customer after they peer into the mirror handed them by the barber after the cut is deemed finis!

“I opened my shop to help others apprentice and learn…” Ruff shares. “…so that they could move from apprenticing, get licensed and go into business for themselves.”

Dennis Ruff trims hair of female customer in historic downtown Greensboro, Georgia (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

For the last eleven years, barbershop proprietor Dennis Ruff has been offering his grooming services at this Broad Street locale. Although his client – base is predominately African American, he has an occasional Hispanic customer and white customer. From the age of fifteen, the fortyish Ruff has been cutting hair. His mother had barber skills and he has a brother in Savannah that has a shop. “I couldn’t clock in for anyone else,” he declares. “My independence was important for me…still is. “

Having recently “retired” after being in the barbering and grooming business for over fifty years, Eatonton native Ezekiel “Zeke” Dennis, owns Zeke’s Beauty and Barber Shop. “My children wanted me to retire completely, “he chuckles.” ”But I just cut back my hours so I’m semi-retired. I’m part-time now. Some time”  The undisputed grandmaster of barbers and barbering in Eatonton, Dennis began cutting hair when he was a young lad because he and his brother, Eddie, “just liked to cut hair” and used to coiffeur each other.

After marrying Betty Freeman in 1962, he and his wife gave birth to a son who would face a slight predicament when he reached the pre -adolescent age to begin his barbershop experience by entering the doors of the Black barbershop and being initiated into the African American barbershop experience. “My son had curly hair and nobody could cut it, so I had to cut it,” Dennis gleefully shares. In 1964, after receiving his barber’s license — he worked in his first “barbershop”, “The Combo” which was located in a night club of the same name.

During Dennis’ half – century barbering and styling career, his clients have been male, female and the occasional white male customer. This Saturday after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday, as we sit in the spacious shop along with about seven of his grandsons or great grandsons– he shares his vast knowledge and recollections about such hairstyles as the Afro, the Gheri curl, the S curl and the T Hound.

“Zeke” Dennis, Eatonton, GA. (c2017 Timothy Aaron – Styles)

“Barbering was good business – wise,” he proudly states. “I was able to raise all my children.” Passing on a legacy that he could be proud of, his daughter, Alicia Waller – and his grand-daughter, Shalon Watkins – are also his partners in the business. Waller is a stylist and Watkins is a master barber and stylist.

The long tradition and legacy that is Black barbershop is being preserved and perpetuated by Johnny Lewis and Dennis Ruff, in their respective businesses, in small town Greene County, Georgia.

The barbershop is a cornerstone and like unto an ancient landmark in, of and for the African American community.

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Note: This essay is the original version of a revised article that appears in the Summer 2017 version of Lakelife magazine which covers the wonderfully beautiful Lake Oconee area of Georgia.

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Re-examining, Rethinking and Reinventing What Political (Em)power(ment) Maybe Should Look Like (In the age of Globalization and the Millennial Generation)

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   c2014 Timothy Aaron – Styles

There are two common notions assumed to be, and heralded as, evidence of a group’s attainment of political empowerment and/or the actual exercise and demonstration of both an individual’s and group’s political power.

One: “Casting the vote.”  The notion that vote, in and of itself, is a magical empowering act equivalent to power. Well, in spite of what most people think – real political power is not achieved or attained simply by the individual casting of a vote….nor by the exercise of casting plural votes during an election.  Is voting important? Yes? Are large numbers of votes important? Of course they are.

Two: “Let’s do a voter registration drive!” Neither is political empowerment realized or achieved through the “mere” act of voter registration or aggressively engaging in “voter registration drives.”

No matter how many voters are successfully registered, the number of registered voters does not supersede how registered voters actually vote.  Sadly, not all registered voters actually participate in the electoral process whether municipal (city), county, state or national.

Based on numbers alone the “successful registration of 3000 voters” looks more promising and sounds more impressive  than “500 people who voted” in an election just based on comparing the numbers “3000” to “”500.” However, that lower number could very well be more influential on the outcome of an election than the larger number. The “500” actually could prove more “powerful” and “significant” than the “3000.” Remember this when Bloc voting comes up.

Now, while these two activities (“Voter Registration” and “Casting the Ballot”) are extremely important and significant, there is a common notion – among some communities more than others – that the “political power buck” begins and ceases with registering large numbers of voters and/or “getting out the voters” on election day.

That is: strongly encouraging voters to get out to actually cast their ballots or transporting voters to the polls, to actually cast their votes, on Election Day or during early voting.

