Black barbershops still a haven for civil discourse

Lee Johnson gives Genaro Garcia a haircut at Shear Excellence Barber and Beauty Shop on Fairmount Avenue near Eastern State Penitentiary. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO Lee Johnson gives Genaro Garcia a haircut at Shear Excellence Barber and Beauty Shop on Fairmount Avenue near Eastern State Penitentiary. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO

When rapper Killer Mike popped up on CNN after the unwarranted shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he wasn’t preaching a gospel of negativity or hyping his upcoming album as part of Run the Jewels. “Killer” Mike Bender spoke about his right to be safe when unarmed, as well as his rights as a man, beyond being black, for “whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all.” Bender also discussed the struggles of policemen everywhere (his dad is cop) and added to this dialogue something essential – how he owned a barbershop in Atlanta, the Swag Shop, and how it was a flashpoint for calm, but seriously charged debate for this case, and all matters of civil discourse.

With that, Bender reminded people about the role of the barbershop within the African American community: how it has forever been a public space for civilized discourse regarding all matters of the day. As well as being the best spot for a little off-the-top, and the proper fade.

Locally, Philadelphia’s African American communities has its own highly-regarded meeting spots, old school traditionalists like Fred’s Heads at 1505 E Wadsworth Ave on Philly’s Northwest side and newer spots (two years) like South Philly’s Chalklines from the Neck Up at 2106 S 8th Street. There’s Mike Monroe’s eight-year-young ESPM Hair Zone (5929 W. Girard Avenue) in West Philly and Lee Johnson’s five-year-old Shear Excellence Barber & Beauty Shop (2019 Fairmount Avenue); all places where civil conversation comes with a trim.

“I think people feel very comfortable in a barbershop talking about the day’s issues,” says Johnson, 39, of his Art Museum-area barbershop and its clientele. Before Sheer Excellence, he cut hair at 56th and Diamond.


“My place is a family establishment, so I try to keep the conversation family-oriented, but, of course, you can’t keep the current event away from the shop.” While Johnson tries to steer clear of sex, religion (“things go south when you start talking that!”) and party-politics(“it doesn’t matter what you’re affiliation is”) when headlines such as the horrors of Ferguson and the Ray Rice football scandal come to play, Johnson is in the middle man. “Everybody has been expressing just how they feel in regard to Fergussn,” says Johnson who likes his role to a referee. “I have to make sure things don’t go too far and that people stay civil.” The Ravens’ Ray Rice firing didn’t hit his chairs yet, but the hot button slaying of an un-armed youth such as Michael Brown still has his customer base torn. “We talk about how we know that there isn’t enough evidence to make a full assessment of the situation, but everybody here feels the same way about how the kid got killed without a weapon in his hands.”

Aaron Moore, a 36 year Wynnefield-native currently in Claymont, DE works within Philly’s downtown corporate culture and has been going to Johnson’s various shops since he was a kid. He knows well what to expect when he gets to the barbershop. “We can talk about anything there,” says Moore. “Some guys are passionate about football, basketball and boxing, some are interested in talking about money and Obama.” Ferguson is a matter of importance as Moore, a big guy, has been stopped by police for no reason. “But you have to know how to handle yourself.” The Ray Rice scandal? “Never hit a woman. Then again, you should stay away from the volatile ones. Not everybody at the shop agrees with me.”

Moore says that nearly every customer knows the other, that each man has his own background, and that this barbershop – along with other establishments Johnson has run – is a good environment for social discourse. “Me? I like talking about priorities, what a man should and shouldn’t be doing. I think I might be the voice of reason there. “

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