Black culture examined around the barber pole

By Tim Michaels

Most people go to barbershops only to get their hair cut. But to Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, barbershops provide intimate settings for blacks to discuss politics and build community. This conclusion is only one of the many Harris-Lacewell makes in her forthcoming book Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.

Harris-Lacewell, an assistant professor in political science, originally devised the premise of her research as a student at Duke University. She hypothesized that everyday individuals must have conversations similar to the ones she has with her black students. “The book was developed from my dissertation research and life experiences,” Harris-Lacewell said.

In her research, Harris-Lacewell examined the casual conversations of blacks in barbershops, churches, the media, and at historically black colleges.

She found similarities in everyday black discussion, revealing a unique insight into how everyday black communities conceptualize politics.

“These places provide a way outside of the larger surveillance in which blacks can attempt to navigate a complicated world, and really try to get it right politically,” Harris-Lacewell said.

“The environment allows for blacks to disagree with one another. In discussions with other races, such disparity is often rare since many blacks feel they have to toe the party line,” Harris-Lacewell said.

She said that exclusively black environments create a unique opportunity for discussing a wide range of topics: “They talked about white power structures and the relationship of African Americans to the state and to capitalism,” Harris-Lacewell said. “They critiqued black leaders, discussed the political power of the black church, argued about reparations, and cheered on African-American Olympic athletes.”

The book concludes that blacks are more comfortable debating race issues with other blacks as opposed to in mixed settings. “For many blacks, the barbershops provide a place where they could be heard, and where they knew that they could have an audience,” Mills said.

Most of the research was conducted in North Carolina and Chicago. And Harris-Lacewell said that the nature of these conversations is likely to change based on demographics.

“If I had chosen to study the east or west coast, the foundation of the discussion would remain the same, but perhaps there would be a more complicated understanding of blackness in the east,” Harris-Lacewell said.

She explained that in cities like New York, the term “black” includes many ethnicities besides African-American.

The book coincides with the release of the movie “Barbershop 2,” and it contrasts the different conversations found in churches and other settings with those found in barbershops. In black churches, discussion involved religious language and issues such as the power of women in the church, or gays and lesbians in the black community.

It also revealed the variety of opinions on several current issues. During a conversation in a barbershop, many men disagreed on the effectiveness of black-owned businesses in helping blacks overcome their economic problems. They also disagreed on the role of women in helping blacks achieve racial equality.

Daily conversations, the book concludes, are vital to the formation of a political identity. “Ordinary people matter politically. People are a product of a continuing political society,” Harris-Lacewell said. “So much of the field of political science is about elites.”