This is the second essay for the Emerging Writers program by J. Jioni Palmer.
I don’t recall the source of the conflict—with a five-year-old and a two-year-old it could have been anything—but it wasn’t even 8 o’clock am and tensions were boiling over.
“Do you mind taking him with you,” my wife said, nodding to my oldest son, as I moved in to kiss before leaving for the barbershop. “I think they could use some time apart.”
Before I could say anything, my oldest shouted, “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to get a haircut!”
“Come on,” I said, “a haircut will make you feel good.”
He continued his monologue of protest and lament until we arrived at our destination about 10 minutes later.
“I don’t want to get a haircut. I don’t want to go to the barbershop. I’m tired of everybody telling me what to do!”
Per custom, I insisted he greet all of the barbers and fellow patrons but otherwise let him sit in a chair, arms folded, lips pursed, a grimace on his face. About 20 minutes later, Mr. Powell, the shop’s proprietor, motioned it was our turn. I elbowed my son and gestured to the open barber’s chair. He cast me a bitter look, got up grudgingly and began to walk forward with his arms still folded. After a few steps, he stopped, turned around, and asked why I wasn’t following.
“You said you’re tired of everybody telling you what to do. It’s your hair, get it cut however you like.”
It took a couple of seconds for him to realize I was serious, but when he did, the scowl disappeared, his arms dropped, and he confidently strode forward. I watched as my son conferred with our barber, even consulting a couple of posters hanging on the walls, before climbing in the chair and atop the booster. As the clippers grazed his scalp, his eyes closed, and a look of contentment and relaxation swept over his face.
I didn’t set out that morning to give my son a lesson in independence or the value of making his own free choices. The day had barely started, and I was weary. All I wanted was some peace. But as I saw the tension and frustration inside him recede, I knew I had done the right thing.
Black barbershops have always been an oasis for Black men from the realities of living in a society where who we are is not the norm and where we are often ridiculed and shunned. Almost as much as the church, the barbershop as an institution helped shape who I’ve become. That Saturday morning I witnessed my son beginning to mold his own identity.
It is important for all people to have agency, to freely express who they are and to define the terms of their existence. This is at the core of what it means to be human and what makes healthy relationships possible. Not only with oneself and with others, but also with the Divine and everything created by the Divine. However, marginalized people are often robbed of their agency by oppressive systems that emphasize power and profit over humanity and the dignity of the spirit of the Divine within us all.
I think about this often as a descendant of formerly enslaved Africans, particularly within the context of being a husband and a father. My ancestors were brought to this country against their will to be beasts of burden for the benefit of others. They weren’t supposed to be mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandparents and siblings in any traditional sense. Yes, they were expected to reproduce, but any offspring became the property of the enslaver to be auctioned to the highest bidder.
Which is why as a Black father I believe I am obligated to nurture my sons with a resilient faith in their own agency as preordained by the power of the Divine and the spirit of our ancestors. I view this as a radical act of resistance to the notion of white supremacy and systemic racism rooted in the theological, political, social, and economic foundation of this country. Just like those enslaved Africans clung to their faith in the faithfulness of God’s commitment to their survival, justice, and freedom, if not for them at least for their descendants, I cling to the same hope.
The Ministry of Black Fatherhood is rooted in an ethic of hope, faith, and optimism, but is also shadowed in fear, which is as much about my children as they are about me.
As a man who was raised without the active presence of my father, I often feel vulnerable and afraid I will not live up to the expectations of God and my ancestors. Yes, I had and still have many wonderful “surrogate fathers” to provide guidance and wisdom and they serve me well. If one of them was unavailable or unable to meet a certain need, I could always turn to another. For my sons, I’m all they got. They’ve seen me on my best days and on my worst. They’ve seen me beam with pride and smolder in anger at them. I am constantly plagued by feeling that I’ve done too much or not enough. And I’m only talking about what takes place under the roof of our house, or in other safe spaces where there is never any question over who they are and where they belong.
I am constantly plagued by feeling that I’ve done too much or not enough.
My biggest doubts and fears arise when I look at them and think about how some other people see them. Like the time we were at a park and I overheard two white kids say, “Which one should we kill?” I swiveled my head just in time to see a toy arrow launch and land at my oldest son’s feet. My kids weren’t part of the game, they were prey. For Black fathers a leisurely afternoon outing means packing water, snacks, and knowing where to find the nearest bathroom, but also being prepared to deal with the pernicious symptomatic and asymptomatic ills of racism.
Often white folks mistake my sons for twins. They are separated by three-and-a-half years, six inches and 20 pounds. This really frightens me because George Zimmerman, who was 28 when he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, thought the two were the same age. Likewise, the 26-year-old police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice thought he was actually 20.
The thought of a random encounter infused with misguided perceptions is often paralyzing, prompting me to want to shield and shelter them, but I know that will only leave them defenseless when they must venture into the world on their own.
I thought about this a year or so ago on another trip to the barbershop, this time with both sons. Looking for a parking spot, my oldest declared he intended to get a Mohawk. Hearing this pronouncement, I was downright apoplectic.
A Mohawk? Aw, hell no!
Under interrogation it became clear that his choice of hairstyle was influenced by his favorite soccer player.
It hurt to say okay, although I had relinquished my sovereignty over his hair years earlier, which he knew. So, in retrospect he was telling rather than asking. I knew I could still veto the Mohawk, but that would unravel the credibility I established with him years earlier.
In that moment I thought about my youth. And a lifetime of getting haircuts. I thought about the Catholic primary school I attended and the uniforms we wore. The only way to stand out or demonstrate you were “fresh” was by the shoes you wore or the freshness of your haircut. If either was out of place or out of the norm, you’d be subjected to brutal ridicule. I remember the pride and confidence I exuded when I got to express my own identity in a sea of white shirts and navy-blue corduroy pants. It felt good to be me. I pray that my sons find and embrace the essence of who they are and will become as men. As a father the idea fills hope, but as a Black father it grips me with fear.
I pray that my sons find and embrace the essence of who they are and will become as men.
I also thought about that night in Sanford, Florida, and that morning in Cleveland, Ohio, when Trayvon and Tamir lost their lives. It didn’t matter what grew out of their heads. I don’t even know how their hair was styled.
It didn’t matter. And it still doesn’t.