I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.
My search for barbers around the world has provided enough laughs to engine a power station. When I arrived at graduate school in Oregon, I could not locate anyone who understood the nuances of my hair nor the style I wished to achieve. Desperate, I approached a random guy with a terrific Caesar cut in a supermarket to ask him, “Could you put me down with your barber?” Turns out, he was a U of O football player. And he told me: “Our coach hired someone exclusively for the team.”
The following week, between classes, I halted after passing a shop. I thought, Hold up! Is that a black barber sitting as if waiting for a customer? Once inside, I asked if he could give me a shape-up. Turns out, he had just inquired about working part-time. The proprietors must have thought we staged the whole moment. One of the owners told me to check back tomorrow. The next day, I was ecstatic to see the dude sitting in the same chair, twiddling his thumbs.
He caped me, then unrolled his trimmers, clippers, and scissors. He took longer than most barbers, cleaning his new brushes and combs. I sat throne-like in great anticipation — then came the buzzing noise. As soon as he timidly laid the clippers on my head, I knew he had no idea what he was doing. I stopped him, “Hold it.” I could see the proprietor cutting a sideways look. At that moment, out of cultural solidarity, I decided not to embarrass him in front of his new bosses. “Are you going to ask me what style?” “Oh, yeah. What style?” By the end, my head looked like a map of a densely populated city… with open fields. The next day, I drove two hours to Northeast Portland, a predominantly Black neighborhood with MLK flags on its poles.
Today’s poem reminds me of what my mother, who knew our heads to be sacred and mystical, told me years ago: You don't let just anyone in your hair.
by Clarence Major
In the old days hair was magical. If hair was cut you had to make sure it didn’t end up in the wrong hands. Bad people could mix it with, say, the spit of a frog. Or with the urine of a rat! And certain words might be spoken. Then horrible things might happen to you. A woman with a husband in the Navy could not comb her hair after dark. His ship might go down. But good things could happen, too. My grandmother threw a lock of her hair into the fireplace. It burned brightly. That is why she lived to be a hundred and one. My uncle had red hair. One day it started falling out. A few days later his infant son died. Some women let their hair grow long. If it fell below the knees that meant they would never find a husband. Braiding hair into cornrows was a safety measure. It would keep hair from falling out. My aunt dropped a hairpin. It meant somebody was talking about her. Birds gathered human hair to build their nests. They wove it around sticks. And nothing happened to the birds. They were lucky. But people?
“Hair” by Clarence Major from THE ESSENTIAL CLARENCE MAJOR: PROSE AND POETRY © 2020, Clarence Major. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.