Cuttin' Up

Wit And Wisdom From Black Barber Shops

by Craig Marberry

Cuttin' Up

Hardcover, 175 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The author presents a new glimpse of life inside the African American community in an oral history comprised of personal narratives, quotes, commentary, and opinion from black barber shops around the country.

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Excerpt: Cuttin' Up

Cuttin' Up

Cuttin' Up


Random House

Craig Marberry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385511647

Chapter One

Hairitage: Passing It Down

Robin Pickard 32, Customer

When I was little, my mom always said, "If you cut a boy's hair before his first birthday-or if you let it grow uncut longer than a year-the texture of his hair will change." I don't know about that, but that's what the old folks believed. Every mother I know cut her son's hair when he was one. But Isaiah was almost two and a half and I still hadn't taken him to the barber shop.

All my sisters were like, "That doesn't make sense. You need to cut that boy's hair." My five brothers said, "The older he gets, he's not gonna like the buzz of those clippers. He's gonna fall out and act his color."

Isaiah hadn't got a haircut because his father liked it long. Me, I was ready long time ago. I have an eleven-year-old daughter, so I was doing three heads every day: hers, mine, and Isaiah's.

I had to fight Isaiah every night to braid his hair. Then he would take them down in his sleep. So I had to do them again in the morning. And when I picked him up from day care, he would have taken them down again. This was every day. I could just scream. I think he did it to mess with me. He'd come up to me and say, "I pull hair loose." I'd say, "You sure did. And you're a wonderful little boy." But, oh, he was a monster!

I gave his father an ultimatum: find someone else to braid his hair or it's coming off. He promised to find someone, but after a month it was still my job. So I took Isaiah to the barber shop. I know a boy's first haircut is a daddy thing. It's a rite of passage, like back when a father would take his son out in the woods to shoot his first buck. But his daddy wouldn't do it.

There's a whole ritual around a boy's first haircut. Isaiah's grandmother schooled me. She said, "I know you been thinkin' about cuttin' Isaiah's hair." I said, "I can't take it anymore." She said, "Well, before you take him to the barber, make sure you plant one braid right at the top of his head." I said, "Why?" She said, "That's the center of his soul." I said, "Okay, I didn't know that." Then she said, "Have the barber cut the braid before he cuts anything else. Then you take the braid and tuck it in your Bible." I said, "My Bible?" She said, "That will preserve Isaiah's strength." I said, "Really?" She said, "Don't you remember the story of Samson and Delilah, how Samson's strength was in his hair?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "Well, if you save the braid you'll preserve Isaiah's strength."

When the barber saw Isaiah he said, "Oh, that's the prettiest little girl." I said, "He's a boy." The barber said, "Lord, let me cut that child's hair." I didn't know how Isaiah would react. I imagined all these angry men looking at me and shouting, "Woman, take that crybaby outta here." But he didn't make a sound.

When I got home, I placed the braid in the first page of the book of Isaiah. Then I turned to the family-tree page in the front of the Bible. I wrote: "On May 30, 2003, Isaiah became a little man."

But, actually, he looks like a bald-headed girl.

Alexander Parker 70, Barber Shop Owner

You know, I could teach these young boys a thing or two about cuttin' heads, about making money cuttin' heads. I've had my barber's license for fifty years. Still, can't teach them nothin'. They know it all. Well, there's such a thing as being "over learned." Some things they don't teach in school. I got a PhD, in "street" and a Master's in "white folks." White man up the way asked me once, he said, "Why don't colored folks do business with the colored man?" I said, "They're afraid they'll get screwed." He said, "They're not afraid the white man will screw them?" I said, "Yeah, but the white man got a smaller dick. Black man screw you, you know you been screwed."

My first barber job was in Davidson, North Carolina, a small college town in a rural county. The shop was owned by Ralph Johnson. He was black, but he looked white. Said he was the wrong kind of nigga on both sides of the tracks. All his customers were white: farmers, professors, students. Back in those days, you couldn't cut white heads and black heads. Whites wouldn't have it. You had to choose. Ralph and I couldn't even give each other a cut during business hours. Ralph said a man made a better livin' with "CW" on his barber's permit, so that's what I chose. "CW" meant colored cuttin' white folks' hair. "CC" meant colored cuttin' colored folks' hair. There wasn't no "Whites Only" sign in Ralph's window. Black folks knew where they could go and where they couldn't.

Ralph had a good mind for business. Made a whole lot of money. And I don't mean "nigga rich," all flash and no cash. He had money like the white folks. Some of them didn't like that. Tried to run him out of business, tried to burn his place down. I learned a lot from Ralph and I try to pass it down, but these boys won't listen. Some barbers want to make money and some barbers want to make noise. The young guys get too friendly with the customer, talkin' all the time. You should have a new head in your chair every fifteen minutes. Four and thirty-two. That's the formula. Four heads an hour; thirty-two heads a day-forty on Saturday. In my day, I was a workhorse. But these young guys don't want to work that hard. Got "butt-itis." Always want to go sit on what their mamas should've kicked.

And they always want to run have their "social experience" with the girls. I tell them that Sally will spend more time with John, who can help her out, than with Dick, who ain't got nothin' to give but romance. Keep it zipped up and you'll keep somethin' in your pocket.

I tell the young guys that the secret to repeat business is good manners, a clean appearance, and a professional attitude. Don't nobody raise hell up in here but me. I'm old, but I ain't too old to run you the hell out of here. Gotta be humble, too. Can't talk cash from a man's pocket unless you're smaller than him: "Thank you, sir. Come back, sir." And you have to keep your mouth shut. I say, "Customers will tell their business, but if you tell all you hear, you won't get to hear much."

