Happy Mother’s Day…from the barbershop!

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday May 06 2015 in Opinion
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It’s said that no one ever commits suicide after having had a haircut or hairdo. Though others seeing yours might. Ok, that’s the good news. Now, with all respect due to other Black barbershops where what follows might not be applicable, this is a tribute to women in general, and to Black women in particular. Can we as men do enough to fully honour women? So, in addition to Mother’s Day, why not also Woman’s Day…daily?

In this article’s tongue-in-cheek context of observations from two particular Black barbershops, I refer here more specifically to Black women. Many of them might not know this little secret: that based on some male clients, a barbershop can feel off-limits. This is because, like the “old boys’ Sunday morning game” of “pickup-side soccer”, a barbershop might be one place where Black men can still pretend to bygone eras of having “sense of male gallantry”.

I’ve no doubt, inadvertently put some “pallywallies” in situations where, guilty or not, they may now be overtaken; suddenly having to answer, unanswerables. If so, blame it on my desiring an article in praise of Mother’s Day from an impenitent Black perspective. And one primarily fueled by experiences in two particular barbershops: one in Trinidad (1960s), the other in Ontario (2015). But what they both have in common was the sense of camaraderie by which Black men enunciate with immense authority on the virtues and non-virtues of (Black) women.

Again, a barbershop could be a unique place. For example, who by comparison, has ever heard of a “Carpenter’s quartet”? Or an “Electrician’s Radio talk-show”? Interestingly, too, on my first arriving in Canada, after purchasing necessary winter wear at Honest Ed’s, my summer’s expense was at a barbershop. Apparently, these elderly White barbers had never cut hair like mine. Not knowing what to do, after consulting like architects at a ground-breaking, they did it; innocently leaving me with one hell of an inferiority complex, or unleashing one I’d already had.

Barbershops, in my limited opinion, are places where you can learn much more about life than you could from your dentist. Or urologist? They have to do with one’s physical appearance and one’s psychological balance. So, is a barbershop the one place on earth left to Black men where we are still “able to see clearly now”, or something like that? So, here I was quite recently at the barbers. Joan likes fresh haircuts on me, so I wear them. And were my guys in full flight.

Nota bene: some barbers might act more as choir directors than as choristers. Note too, that the more “in sync” clients feel as participants, the more they’re likely to leave “a little extra”. Thus, if an evening’s discussions are “so-so”, clients might leave a “tip”. However, if the occasion is sublime, a “gratuity” might be more the thing. Again, this mightn’t obtain at all barbershops.

The topic most recent, as I recall – given the subsequent uproar – was “are there any good (Black) women left”? Along with another fellow, unconditionally gray everywhere he wasn’t totally bald, and with a martyr’s complex, I, “like the cheese in the poem”, stood alone. We were both out of sync with the others, many of them younger Black men, singularly unattached.

The kernel of their argument is that “long time ago, or old school woman, was different. Today, as long as yuh cash flowin’ yuh ok. If not, yuh arse is ghrass, an’ is you to ketch”.

So, are there any good (Black) women left?

Before trying to summarize the discussion pro and con, I’ll return to an earlier experience I’d had as a sprightly lad back in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Things have greatly changed since. Then, I was about 16, the age when you start getting real trim – and not your mother to stretch her budget, “zoggin-up yuh head with a dull scissors for yuh to get calpet in school” – and without her attending to embarrass you as she peered over the barber’s shoulders giving unwarranted advice. T’was also the first time I sensed how exclusive are these men’s domains.

So, there I was, awaiting, sitting with others, some hangers-on, awaiting, awaiting. There were five or six barbers. Everyone talking the same time about relevant matters: politics (who tiefin’ and who really tiefin’), sports (how Blackburn football team destroy Manchester United – both local soccer teams in Trinidad), finances, foreign affairs …all issues which, regardless of how you spun them, had as the locus of their centrifugal force: Women!

Then, suddenly! Very suddenly – like Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” – one pushed aside the door-flaps. She hesitated, assessing. All talk stop. It wasn’t a hostile silence, just a disconcerting kind of silence. She entered, her second move. Third, she pulled forward by his arm, a little boy…fivish, sixish. On her other arm she balanced another child. Were there more?

So far, no man had made a single move. There were the sounds of hair being clipped, but by scissors, dutifully obedient as if on their own accord. Throughout, all eyes remained fastened on the door, the woman and these children. She made the fifth move. Aiming the little boy’s attention at one of the barbers, she announced, “Dat is yuh fadher.”

“Fadher”, was not tickled, initially. You could tell. He giggled. Was it because, as one guilty, as one caught red-handed, and as one with no other escape but humour? T’was eerie!

“Fadher”, beaming like a volunteer from some relief agency and making us all witnesses to his philanthrophy, then called the little boy. Peeling off some bills from a pile, he pressed these into the child’s uncertain hands. The woman promptly liberated “Fadher’s” contribution. Without another word, glance, or breaking stride, she left. The silence, righteously broken was on, “boy, yuh see how woman does pressure man ketchin’ he nennen. An’ yuh ain’t even sure is yours…”

For me, given our own experiences growing with our parents who had their own nine children definitely, but raised about 15 approximately, the very idea of a man not knowing his own five-year-old son was…memorably vexing. But not all Black men. Our Daddy – and Mother’s Day is also a tribute to exemplary fathers – didn’t hesitate to caution us boys, “If yuh get anyone pregnant, only tell me the date for the wedding.” To our Mom, the idea of having children outside of wedlock was also anathema. To them, a child, conceived in or out of wedlock, was a child to be cared for.

It was this latter idea that created real “ruckshun” in the second barbershop. Among the patrons, the question was, “are there good (Black) women left”? Even arguing this then, and restating it now feels demeaning. “Moreover”, the opposing question asked was, “is it that some Black women who, to these men are bad, are likely good women who met bad Black men, but who nonetheless expect(ed) Black women to be good”? And even more than other women?

In this vein, a chap I’d known otherwise, had once described the actions decades before of a Black woman whose husband had had a “stray child” with a schoolgirl. This wife had reminded him of his responsibilities as a man to that child: one to be raised with his other children, in their home. The child, a boy, educated with their other children, and now a Professor of Chemistry in the U.S., was the one describing the “mothering of this woman”…at her funeral.

But what ripped the roof off the motor-scooter, was my assertion: that every child – even one from an unfaithful spouse – was to be cared for without exception. That any man who is a real man, will take responsibility for any child of his spouse, regardless of circumstances.

Why? Especially for us as Black men – and as Mother’s Day returns – how many of us would be here were it not for the magnificent ancestors of Black women? Violated on slavers, raped on slave plantations, and whored in bordellos from “sea to shining sea”, they’d battled relentlessly to keep their biracial children from being sold off by White slave-owner fathers.

Many of us men, older and younger, already acknowledge these sufferings. Many also still need to know of the sanctity of the wombs which were desecrated, and of the mothers who nonetheless preserved the lives of their children – our ancestors – whose survival testified to the vulnerability of these women; mothers possessing maternal bonds beyond what we, their descendants can comprehend.

Unfortunately, and in general, too many women still live more in fear of “us men” than they do of lions, bears and other beasts of prey. And though other “women” may not appreciate the experiences of Black women, none should ever have to experience the terrors enforced then and now on Black women. I also think that we would never fully be men until we, too, try to comprehend what is probably incomprehensible: a mother’s matchless devotion for her child.

To be continued.

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