'Cuttin' Up' at the Barbershop The black barbershop provides an open forum for social commentary. A new book, rich with photos, explores that territory. It's called Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops.
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'Cuttin' Up' at the Barbershop

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'Cuttin' Up' at the Barbershop

'Cuttin' Up' at the Barbershop

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Black barbershops have long been an open forum for social commentary. In the shop, everyone has an opinion, and often the people doing the cutting have as much to say as the patrons. Cedric the Entertainer parodied that brand of social commentary in the movie "Barbershop."

(Soundbite of "Barbershop")

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As Eddie) I mean, if we can't talk straight in a barbershop, then where can we talk straight? We can't talk straight nowhere else. You know this ain't nothing but healthy conversation.

(Soundbite of all talking at once)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, ...(unintelligible) got to tear Rosa Parks down.

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As Eddie) There ain't nobody exempt in a barbershop, you know that. Ain't nobody exempt.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As Eddie) You can talk about whoever and whatever, whenever you want to in a barbershop.

GORDON: "Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops" is Craig Marberry's latest book. He wrote it after observing and conducting interviews in and around black barbershops across the country.

Mr. CRAIG MARBERRY (Author, "Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops"): As I'm working on my books, I would take my laptop to the barbershop, because as you know, Ed, it--in black barbershops, there are no appointments, and you could be the next person in the seat or you could be there until the next morning. But as the conversations were whirling around me, I'd open up a different page and jot down some of the quips I heard, and that eventually grew into the book. And what's so beautiful about the barbershop is that these guys are some of the funniest comedians but sharpest pundits, and there was a discussion about our president, and someone was asking `Well, who's a better president?' you know, `George Bush or Clinton?' And one man and this pearl of wisdom answered, `Well, you know, I trust Bush with my daughter, but Clinton with my job.'

GORDON: One of the other interesting points in the book--I believe it was a barbershop owner in the book--Reginald Attucks, that you talked to, and he talked about that `This is a place where everyone meets.'

Mr. MARBERRY: It's a wonderful quote from him. He says the cop's going to come, the preacher's going to come, the gangster's going to come. The barbershop is the one place where you can put all the wrong people at the same time.

GORDON: One of the interesting points in America is, particularly with barbershops, even more so than beauty shops, is the segregation, the idea that there are clearly white barbershops and black barbershops. What's the biggest difference in the two?

Mr. MARBERRY: There's a black customer I interviewed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His heritage is part white and part black, so he has very straight hair. He could choose to go to a black or a white barbershop, but he loves the sense of fellowship and the connections that he finds in black barbershops because it's really not just about grooming. It's not about the haircut. If it were just about the haircut, we'd leave as soon as we got our hair cut. But people, you find, in a black barbershop, linger, you know, because we want to be among ourselves and to be ourselves, and in a barbershop we can unmask.

GORDON: Craig, did you have any hesitation, in the sense that a lot of people, frankly, see the black barbershop as almost hallowed ground, that, you know, the conversation that happens in there should happen in there, and it shouldn't necessarily leak out to the real world?

Mr. MARBERRY: Yes. You know, it's interesting because I talked to my barber, Tony Parker(ph), about that, and he says, `Well, you know, Craig, in the barbershop there's really no presumption of privacy, and if you don't want folks to repeat your business, don't 'peat it in the first place.'

GORDON: Was there one particular person, not necessarily a barber as much as a customer, that you met along the way that was the biggest character for you?

Mr. MARBERRY: The biggest character, a woman named Evelyn Bergard(ph) from Richmond, Virginia. Evelyn--in fact, I'll just read the very first couple of lines from her oral history. She says, `I'm not shy. I don't mind telling a man what I like, when I like it and how I like it, or whether I like it at all.'

But there are serious stories, too, including the one from the cousin of Emmett Till, who's a barber in Argo, Illinois, which is a--just outside of Chicago. And of course, you know, Mr. Till's--Emmett Till's story; he was accused of whistling at a white woman and was brutally lynched. Well, this cousin, Wheeler Parker, traveled with Emmett Till on that trip and, of course, came back alone. But he reflects on Emmett and how when Emmett Till was a child, he wanted to grow up to be a fireman and the cousin, Wheeler Parker, always wanted to be a barber and so he ruminates about the fact that he was able to achieve his dream, but wonders what would have become of Emmett Till had his cousin lived. And he shares that story with young men who come to his barbershop.

GORDON: It's interesting. You talk about that in terms of sharing with younger patrons, because there is--and sometimes I think we loosely use the word `wit' when it comes to barbershops--but there are so many lessons learned in barbershops. And in particular, I think we lose sight of how important they are to young people, many of whom have no man in the house.

Mr. MARBERRY: Exactly. You know, and as I visited barbershops across the country, I observed, among the barbers and the customers alike, this informal but earnest proclivity to teach, you know, to enlighten, to school, to bring the younger generation along, and so knowledge is always passed on and not salted away.

There was another customer, a woman, who--she would always take her two children. They wouldn't get haircuts. She just wanted them to sit and absorb some of the wisdom, because she said that the barber knew her father and their whole family's generation, their history, and that if they would just sit there and learn, they could get this--she called it `living black history' from the barbershop.

GORDON: Craig, as you say, it's a fun book, but it is also a book that teaches, and for those who love history and love African-American history that is rich and deep--and I would agree with the patron that says that much of black history is not taught in the schools. This is a grand way and a good way to get it. The book is "Cuttin' Up: Wit and Wisdom from Black Barber Shops." The author is Craig Marberry.

And Craig, we thank you for your time today.

Mr. MARBERRY: Thank you.

GORDON: One last note: "Cuttin' Up" has been adapted for the theater. It opens this November at Washington, DC's, Arena Stage. You can see pictures from the book "Cuttin' Up" on our Web site at npr.org.

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