Look here, where can a man go today and get a good laugh? Think about it. The barber shop is about it. Men need that. So I tell the young barbers that they can joke, but don't let joking slow you down. The customer ain't payin' for laughs. Barberin' has been good to me. But I've had my turn at the plow. Now I'm tryin' to teach the young ones.


George Evans 50, Customer

Mr. Woods, who was every bit of seventy years old, was my first barber. He was a member of our church, Hanes CME, and he had a barber shop set up in his garage. Customers sat in fold-up chairs along the walls. One exposed lightbulb hung from a black cord in the center of the ceiling. He had a real barber chair and it sat right under that light. He had those posters on the walls that showed different styles of haircuts, but they were just for show. Mr. Woods could do only one style: the Broach, which was very short, one step from bald. In fact, some parts of your head were bald 'cause Mr. Woods couldn't cut. Not a lick.

Mr. Woods's barber shop was four blocks from our house. My father would walk me and my brother over. Always had plenty of customers. Some men would sit up there and drink likker. Back then, a lot of men didn't leave home without their tin can, their flask of white lightnin'. Some of them poured it in a little mayonnaise jar. Just enough to hold 'em till they got back home. Kids would listen while the men talked and swigged. Nowadays, these young boys have the answer. But kids back then, you didn't open your mouth while grown folks were talkin'. Might get popped.

The men talked about things that all of them had an opinion on. If they were talkin' politics, now that ran out quick. But if it was sports, that might go on forever. They'd talk on one topic till everybody got their say. They even got to double dip. That's when you get your say twice. If somebody out-talked you, you'd want to double dip.

The old folks, they loved to talk about the olden days. Dad would talk about pickin' cotton in the country all week long and walkin' ten miles along the train tracks on Saturday nights to get to the poolroom in the black section of Winston-Salem. When he was too young to go inside the poolroom, he would sit out front and his cousins would come out every now and then to give him a Nehi and a honey bun or a RC Cola and a Moon Pie. He'd say, "Family looked out for family."

More black history gets passed on in barber shops than in schools. When I talk to young guys, I like to say things like, "I bet you don't know that Charles Drew, a black doctor, made blood banks possible." Even when we talk sports, there's some history in it. One young guy, a Cowboys fan, he said to me, "You a Redskins fan, right?" I said, "That's right. Why? You wanna lose some money on the game?" He said, "Well, as a loyal fan, you know that the great Redskins were the last team in the NFL to integrate. And soon as Doug Williams won the Super Bowl for them, they let him go the next year. Kicked the brother to the curb." I said, "That's true. But why didn't your Cowboys pick him up?"

Even when a man's got a point, you gotta have a comeback. Gotta keep your gun loaded in the barber shop or they'll shoot you down. I always got ammunition. Old folks are always tryin' to school young folks in the barber shop. Guess I'm one of the old folks now.


Y'all In The Family

Ronald Couthen 37, Customer

Kids shouldn't run all around the barber shop. It ain't an amusement park. They're supposed to be bored. When my children were younger, I would take them to the barber shop with me every Saturday. I always held them in my arms till the barber was ready for me.

One thing 'bout me, I believe in discipline and reward. The book of Proverbs says, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it." That's why I have such wonderful kids to this day. They were trained up. Ron, Jr., is fourteen now and Teniqua is twelve. Both of them are honor roll students. When Ron, Jr., was old enough to sit up, I'd put Teniqua in his lap before I got in the barber chair. It taught him to look out for his little sister. He's almost my height now and, believe you me, ain't a boyfriend Teniqua gets that Ron ain't aware of. First boyfriend she had, Teniqua didn't tell me. But Ron did. He said, "Dad, I know how he looks, where he lives, and who his people are." I said, "Guess I don't have to worry 'bout nothin'." He said, "I'm on it."

My kids liked comin' to the barber shop, but I hated for them to have to wait so long. Some barbers take appointments nowadays, but it's still "first come, first served" in most shops. You never know if you're gonna be next in the chair or if you'll have to sleep in there overnight. And nothin' you do to speed things along really works. Sometimes I'll call ahead and ask the barber how many customers he got. They always say, "Oh, one or two." But when you rush over there, there are always three or four ahead of you. That's how they do you. They know you're thinkin', Well, I'm already here so I might as well wait.

A lot of barbers watch who comes in, and in what order. They'll say, "You next." Or, "I got two, then you." But customers also have to keep up with their spot. That's why we greet other customers as they come in. It lets the next guy know that you're there. It's sort of like when customers come into Fairway 1 Stop, the convenience store where I work. I greet them and that lets them know that I know. You know? I say "Hello" or "Mornin' " or "How you doin' today?" Part of it is being friendly. But part of it is business. Same thing in the barber shop.

Once, my barber tried a number system to cut down the wait. But guys would come in and take a number and then they would leave to get lunch or somethin'. When they came back they expected to be next, even if their number had passed. It messed up the flow. Number 21 would be in the chair and you were holdin' number 22, but then number 12 would walk in and want to go next. It happened to me several times. I talked to my barber 'bout it. I said, "Hey, I been sittin' here all day and some guy gets to go mow his lawn, eat lunch, hug on his woman, and stroll back in when he's ready? That ain't right." My barber agreed. He dropped the number system.

On average, I wait 'bout an hour for a haircut. The Bible says that the tryin' of your faith worketh patience. Your patience gets worked big time in the barber shop.
 



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