Here is a wonderful essay by Pat Jordan which originally appeared in The Southern Review…
By Pat Jordan
Susie said I was starting to look like a French diplomat. She meant my hair. Long over my ears and swooping back on the sides like wings into a DA in back. I’d let it grow out of indifference ever since we left Fort Lauderdale three months ago to take up residence in Abbeville in the up-country of South Carolina. Abbeville was a small town of fewer than five thousand, a little bit old, a little bit worn, and a little bit out of the way. It was a “very Southern town,” code words of the locals which meant more than a few of its citizens had not yet reconciled themselves to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the War between the States. They referred to those not born and raised in one of the original Confederate states as “Yankees,” but tried not to do it to their faces. When they slipped up, they quickly apologized, “I’m sorry I called you a Yankee.” I told them I was a “Yankee,” a Connecticut Yankee, actually, and that only people from New England were truly Yankees. People from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, et cetera, were just northerners. They smiled, but did not accept that distinction.
There was a monument on the town square, a mini version of the Washington Monument, in Washington, D.C., but this one was devoted to the memory of soldiers who had given their lives for the CSA. On special weekends there were reenact- ments on the square. Men with beards, dressed in butternut and gray uniforms, rode tired-looking horses around the brick streets of the square to the strains of “Dixie.” The men carried flags, the Stars and Bars, which they waved at the townspeople, who waved back with mini flags. Last year, two black Abbevillians had donned Confederate uniforms and marched. Shelley, the owner of the Rough House, a local bar, told me Yankees didn’t realize that a lot of slaves fought and died for the Stars and Bars. I asked, “Why?” He looked at me and said, “Because it’s part of their heritage, just like ours.”
Shelley is very Southern. Over his bar he has a yellowed proclamation heralding Senator Strom Thurmond Appreciation Day, Abbeville, 1984. Shelley’s mother owns an antiques store and one of the items she had for sale was a painting of Abraham Lincoln. When Shelley saw it, he waited until his mother was busy, then took the painting and disposed of it. Shelley is a professional actor—stage, screen, TV. I told him he’d be perfect as Jeb Stuart for one of the reenactments.
Then I said, “I could play Grant.” He gave me a pained smile. And then he gave me some books to educate me about the War between the States. The books claimed the war was not about slavery, that was a pernicious Yankee lie, but was really about States’ Rights. He directed me around the corner to a bookstore that would further my education about the South’s insurrection. I stood in front of the bookstore window above which was a sign, All Things Confederate. It was closed. I saw a big Stars and Bars flag on a wall inside. On the front window was an ink drawing of General William Tecumseh Sherman over which was printed: Wanted For War Crimes.
The genteel ladies of the town who live in big, colonial houses on North Main hosted reenactment parties at which “Period dress is optional.” In Abbeville there is only one period of note, 1860 to 1865. Abbeville calls itself “The Birthplace and the Deathbed of the Confederacy.” When Jefferson Davis fled the Yankee army in 1865, he stopped long enough in Abbeville to sign papers dissolving the CSA. Five years earlier he had hosted a conference of South Carolina statesmen in Abbeville, where they signed the first articles of secession of any of the Southern states. That conference was held on a hill where our 1884 Victorian house sits. It’s called “Secession Hill.” Two concrete pillars stand sentinel on either side of Secession Hill, with plaques embedded in them that urge Abbevillians never to forget that once “no nation rose so white and fair” as the CSA. Our house is on top of that hill, on Magazine Street, named not for the magazines I work for, but a munitions factory that manufactured gunpowder as far back as the Revolutionary War. There’s a big old oak tree at the top of the hill. Rumor has it that during the great unpleasantness of 1860 to 1865, Yankee spies were hanged from that tree.
