“You Next: Reflections in Black Barbershops” by Antonio Johnson
What I love about photography is point of view. The point of view of the photographer that shapes not only what we see but how we are seeing it. It is looking through another’s eyes for a moment in time. While all forms of art do this, I am human and humans are visual creatures, so I find photography to be more transportive than others. This idea of point of view was all the more relevant as I sat to review You Next: Reflections in Black Barbershops by Antonio Johnson. I am a woman who has always gone to a hair stylist and therefore have not sought the services of a barber, nor have I ever had the pleasure of patronizing a Black barbershop. It is because of this fact that I know I am not a member of this community and that if I, as a photographer, went to capture these same images, they would not—and could not—be the same because I am not a Black man. I don’t go to barbershops, but I wanted to see what this experience was like through someone else’s eyes. I wanted to be taken to another world. And I was. Johnson transports his viewers into the neighborhood, the waiting room, and the chair. But more important than the journey is that Johnson is able to capture the meaning of the barbershop and why it has persisted and will continue to persist.
Johnson has ingeniously divided his 217-page book into thirteen sections separated by essays, interviews, and poetry written by prominent Black men such as Alvin Irby, Michael Tubbs, and Hanif Abdurraqib. This structure walks the viewer from the street to the seat and mimics the experience that one would get in a Black barbershop. This is why point of view is so integral when talking about You Next, because who but a patron would know what lies inside these storefronts? Anyone else might have just passed them by. “Barbershops are often one of the few Black-owned businesses in many of America’s economically depressed Black neighborhoods,” writes Alvin Irby in his essay “Barbershop Books.” But barbershops, as Irby notes, allow for a mixing of statuses: “Wealthy Black men, women, and children sit alongside and converse with Black men, women, and children with a lot less money. Everybody’s got to get a haircut, right?” Irby’s words reverberate throughout the pages as Johnson has made sure to capture every patron, whether they wear business loafers, sneakers, or prison slippers. Barbershops, in this way, serve the Black community at large. They are, as Irby describes them, “a nexus of the Black community and often serve as a cultural center for Black males. It is an equitable and sacred space for Black men and boys, where all are welcome and all are equal.”
Barbershops serve the community as a symbol and vehicle for economic empowerment for the Black community as Aaron Ross Coleman discusses in his essay “The Undefeated Business of the Black Barber Shop.” Johnson has brilliantly made sure to capture the faces of the men and women behind the clippers, taking portraits of the variety of owners that have set out on this path.
Try as the American economy might, for all of its ingenuity, scale, and technology, it has not yet figured out how to mass-produce the perfect temp fade…Until they do, the role of the master barber and the business of the barber shop will persist as an exceptionally accessible path to entrepreneurship for everyday Black folks.
In addition, barbershops serve as access points to the community, which is why barbers like Eric Muhammad of A New You Barber and Beauty Salon on North LA Brea Avenue in Inglewood, California, teamed up with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to test for hypertension. Likewise, programs like Barbershop Books, which is “a community-based literacy program [that] has leveraged the cultural significance of Black barber shops to increase book access and out-of-school time reading among Black boys,” have expanded the role of the barbershop beyond hair care. It is about self-care. The whole self. Health, education, and, of course, hair. This idea has not gone unnoticed by Michael Tubbs, the youngest mayor in Stockton’s history (as well as its first Black mayor), who remarks in his conversation with Johnson about the importance of “[e]ducating barbers on facts on what’s happening because they’re mostly seen as authority figures. Particularly for reaching a demographic of folks who are in some ways most impacted by government policies.”
This has been a decades-long practice for some. Johnson has photographed barbers with forty to fifty years under their belts. These are the pillars that support the Black community, and they will endure even through this pandemic and its aftermath. Coleman states:
[A]cademics have marveled at the ingenuity and durability of the Black- owned barber shop. These scholars document what laymen can see—
that in the face of recessions, globalizations, automation, and discrimination, the barber shop chugs on, an engine for the Black community and commerce undefeated.
It is because it is so integral that they will not fail. They are not “too big to fail,” they are too necessary to not succeed. Because everybody has to get a haircut, even famous Black politicians. Until this book, I had never thought about where Black Politicians such as Tubbs or Barack Obama would go for their sense of community and bonding. That Martin Luther King Jr. even had a hometown barbershop had never been something I had considered. And why would I, lest I understand what they mean to the Black community, and even more importantly to a Black man? “The relationship that Black barbers have with young Black boys extends beyond the traditional relationship they have with other professionals such as doctors, dentists, or even teachers in some cases. Barbers tend to look like the boys they serve and are often thought of as a member of the family” (Irby). Johnson has made sure to capture a number of young Black boys in the barbershop, some nervous, some proud, and many with their fathers. The barber is a perennial figure for a Black man. Indeed, Johnson writes of his own barber, “G. My barber since the eighth grade. From the first time in 2003 that I sat in G’s chair I knew he would be my barber for life. He’s shaped how I see myself and how I show up in the world.”
And in turn, Johnson has shown up for barbers. His love for these hallowed grounds is clear through his treatment of the subject. He takes us through a typical day at the barbershop from outside, to meeting the barber, deciding which cut to go with, watching and engaging with fellow customers, to the chair itself where all you have to look at is what shoes everyone is wearing.
[I]n Black barber shops, “you next” is what a barber says to a customer to communicate that they’re on deck for a haircut. It’s also used as a question between customers to determine where they are in line. Thus, it is an invitation, an invocation, an affirmation.
Johnson could not have written it better. You Next is exactly that: it is an invitation to take a journey into the world of Black barbershops. You Next is an invocation not just from Johnson, but from all Black men to respect and protect these establishments. You Next is an affirmation of everything that barbershops are, provide, and can do. You Next is a masterpiece and should be the next book on your reading list.