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MAYNARD EATON: Soul, substance of Black barbershops evolving

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Maynard Eaton

The barbershop is a unique and special place in Black communities across the nation, and Kokomo is no exception. I fondly remember my very first barber while growing up in Newark, New Jersey. He was such a close family friend, I fondly and respectfully called him Uncle Al.

As a teenager it was Zeke; for much of my career in Atlanta I routinely sat in Ricci de Forest’s inner city chair near the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Now, here in Kokomo, my man is Freddie Young Jr.

There is a Black cultural tradition and mesmerizing phenomenon often associated with the heritage, significance and influencing spirit of the Black barbershop. In my experience, from New Jersey, to Virginia, to Miami, to Atlanta, and now here, there’s been nothing akin to the compelling conversation, spunk, insight and information debated and consumed among Black men and Black boys, than in the weekly or bi-monthly visit to the barber. That is where I’m learning from and listening to Kokomo African-American men as a new resident.

Barbers like Young and Cut One owner, Mark Howard, are a special breed of businesspersons and de facto teachers; dispensing wisdom and advice. He/she does your head and simultaneously gets in your head?

“It’s a combination of both,” answers Young, the owner of Freddie’s All Nation’s on West Markland Avenue. “Initially you do the job, you do the hair, but then the conversation changes. You find yourself in different situations with people. They ask you questions because they need help. You can find out anything you want in the barbershop - good or bad!”

I’ve never witnessed anything like the Black barbershop where Black men and boys of all ages, professions, and income brackets gather to debate, discuss, argue, interact, watch sports and be groomed. The mystery of how and why the Black barbershop remains as such a revered and respected place in our community has yet to be solved substantively. But that day; that era is fading fast. The soul and substance of the Black barbershop experience is evolving if not evaporating in Kokomo, it appears.

The charismatic Young has been barbering for 23 years. He started in the seventh grade. “I started off in the basement with my sister, who was curling the hair of her high school clients, and I was cutting hair,” he recalls. “Barbering becomes your life. I’ve never paid to get into a party! You have to live it. In order to become a master barber, you have to be married to it. Your clients are a representation of who you are.”

Young is a devout Christian, who was raised in the church. His mother, Christine Young, has been the District elder and senior pastor of Anchor Apostolic Church in Kokomo for the past 13 years. “My grandfather told me that as long as I have my clippers, I will never go without a loaf of bread. You will never go hungry. You work with your hands now. You’ve got skills. Kokomo gave me a chance to branch out and do everything my way,” says the Kenosha, Wisconsin native.

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And, you have to be a good person also, he says, because otherwise you won’t have a clientele. “This is a faith-based job,” Young contends. “If you don’t have faith, you don’t need to be in this industry. You are providing the service, so if you don’t have any faith in yourself, it’s never going anywhere. It’s like a marriage, it doesn’t get right until later. You’ve got to pay your dues. That’s why so many hairstylists and barbers burn out because they don’t want to pay any dues. They just want to be a boss and work for themselves.”

Race relations, civil and human rights have always been hot topics in the Black barbershop, but today the conversation is broader and bolder, while the door to racial reconciliation, gender fluidity and LGBTQ understanding is seemingly opening wider. At least, it is at Freddie’s All Nations barber shop. The old days of racially segregated barbershops are fading fast here and elsewhere. And, that’s a good thing.

“You have lots of people you know, but then you may find out you have more in common with people of different races than you think,” Young opines. “That’s why I call my barbershop All Nations because if you needed a heart you wouldn’t care where it came from. It could be a Black man, or a Mexican man, and you wouldn’t care. If a white man needed a heart, he’d likely pick your heart. It’s for humanity, it’s not about color. It’s about everybody being able to gather together for a cause. My dad told me to call the shop All Nations because ‘you are for everybody’.”

How has that changed, I ask, because in my era it was all about color and race? “Well, they still have those but now we’re in the new age of multicultural barbershops,” Young opines. “Pretty soon, you won’t be able to tell one from the other. Walmart doesn’t care what race you are. Their only color is green.”

There is a new psyche and a new generation of barbers emerging here and elsewhere, who happen to be Black. Young curtly comments, “They have an attitude; they’ve got the Internet,” he says. “They would rather look good, then be good.”

When I was exiting his window chair, my haircut concluded at 5 p.m., in walked three young long-haired white teenagers and their mother, asking if they could wait and be next up for a cut following me? Young smiled and promptly replied, “Of course, and welcome to All Nations!”

Freddie Young has successfully bridged the barbershop racial divide because he continues to “be good” at his craft.

Maynard Eaton of Kokomo is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning news reporter and National Communications Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).