By Sara Williams
The first time I walked into Ben’s Barbershop on a Saturday morning, 5-year-old Sean in tow, I was engulfed in a moment of mild panic. All conversation stopped, all eyes were on us. I hadn’t known that a black barbershop is a community center, a pub without the beer. I certainly felt my whiteness acutely as well as the unspoken question I imagined, “What’s she doing with one of our kids?”
Ben nodded a greeting; I took a deep breath and sat down. Whew! Ok, Mom, you’re here, the kid needs a proper haircut and you’d really feel like an ass if you walked out because you were uncomfortable. So I picked up a newspaper and pretended to read. Slowly, conversation resumed as sports opinions and gossip flew around the shop. Ben and Smitty were busy so we were in for a long wait. Sean was restless.
Finally, Ben called Sean over to his chair and he climbed up onto the booster seat. Ben asked how he wanted his hair cut. Sean said, “Ask my mom” in a small voice. Ben held his hand palm up in front of Sean saying, “Son, this is your hair, not your mama’s. If you don’t tell me how you want your hair cut, you’ll walk out of here with the top of your head looking like the palm of my hand!” I don’t remember what Sean said but I loved Ben at that moment. We walked out with Sean’s first good haircut.
When Sean walked into my heart at the age of two, he had a tangled mass of matted curls. I didn’t know much more than his foster mother had known about caring for his hair but I untangled, oiled and shaped a fine Afro. He was beyond cute, shades of Huey Newton. But this was an impractical do for a 2-year-old. I’d send him out to play in the morning, freshly fluffed and oiled only to watch out the kitchen window as he sat in the sandbox pouring sand over his head. And then listen to him protest when I laid him on his back in the tub rinsing out the sand.
We were living in Billings, Montana at the time, pretty darn white though since we were on “the other side of the tracks” there were Mexican and Native Americans in our Southside neighborhood. We could swim in the neighborhood pool without Sean standing out like the lone raison in a loaf of white bread. When I decided to get Sean’s hair cut, we went to a barbershop downtown. The barber helped him up onto the booster chair and then whispered to the woman working next to him, “Have you ever cut a black person’s hair?” Holy mother. I stepped up and said, “If you’re not comfortable cutting his hair, I’m not comfortable either. I think we’ll go home”. So I began cutting his hair, sitting him on the porch rail on a sunny day, watching black curls pile up beneath us. Not bad, not good but the best I could do. And he was patient, mostly sitting still while I combed and cut.
When we moved to Madison, I learned that there was a significant black population on the Southside so I randomly picked a barber on South Park Street. The barber was Asian, Sean came out with a really bad haircut and I was back to cutting his hair myself. I hadn’t seen any black barbershops driving down Park Street, we were living in the suburb of Middleton and I didn’t know many people. Then we bought a house near the Southside, in part so Sean wouldn’t be the only black kid in a white classroom. Once he started kindergarten at Franklin school, his teacher told me about Ben’s.
Ben was always gracious and welcoming but after about a year of haircuts, I decided Sean could go in by himself so I wouldn’t sit like a wet blanket in the midst of this male enclave. I drove to the barbershop, explained to Sean that I’d be back in an hour and gave him money. He wasn’t going for this idea. We stalled out on the porch, Sean refusing to go inside. Suddenly, an older man joined us from inside the shop. He said, “Son, you’re old enough to get a haircut without your mom. Come on inside now.” And that was the last time I went into Ben’s with him. I’ve never forgotten how grateful I was to that man for helping us over that patch. And when Sean read this story, he told me that there were other times when he hesitated on the steps until he was nudged by one of the men in the shop or by a woman from the adjacent salon. Years later, I learned that Ben never tolerated really vulgar language or shady dealings. Even though I was an outsider there I never felt unwelcome. I was on a steep learning curve and this was one of many lessons. Sean got his haircuts at Ben’s through his teen years.
(C) Sara Williams, February 25,2013
Sara read this story at the debut of our First Monday First Person salon in October. Delightfully, another attendee knows Ben (now retired from barbering) through her church. Jovenus agreed to deliver a copy of Sarah’s essay to Ben.