Oftimes we hear, or see, many organizations sponsoring or engaging in “Voter’s Registration Drives” and then that’s all we see or hear. Or maybe we’ll hear, or see, them on Election Day engaging in their “getting out the vote” initiatives, strategies and activities.

While both courses of action (“Voter Registration” and “Getting out the Vote”) are commendable, well-meaning and sometimes productive – they, somehow, became the major goals and objectives in the quest for “political empowerment” or the primary measurements in/of assessing perceived acquisition of “political power” for historically dis-enfranchised and non –  represented communities. They became “the arrival” as opposed to essential steps along the journey toward realizing authentic political empowerment and flexing legitimate political clout.

Quite frankly, real political power exists even before the voter registration drive is ever even embarked upon, or the candidate’s election committee is formally organized. 

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Genuine political power lives and breathes before and during political campaigning; long before and during the long contentious and multi – million dollar election season; and long before and during the nail-biting, name-calling electoral process.

Authentic political empowerment continues to function and operate after the polls are closed, the campaign and poll workers go home, the votes tabulated, the winners and losers announced, victory celebrations had and concession speeches orated.

The truly politically empowered are still grinding the wheels during the term of the winning candidate now turned “elected official”  even if that elected official wasn’t or isn’t the political candidate they supported or voted for.

Real, measurable political power exists before the casting of a single ballot.

Real political empowerment is everyday. Seven days a week. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Real political empowerment is consistent and perpetual. Actually, while real political power transcends party affiliation, political divisions and unwavering party loyalties – it equally influences and controls any and all parties.

So now what is “political empowerment”? How and when is a group, actually and measurably – politically empowered? What are the ways, means and methods of achieving and utilizing political power?

Bloc Voting is the strategy of a group of individuals, joined together, based on common interests, concerns, goals and/or objectives and each individually committed to vote for one candidate or candidates based on the benefits to, and advancement of, the collective group (i.e. the bloc).

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there are five- hundred “Martian Americans”; age range 25-30; living in a small community in Rochester, New York where the total population is 12,000 with 6000 registered voters. In this small Upstate New York community research indicates that only 2000 registered voters actually have voted in the local city council race for the last five city council elections.

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These 500 “Martian Americans” throw their collective votes (bloc) behind the local city council candidate with whom they have collectively met and negotiated and who has committed to addressing the collective concerns and issues expressed by the five hundred bloc members.

This bloc vote consisting of 500 individual votes could significantly influence the outcome of a local election with two or more candidates – especially with low voter turnout.

The take-away: Registered voters must be educated and directed to treat their individually – registered and individually – cast votes as part of a unified and collective effort in order to achieve and wield real collective power. Individual registered voters should be educated and encouraged to actively seek out blocs to bond their vote with and commit their vote to.  

Political campaigns need funds to operate and compete effectively and, as much as I hate clichés – “S/he who has the gold makes the rules” is a political axiom. 

Bloc Campaign Contributions are financial campaign contributions made by a group of individuals joined together based on common interests, concerns, goals and/or objectives and to supporting one issue, position, candidate or candidates and committed to pooling their financial resources to support one candidate or candidates based on the benefits to, and advancement of, the collective group (bloc).  Whether the members actually vote in the election or not, the most important thing is the monetary contribution and financial support made by the group to the candidate, party, issue or cause. 

Let’s flashback to that hypothetical “500 Martian Americans” in Rochester, New York who each donates $50 to their bloc campaign contribution “account” which totals (to) $25,000. They collectively decided to contribute the total amount to a State Senatorial candidate whom they have met with and who has committed to addressing the concerns and issues expressed by the five hundred bloc members, or they will use the total amount for and towards the same candidate’s election efforts.

The take-away:  That “500 Martian American” group will have the ears of, and access to, that “once –candidate – now – successfully – elected – State – Senator” not just because of the monies the group contributed to the successful campaign – but because they have established and positioned themselves as a dependable financial resource for future political campaigns whether individual -, cause -, issue – or party – based or – centered.

There is an Italian expression I came across some decades ago that I always remembered: “Il denaro el fratello del denaro” which means “money is the brother of money” and which makes plain the significance and relevance of the “Bloc Campaign Contribution” as strategy for political empowerment.

For the record, “Il denaro è la sorella e il fratello di denaro” means “money is the sister and brother of money.”  Next…

Most(?) people seem to believe that once a candidate is elected and serving in office that  the way to remove them – should there be a just and legitimate cause  – is to “vote them out” in their next election. While it is possible to “vote them out” in that eventual “next election,” there are options to waiting that long: The Recall.

