You’ve heard, and maybe asked, it before—the common ice-breaker: “If you could choose any career besides the one you already have, what would it be?” I love being a pastor and wouldn’t actually change it for anything, but the answers from folks are intriguing. There’s something we all instinctively appreciate as we watch others imagine their dream in an alternate world. We can all relate.
My answer used to be, “The brand manager for Jordan,” back when flash owned my eyes. Then the answer became “professor.” No, “athlete!” Mmm, “pediatrician.”
Then came clarity.
There it was. “An Author,” I’ve stated resolutely these last few years, answering the question, enjoying the relief of the matter finally being settled. Or was it?
I write this fresh off of coming from a barber shop, where I ended a six-year journey with dreadlocks. (Truth be told, I still have locs, but they are five years shorter now.) Given the dreadlock journey, I had frequented the barbershop less these past few years, going only so often as my four-year-old son, who’s just crawled into my lap, needed to go. But he and his flattop fade have their own story to tell, their own journey.
Despite the joy of my loc journey, and the hours of time I’ve invested therein, it became clear to me that it was time. Time to chop the hair. “How did you know it was time?” I’ve been asked. Put simply: I just grew tired of carrying it. My hair grows fast and thick, and the triple-digit-temperature summer seemed as opportune a time as any to drop it. I had a growing fatigue of the locs; they were once friends but were becoming burdens. As that sense grew and grew, ironically, so did my peace with deciding to cut them. And so it was settled. I’d axe the locs, or have them axed I should say. Most of my life had been spent without locs, and I was ready to go back to most of my life, or, at least, start heading in that direction.
And so the journey to shorter hair began. A dear friend who had styled my hair a couple times did the initial cut. (When I moved South, I moved away from my original loctician, who was and likely always will be, a Yankee. This—losing the farmer-companion who first sowed my locs—was a death in itself, one deserving its own eulogy. But that is for another time.) We agreed that the finishing touches would be left to someone else.
I came into the shop off 2ND Avenue with my son, and we greeted Mike (“Mr. Mike” to my kid)—our barber. He was nearly done serving an older gentleman, one who had clearly walked these Birmingham streets longer than I’ve been breathing. Call me crazy, but the gentleman looked like every picture I’ve seen of Francis Grimké, the preacher and prayer-er who inspired United? We Pray. I took it as a wink from God. The decision to cut the locs was right.
After Mike put the finishing touches this man got up and smiled toward us, kindly nodding his head with the kindness only grandfathers can exude. The man was noble, stunning. Anyway, it was our turn. My son’s turn, specifically.
This wasn’t my son’s first haircut, so he knew the expectations. He sat still enough to let his wild ‘fro be transformed into a curly crown again—two racing stripes serving as the crowning touch. This detail was appropriate, his being a fast and fresh metamorphosis. Speed was required on Mr. Mike’s part, as the wiggles took over my little man. It became clear my son was done. But Mike matched quickness with skill, and confidently brought my dude through the finish line. Teddy, my son, sat down. Though I let him watch a show on my phone, he watched his father take the chair.
His smile lit up like a Christmas tree.
I think this was the first time he saw me get my hair done. Something seemed to be clicking, igniting in his mind. “I get to do the things dad does,” his beaming expression seemed to sing. He realized we were in the same fraternity; the ground was becoming holy. I kept my shoes on. I sat down.
And Mike did his thing. Like an artist does their thing. Like a counselor does their thing. I mention both of these professions because a barber is both. And more. A barber is an organizer, as they bring chaos into order. A barber is a friend, as they take the time to ask you, challenge you, listen to you. A barber is a butcher, one who has to respect the material at hand and submit to it, lest they slice it improperly. A barber is a lot of things, things that remind me of God.
God who knows every hair on our heads. God who transforms us from one degree of glory to another, making us lovely, noble, fresh. While barbers do not confer dignity on someone—we’re all made in God’s image already—they do reveal something more of that dignity, more of our glory. Mike’s work centered on a chair, in which he invited me to sit, to rest. When I got up, I felt as if I was rising from a throne.
I stood, lighter now, on holy ground, as this man looked at his holy work. I could read it on Mike’s face and smile: He saw his work, and it was good.
And so my son and I thanked him, dapped him—and we left. I was encouraged. Strengthened. Refreshed. My son sat in the back of a car with a sucker, his reward for doing a good enough job. But I sat in the front giving the real award, the real wreath, to Mike, and really to the Lord for how he had made and gifted Mike.
As I drove home, all these thoughts began converging in my mind, and it became clear that I had not respected the profession of barber as much as I should. I just went in there hoping to look something like Killmonger. Mike made my wish a reality. Maybe barbers are genies, too?
Who knows. But I know I have a new answer to that ice-breaker. Next time I’m asked, I’ll think back to the gift of the black barber in the robust institution of the black barbershop. I’ll smile and probably still let the question roll around in my faded head. But I’m pretty sure I know what my answer will be. Maybe I’ll even start to look something like that older gentleman as I nod and say, “A barber.”
- Pray that we would see something of God’s glory in all the types of work he has given the children of man.
- Pray we would listen to the experiences of folks from different ethnicities with interest, not judgment.
- Pray that we would respect every person as someone made to reflect the glory of God.