Sam’s hair is close-cut and precisely edged. Looking at it from any angle, you can see that this child’s mother knows how to care for his hair. This has not always been the case.
When Sam was two-and-a-half, I did what any proud parent would do the night before her son’s first picture day at school. I gave him a haircut. After a quick rinse, Sam sat in his high chair with a lapful of toys while I snipped away. It was my first try at cutting his curly hair. When I was finished, he was still playing with his octopus and shark–and I was confident that I had done a superb job. The next morning, I made a horrifying discovery: If you cut curly hair when it is wet, it shrinks. Sam was covered with little bald spots. His teacher suggested that I color in the patches with an eyeliner pencil. We skipped picture day instead. I needed help.
At the time, the only other family I knew who had an African American child had a daughter. Since I wasn’t going to braid Sam’s hair, their expertise stopped at shampoo and conditioner. They had never been to Cordell’s, the black barbershop in our neighborhood, but they encouraged me to go there.
The Barbershop Boss
When we walked in, I was scared. What would the barbers think of me, a white woman whose black son desperately needed a haircut? Would they tell me I had been using the wrong products or combing the wrong way? Did I seem unfit to parent a young boy of color?
Cordell’s was a bustling, three-chair establishment. After a short wait (and a few glances), Sam was on the booster seat getting his first professional haircut. Cordell himself did the honors. Sam looked like a print model after he was done. I thanked him, and asked how I could take better care of Sam’s hair. Sam’s scalp was dry, so he told me where to buy a proper brush (at the beauty shop near the mall), and how to work it through his hair each night (from the growth spot, where it swirls outward), to distribute the oils better. “Less shampooing and more haircuts,” I told my friends at our playgroup later that week, as they admired Sams new stylish look.
We became regulars at Cordell’s. A new barber, Ty, took over Sam’s cuts. “Whats up, Little-Man-Sam?” and “How’s the boss today?” they’d all ask when he walked in. I sometimes felt awkward, standing over my son as Ty buzzed his hair. (No one ever asked us whether Sam had another parent, or whether I was married.) It bugged me at first that no one at the barbershop ever called me by my name. But I understood, this was about Sam’s hair and his heritage. Each time, Sam took it all in, sitting up straight, with his eyes on the lollipop basket by the mirror.
Soon after Sam’s little brother was born, one of my students suggested that I buzz Sam’s hair myself. It was easy, he assured me, with some practice. The thought of saving money, and of not having to leave the house with the baby, was enough to lure me. Unlike my try at cutting hair, I seemed to have a talent for clipping. When it was less than perfect behind the ears, Sams preschool friends didnt notice. I came to look forward to the ritual, and so did Sam. We took pride in how he looked afterward. “Nice job, Mom,” he’d say, when I’d hand him the mirror. “This time, the line is kind of straight!”
Only at Cordell’s
More than a year passed before I considered returning to Cordell’s. We were on the way to the playground, when I asked Sam if he’d like to have a professional cut this month. “How come?” he asked.
“For fun,” I answered. “We haven’t seen our friend, Ty, in awhile. I’m sure he misses you.” In truth, I knew that the experience offered Sam something that I could not. He was thrilled.
As we walked into the barbershop, a BET sitcom was blaring from the corner-mounted TV. Sam was popped onto a barber chair, and his brother and I took a seat among the young men along the facing wall. I remembered to wait for Ty to begin a conversation with me, before I came over to the chair to watch. (This lets the men talk hair and connect, without mother hovering.) But soon I was asking about Ty’s son, soccer camps, and the upcoming season for our local, semi-pro basketball team. Our exchange was casual and easy.
Afterward, Sam jumped off the chair and gave Ty a high-five in exchange for a lollipop. Other men came forward, and offered him praise and more high-fives. Surrounded by young men–whom he will look like one day–Sam seemed to be a few inches taller, and a few years older.
I imagined Sam as an 18-year-old, without his mom in tow. Almost simultaneously, I saw his soft newborn wisps poking out from his hospital blanket. And I watched the barbershop door close behind my handsome little man.