The “recall election” has two other names: “recall referendum” and “recall of a representative.” NO matter the name – it is a procedure and process by which voters can seek the removal of an elected official even after the person has begun serving in office. In theory, this mechanism exists, on behalf of the people, as a “check” and limits the sovereign powers of the elected official should the voters and constituency deem it necessary to take their votes back.

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While federally or nationally elected politicians can not be re-called – depending upon State legislation and State law – local elected officials, such as mayors, governors, commissioners and even school board members can be recalled.

Rules regarding the recall process vary from state – to – state, yes. However the commonalities between each state process tend to be petitions, signatures, certifications and special elections.

The take-away: you don’t necessarily have to wait for the next election to seek removal of an elected official. The first prerequisite is a collective, unified group of people with the will and resources to initiate and manage the recall. Then they just have to be located in the right State.

The prerequisite foundational tools necessary for any group to effectuate political influence or achieve political power are organizational structure, collective will, commitment and courage. As cliché as it may sound: a group of people must be “loyal, unified and committed” to the same mission, goals and objectives – and courageous enough to act without fear of push-back, resistance or retribution in order to achieve and wield power.

With a strong organizational culture, loyal and committed people, financial resources and a sound plan – the formation of a special interest group can prove empowering.

Special interest groups consist of dedicated individuals who share common interests and common concerns – whether social, cultural, political, religious, financial or even historical (such as preservation organizations). Members work together, in unison and cooperation, to achieve and accomplish goals and objectives determined collectively by the group that will benefit the members of the groups and their constituency.

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For example, let’s suppose those fifty “Martian – Americans” were also parents of children with sickle cell anemia. All the parents decide to unite and organize – devoting their time and resources to creating a national movement called, “Families United Against Sickle Cell.”

Their mission would be the formation of a national organization consisting of all parents of children with sickle cell anemia. The objective of the national organization would be lobbying elected officials and legislators to create, implement and enforce governmental policies that would specifically benefit children with sickle cell anemia and their immediate families.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 90,000 and 100, 000 people have Sickle Cell in the United Sates. Imagine the number of potential members such a special interest group might have and the would-be advocacy or lobbying power such a group could wield – locally, state – wide, nationally and maybe even globally.

Lobby(ing) groups, which are one type of Special Interest Group, find protection in the First Amendment as “Congress shall make no law….abridging…the right of the people peaceably…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So both lobbyists, and the process of lobbying are, theoretically, indispensable to the “proper” functioning of U.S. government.

Lobbyists offer and present to legislators and policymakers information, assessment, analysis and perspective on various issues and topics which influences and shapes their decision – and policy – making. Again, in theory – the lobbying process is supposed to create a “check and balance” mechanism for and in the political process – by allowing “the people” the opportunity to shape and influence how policies and legislation are created.

Now – is any of this new? Of course it isn’t.  It’s done all the time. The problem is – it’s not done by everyone at, and in, all levels of society. Not every individual, group or community is actually taught, guided or encouraged to engage in such a systematic and methodical manner to achieve real political power.

“Voter education” initiatives and programs are sorely lacking and grossly inadequate in some communities and sectors of the public. And they have always been that way. Now, whether they have always been that way because of some grand design to limit or misdirect some communities or whether they have been that way due to the myopic vision of well – intentioned leaders and political saviors – the bottom line is this: now is the time for re-examination, re-thinking and re-inventing what true voter education is, as well as what real political power is, and .

Real political power – or real power achieved through political means – can only be realized through authentic and well – informed voter education. 

To paraphrase Einstein, “the problems humans face in the world today cannot be solved by the same level of human thinking that gave birth to them in the first place.” You know – it’s the same as the Biblical, “old wine in a new bottle” lesson. Old ways of doing things aren’t usually compatible with new constructs, new conditions or (the) new times.

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Sometimes the old way is the better way. Maybe most times it isn’t. Within the context of (the) political process, an awakening – a re-birth – is needed today and it starts with teaching and learning.  Re- teaching and re-learning – maybe even unlearning.

Real bona fide political empowerment – authentic political power – begins with real, bona fide and authentic political pedagogy.  Let the clubs, associations, lodges, temples, churches, mosques – even the living rooms and basements – become the hallowed spaces for initiating and instructing the citizenry into the new and improved “Politics 101” program of study needed in this new-fangled globalized cultural and political landscape.