Quincy T. Mills, Ph.D
Professor of Africana Studies, Vassar College
Barbers stand at the heart of their shops. With repeated strokes, they move the clippers up and down, back and forth across a myriad of heads and chins every day. But this is not mundane, wage-labor service work; this is a craft with a rich history. Whether they own the shop or rent a chair, barbers work for themselves, establishing a level of economic security that countless African Americans have been seeking since the end of slavery.
Haircuts are not commodities for African Americans. You cannot get one anywhere, from anyone, at any price. One’s barber knows how he likes his hair cut, how long to keep the sideburns, how to shape the taper. Outside of the particulars of one’s cut, a barber will come to learn much about their clients. Information is divulged about family, work, recreation, and sometimes their greatest fears and joys. Since these clients come from near and far, working-class to upper-class, young and old, barbers have their finger on the pulse of black communities in ways that only beauticians and ministers come closest to.
The barber-client relationship sustains these businesses in a changing urban environment in the face of gentrification and outside economic development. If African Americans keep going to the same barber because of their skill and familiarity, the larger public of the shop will define the nature of the community taking shape inside. Haircuts, shaves, respite, work, political engagement, social commentary, and manly bravado. Men who have moved to San Francisco make their weekly Saturday sojourn over the Bay Bridge so their barber can tighten up their fade and they can rap with folks they know, as well as affable strangers.
Brandon Tauszik’s GIF images of black barbers in Oakland, California reveal the resolve of a group of ardent professionals. The project illuminates the position of barbers as conduits of black communities; of Oakland. Behind these portraits are the aspirations of men who are not just making a living, but who see the value of their labors in the development of black community life. Like the GIF images themselves, these men and their shops are not static. Even as they stand behind their barber’s chair with arms propped up clutching the clippers, they are constantly in motion and in tune with the comings and goings of the people in their city.
These photos follow a barber named Kiflay Habte, a.k.a. “K-Fly,” who is part of North Oakland’s Eritrean community.
Many of his shop’s customers are Eritrean, but their customer base is very diverse: white, Mexican, or from other places in Africa. Both Habte and his employee, Mussa, are from Eritrea and speak Tigrinya to their Eritrean customers. Habte speaks 6 different languages, including American Sign Language, learned in college, as well as Amaric, Arabic, English and Tigrinya.
The shop is near Bushrod Park, off Shattuck Avenue. The area is home to a large Eritrean and Ethiopian community. “It reminds me of home,” Habte says. “The atmosphere, seeing people in the street like me. When they pass, I can smell the food they eat and cook.”
Habte moved to the U.S. in 1994 after spending six years as a member of the Eritrean freedom fighters in that country’s war for independence from Ethiopia. His mother and sister were already in the Bay Area when he arrived; they had escaped from the war and arrived as refugees in 1989.
Habte stayed behind and volunteered for direct combat. “I wanted to fight for my county’s freedom,” he said. “I fought that war so that my children wouldn’t have to. It was scary but there was a purpose for it.”
When he arrived in the U.S., he became a long distance runner. “Being in the zone–it just feels like you want to keep running, go longer,” he said. “There is no pain.”
But he had to stop when his ankle was injured. “That was very disappointing, the injury,” he said, “when something that you love and you love to do it has to end. All of the sudden doctors say you can’t run for 6 months. After that my priorities changed, when I got married and had kids, and when I met my sweetheart. I feel that that was a different time of my life. Now my life is raising my kids.”
Filed under: Bushrod, Community, Culture, Featured, Food, Front, Neighborhoods
Tagged: barbers, Eritrea, Eritrean community, Eritreans, Kiflay Habte, photo essay, small businesses