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Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops

By Guest Contributor Hunter Oatman-Stanford

This post is an edited version of an interview that ran at Collector’s Weekly on May 30, 2014.

In a country where institutionalized racism has been the norm for centuries, black barbershops remain an anomaly. Though initially blocked from serving black patrons, these businesses evolved into spaces where African Americans could freely socialize and discuss contemporary issues. While catering to certain hair types may have helped these businesses succeed, the real secret to their longevity is their continued social import. For many African Americans, getting a haircut is more than a commodity—it’s an experience that builds community and shapes political action. As both a proud symbol of African American entrepreneurship and a relic of an era when black labor exclusively benefited whites, black barbershops provide a window into our nation’s complicated racial dynamics.

Quincy Mills, a professor of history at Vassar College, started looking closely at black barbershops when assisting Melissa Harris-Perry with research for her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. Harris-Perry was investigating the ways African Americans developed their worldviews through collective conversation, specifically looking at three sectors: black churches, entertainment, and barbershops.

Harris-Perry wanted to do a close study of barbershops, but was worried that as a woman, her presence would alter the nature of the space and its conversation. In her place, Mills observed the interactions of a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago four to five days a week during the summer of 2000. “As I sat there day in and day out, I couldn’t help but wonder how these spaces have been situated historically,” says Mills. “I had seen passing mentions of black barbershops in the literature on black urban history, but there weren’t any books on the topic. I wondered, ‘Were these shops the same in 1940? And what about 1840?’”

Mills spent the next decade researching the barbershop trade for his book, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, drawing fascinating connections between race, capitalism, and culture. We recently spoke with Mills about the roots of black barbershops and their relevance today.
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