Posted inCultural Identity

My Barber and Me

A collection of Nic’s pandemic hairstyles.

There are few relationships as intimate as the one between a man and his barber; nowhere is this more true than in the black community.

The past year of isolations and quarantines has stretched even the most outwardly stable relationships to the nth degree. One, however, has stood firm, unwavering in the face of seemingly endless lockdowns – that of people and their hairdressers. Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have all been on a DIY journey with our hair. With salons closed for months at a time, I- like millions all over the country- was forced to take matters into my own hands. I began this year with waves, a hairstyle that requires a militant hair care routine consisting of meticulous brushing and wearing an oft-too-tight durag to bed. When this became too difficult to maintain, I had no choice but to abandon it and let my curls grow out naturally, leading me down the all too familiar path of questionable pandemic hairstyles. Aiming for a ’light caramel brown’ colour, I accidentally dyed it ginger, flirted with the idea of bleaching it blonde, before impulsively picking up my beard trimmer, walking into my bathroom and resigning myself to the ‘big chop’ – needless to say, we’ve been through a lot. Because of all of this, people up and down the country rejoiced when hairdressers reopened on April 12th.  It was a special moment; not only was it the start of an incremental return to normalcy but, for many black men, reuniting with your barber holds a much wider cultural significance than just getting that long-awaited shape up.

For some, the experience of going to your local hairdresser’s is one fraught with small talk about the weather and weekend plans; that is, if you open your mouth again after telling them what you’d like done. This exchange is swiftly followed by an unconvincing nod when asked if you’re happy with the haircut, regardless of your true feelings (or the fact that you’re going to have to wear a hat indoors for the next week). I was once in this boat of awkward barbershop encounters, where going to the hairdressers felt more like a chore than an experience to be enjoyed and looked forward to. Growing up in a leafy suburb in Buckinghamshire where only 0.4% of the population is black Caribbean, I was left with no choice but to visit the suffocatingly Caucasian shops on my high street.

I tried, I really did, wrongly assuming that if I had the same barber each time, surely, they would get used to my hair, surely this time I would have a different outcome. Nevertheless, my curls were straightened, blow-dried and generally mistreated as the barber’s clearly had no experience cutting or styling hair of my texture. Not only that, but there was a real disconnect socially, with a lack of flowing conversation and relatability. This sorry pattern became the norm until one Saturday when I walked into the local hairdressers and saw a new face – the face of John Hanson, a Ghanaian man in his early thirties who would become my barber for the next 9 years. The journey to finding my barber was fortuitous. I first met John after football practice, sweaty and dressed head to toe in my Chelsea kit. I remember explaining how I was about to quit playing to focus on basketball, and just like that, we bonded over our mutual love of the sport. This was the first time that I had a genuine conversation with someone cutting my hair, and from then on, our bond grew stronger

Truth be told, I had missed him throughout the pandemic, and it was such a relief to see him again. He was one of the first people I told about getting accepted into university, he surprised me with concert tickets for my 18th birthday, and inexplicably, we had even broken our legs at the same time. In many ways, he has seen me grow up. John was raised in Northwood, and he tells me that during his teenage years, it was a predominantly white area. He recounts that ‘when I saw you, I could relate as Chesham [my hometown] is the same, I could understand a lot more, especially with racism and dealing with that’. His guidance proved crucial, helping me navigate a whole host of difficult situations, validating my struggles during those formative teenage years: ‘things you might be going through, I’ve already experienced, so when I talk about it … there’s a comparison to another situation … it’s easier to have these one-to-one conversations when someone is in the chair’. All this touches, once again, on the trust that is nurtured between you and your barber, a space where black men are free to talk with no-holds-barred.

As a barber, you don’t just cut hair; your job description spans multitudes – as John reveals: ‘I see [my job] as a therapist, a listener, a motivator, and as someone you can go and talk to about anything or come to for advice’. This relationship has long been illustrated on the silver screen and beyond, from Inua Ellams’ powerful National Theatre play ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ to Hannibal Buress as ‘Ice the Barber’ in the hilarious cutscenes in the video game NBA 2K17. As places of refuge for so many young black men, their cultural relevance is not to be understated. Whilst I did not have this cultural hub in my community, the connection with my barber taught me something I was unlikely to learn elsewhere – what being a black man was about.

When I ask John about the highlight of the job, his answer is pertinently succinct – ‘Talking’. Especially after the tumultuous year we’ve all had, the worrying mental health statistics in the black community and this period of uncertain communication, we need more people we can vent, laugh and sit down with to talk about our lives, now more than ever. Where else can you find this but in your barber – a friend, a big brother and someone you can trust with more than just your hair?