The culture behind the clippers

By Tyler Davis, @TDavis_DE

Conversations ranging from the Seahawks’ performance in the Super Bowl to a discussion about who meant most to the civil rights movement came to a crescendo as the hum of clippers provided a quiet baseline.

These are the scenes and sounds in barbershops across America everyday. Barbershops, especially in diverse communities like Carbondale, have been the go-to forum for African-Americans for decades.

The Rev. Joseph Brown, a professor in Africana studies, said the treatment of black hair being a platform for conversation spans centuries, starting before slaves were captured and brought to America.

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“You always needed help to groom yourself so you are always going to have people, even in traditional west Africa, interacting with each other and making grooming an opportunity to talk about other things,” he said.

Joshua Spears, owner of Uppercuts barbershop located on the Strip, said people in his shop talk about a plethora of subjects. The shop is in the same building that formerly housed Blade Kings, which recently moved, and has been open for six months.

“The barbershop is like the command center for the black community,” Spears said. “It’s a place where we all come together but its open to all races.”

Phil Hardges, a barber at Kampus Kuts located at 825 S. Illinois Ave., said his shop is open to different ethnicities.

Hardges said Kampus Kuts, and shops like it, are some of the few forums featuring a predominately black perspective, though it does business for many Latino customers as well as white folks.

“A lot of times the black barbershop has been referred to as the black man’s country club,” Hardges said. “A lot of issues that we have get solved talking with each other.”

Hardges said one of the best aspects of this area is it allows all patrons to be themselves.

He said the barbershop fosters individuality as well as conversation about issues that may not take place in other spaces.

Some of the ideas expressed at his shop involve ways Carbondale and SIU can embrace the black community.

“Carbondale falls short on the outlets of extra curriculars in every aspect for the African-American community,” Hardges said. “There is very little to partake in that has to do with our culture.”

Hardges, who has worked at Kampus Kuts since its opening eight years ago, said he has seen fewer venues for black music and fashion during his time in Carbondale.

The campus has done a good job of attracting non-white students, but retention can be a challenge with the lack of spaces that cater to diversity, he said.

Brown said he has also seen the number of institutions for minority students decrease but students can help reverse this trend.

“Because we have so many young black men and women on our campus, they have to create, intentionally, opportunities to talk about things,” he said. “People have to have more formal conversations about things that matter. That should be talked about in classrooms but I don’t think it is as much as it used.”

He said black people can discover their own power through conversations about the things they’re passionate about.

Spears said promoting areas of passionate discourse can help clarify misunderstandings about black people.

“People may have misconceptions of black people,” he said. “When they see us come in here and we’re working together, laughing and joking, they see that there’s more to us than they may see on BET.”

From others’ misconceptions to physical perceptions, the barbershop helps the black community address not just the opinions of the others but the opinions of patrons, said Dase Timmons, a barber at Uppercuts.

Timmons said the service he provides goes deeper than aesthetics.

“Your appearance is the perception of what people think of you,” he said. “If you look nice, better things happen for you.”

He used an example of two men, one with long hair and a beard and the other clean-shaven with a fresh haircut, going to the same job and asking for an application.

Timmons said the man who visited Uppercuts would get the job.

“The perception of one person can get you that job or not,” he said. “We want to provide that confidence.”

Javen Cobb, a freshman from Rantoul studying horticulture, said the artistry of barbers and maintaining black hair is particularly interesting.

“Doing high tops or a lining takes a lot of skill and black people get artistic,” he said. “They can do designs, colors, shapes, tapers. Some barbers put in their own type of flow and mix it up.”

But the Carbondale barbershops are not just in the business of providing linings. Barma “Shane” Staten, co-owner of Kampus Kuts with Moshe Anderson, said his barbershop donates to charity.

“Every year we donate free book bags and bikes, whether it’s Christmas or going back to school, for the inner city,” Staten said.

Staten said he has owned Kampus Kuts since it opened, and in that time he has shown young black people it is possible to flourish as a small business, even through the Great Recession.

“It’s an example that, as black people, we can have an establishment that progresses,” he said. “This place progressed farther than I thought it would.”

Throughout the progress, though, the company has not forgotten what makes it an asset to the community.

Hardges said for black students, barbers act as a guide for freshmen, sophomores or transfers new to Carbondale.

“We can be a positive light for kids coming from St. Louis or Chicago,” Hardges said. “This is a place where African-American students that are trying to acclimate to the area can be around people who look like them.”

Brown said he had a similar experience growing up in barbershops.

“It’s a wonderful thing for little boys to sit in those barbers’ chairs to be around people 40, 50, 60 years old than them,” he said. “And for teenagers or young adults, it’s an opportunity for all different ages of black men to socialize and participate in the types of language rituals that nourish communities.”

Tyler Davis can be reached at [email protected]

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