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At a Louisville barbershop, Black youth get a free haircut and friendly ear

A table at The Lab Professional Barbering Services.
Divya Karthikeyan
A table at The Lab Professional Barbering Services.

For Black men, a barbershop isn’t just a place to get edge-ups or a beard trim – it’s a space for finding community with other Black men and opening up in ways that go beyond small talk. A free program in Louisville aims to expand that.

At Louisville barbershop The Lab Professional Barbering Services, the hum of an electric razor overtakes a basketball game on TV.

Clippers, scissors and hair products are strewn across the table, and the walls are packed with mirrors and faded University of Kentucky basketball posters. In one corner, a young man is propped up on a large barber chair. He’s getting a free haircut from Jamey Munford, a barber with salt-and-pepper beard with clippers and a calming demeanor.

The young man’s eyes switch between watching the game and catching a quick glimpse of himself in the mirror.

Looking from a distance is J. Alexander, the owner of Louisville barbershop The Lab Professional Barbering Services.

He joined hands with Louisville’s Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods (OSHN) to kickstart “Thoughts Out Loud,” a program open to Black men and boys who are clients of case managers at OSHN and are assessed for risk of being victims of violence or committing violence. The program runs through June 30th at two locations – The Lab Professional Barbering Services and New Era Barbershop, and is only open to OSHN clients between 14 and 24 years old.

J. Alexander, owner of The Lab Professional Barbering Services.
Divya Karthikeyan
J. Alexander, owner of The Lab Professional Barbering Services.

Alexander, the brainchild of the effort, said the program took shape after training in 2017 withThe Confess Project, a nonprofit based in Little Rock, Arkansas and trauma-informed training from Mental Health 101 just last year.

“This is another program of a lot of programs we have that try to make young people see that there is a different way to go than violence, even if that’s where you live, that’s what you know and that’s what you see everyday and why you hear the gunshots everyday where you live, said Loni White, a spokesperson for OSHN.

When a young man comes into Alexander’s barbershop and sits for a free haircut, talking or starting a conversation can be strange. He gets a pen and paper to write down what music the client likes and doesn’t.

For Alexander, the barbershop is familiar terrain – he’s been in the business for 28 years and he was inspired by his uncle.

Alexander's first barbershop visit was at Walker’s on Maple Street.

“I felt like I was able to be free to a certain extent. And then my mom, she would go to the grocery store next door to the spot where she would just leave me in there and leave me with the men and the barbers. And we would talk about life, sports,” he said.

He saw people across generations talking about basketball rivalries or playing checkers while they waited for the chair. And if Black kids like Alexander got good grades at school, they were rewarded with a free haircut and candy.

He said his father wasn’t too thrilled when he saw 11-year-old Alexander using his clippers, but he found his way into the profession anyway and went to barber school.

Barbering is more than finding the right razor guard, it’s also about being a smart conversationalist. Alexander said at school, he was taught that religion, politics and sports were no-no topics, though discussions would almost always go there.

“There's a real trust factor when you have somebody in close proximity with a razor to your face or forehead or you know, your cheeks or what have you, in the neck. So there's a lot of trust there. And so with that, I guess that's what helps open up,” he said.

For Black men, a barbershop isn’t just a place to get edge-ups or a beard trim -- it’s a space for finding community with other Black men and opening up in ways that go beyond small talk.

Collective and individual ways to heal

Rashaad Abdur-Rahman is the CEO ofThe Racial Healing Project. The nonprofit works with groups and organizations to build equitable hiring practices and is rooted in rejecting racism and white supremacy.

Abdur-Rahman noted that the implication that Black men are “dysregulated and chaotic” and therefore contribute to violence places the onus on Black boys and Black men to fix that violence. He said the overarching role of structural racism can’t be ignored.

“The reality is that because our institutions produce such violence in terms of policy, and actual real life violence, like policing and jails, that these institutions are introducing violence into the equation.

“And when you sort of create such disparity and create such hopelessness, when you create such harm across communities, then you're actually creating fertile soil for unhealthy outcomes for people.” he said.

Abdur-Rahman said he’s been involved in barbershop conversations around mental health and said that they can be good, but that it’s important to make sure they don't become so exclusive that it keeps other folks out. For instance, he said, that could look like engaging in harmful dialogue around LGBTQ+ people.

“Because if a teenager comes in, but feels like they can't talk about a relationship that he wants to have with another boy because he's going to be ridiculed for it, then that's not a safe space, by definition,” he said.

Abdur-Rahman said on a macro level, healing can be institutional changes like cities moving money from jails and policing to community centers, libraries, affordable housing and community services.

On an individual level, it can look like a safe space to feel affirmed.

“I think it's important for males, that other males that they can say, I love you too, right? Like to demystify that, and to normalize that, to know that you're important to someone that you belong somewhere,” he said.

For Alexander, it’s telling Black boys that it’s normal to cry.

“We got 1- to 3-year-olds getting haircuts, and there’s a little vibration on their head, and you get their dad screaming, ‘Don’t cry, be a man!’ and I’m like, ‘He’s never had a haircut!” Alexander said. “So we’ve been teaching them at a young age to not be vulnerable. And now I believe that day and age is over. There’s a light placed on mental health and men of color’s mental health.”

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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