We’d moved to Abbeville in September 2009. By the first week of December we had received four invitations to Christmas parties (Abbevillians are a genteel, industrious, welcoming, and social people), which is why Susie began badgering me to get a haircut. By then, I’d stopped even combing my hair. I just wore it under a trucker’s cap like all the men in town wore. I hesitated about getting a haircut at first, because I didn’t want to go to one of the beauty salons in town, like Forever Foxy, and I didn’t want to drive to Greenwood where Susie and all the Abbeville ladies got their hair cut at Mr. John Dominick’s salon. Susie brought him a picture of Pink, and said, “That’s how I want my hair cut. Very short.” He said a lot of ladies brought him pictures of celebrities and asked him to mimic their haircuts, but Susie was the first woman ever to bring him a picture of Pink. Still, he did a fine job, and he even got her hair color right, too, ash blond, after three return trips. But I didn’t want to go to Mr. John Dominick’s salon, not only because of the forty-five dollar charge for a haircut, but also because I didn’t like to be fussed over, my hair washed by an assistant named Antonio, chitchat with my hairdresser, then a blow-dry and a spritz of gel. I thought of a haircut as a necessary inconvenience, like going to the dentist, only it didn’t hurt. In Fort Lauderdale I got my hair cut at Supercuts, thirteen dollars for seniors, a five-dollar tip, ten minutes in and out. The closest chain haircuttery to Abbeville was in Greenwood, fifteen miles away, and I didn’t like to leave Abbeville. So I asked Billy, one of my Abbeville friends, where all the men got their hair cut. He said most of them went to Mr. John Dominick’s salon. “Isn’t there a barbershop in Abbeville?” I asked. He said, “Not that I know of.” Being a Yankee, I didn’t take his word for it. I was determined to find one myself. So one cold morning, I got in my car and drove around the square, past the Belmont Inn, the opera house, the courthouse, the stores and salons, like Forever Foxy, and then I went down the side streets, Pinckney and Pickens, until finally on Washington I came upon Donaldson’s Barber Shop, with two barber poles painted on its sign. I parked across the street and went inside.
The barber was standing beside his barber’s chair, as if at attention, waiting for a customer in his empty shop. He stared at me, a big, white-haired man with a full white beard, more like Lee’s than Grant’s, who was wearing a trucker’s cap and a Miami Canes football jacket, orange and green with a white ibis on it. I stared at him, a short, round man in his midsixties, about my age, with a salt-and-pepper goatee. His white barber’s uniform contrasted with his dark skin. Neither of us spoke for a few seconds. Finally, I broke the ice.
“I came in for a haircut,” I said. What else could I have come in for? A loaf of bread? A bottle of Jim Beam Black?
He nodded, said nothing, and gestured toward his chair. I took off my cap and Canes jacket, laid them on a chair, and sat down. He put a barber’s apron around me and finally spoke.
“How do you want me to cut it, sir?”
I said, “Just clean it up a bit.” He nodded.
He used an electric clipper, not a scissors. I don’t think he’d had much experience cutting white men’s hair. He worked in silence for a while. I looked around his shop. He had photographs of famous people on his walls. President Obama. Oprah Winfrey. Muhammad Ali. And a few who were not so famous, black actors like Taye Diggs, smiling, with trim, short, kinky hair that had been cut with an electric clipper.
I asked, “You an Ali fan?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“I interviewed him once. In 1968, after he’d been stripped of his heavyweight crown because he wouldn’t fight in Vietnam.”
“Is that so?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Is that so?”
I told him about my Ali interview. “It was the first story I ever sold to a magazine,” I said. He nodded. “Boxing Illustrated. Ali was gonna be interviewed on a radio station in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I lived. I got there at 6:00 am. He was surrounded by Nation of Islam bodyguards, you know, those guys with dark shades and skinny black ties.” I glanced at him for a reaction. None. He just worked with great concentration. “They wouldn’t let me approach Ali,” I said. “But when Ali found out I was a writer, trying to be a writer anyway, he made his bodyguards let me get close to ask him questions.” I stopped, waited a moment. Nothing. I went on. “It was 6:00 am at a tiny radio station across the street from a derelict park where winos slept off their drunks. Ali looked out the window at the drunks, sleeping on benches, with newspapers wrapped around them for warmth. He said, ‘This is a sad comedown for the heavyweight champion of the world.’”
Now, the barber nodded emphatically as he cut my hair. I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. After a few minutes I asked, “How long have you been a barber?”
“I went to barber college in 1974,” he said. “I opened this shop twenty-five years ago. Before that I worked my daddy’s farm with my eleven brothers and sisters. We picked cotton.”
“I thought it was too cold up here for cotton?”
“No. There was a lot of cotton around here years ago.”
“Is your father still alive?”
“Yes, he is. He’s in his nineties. Makes me give him a shave every morning.”
“My father died at ninety-five,” I said. He nodded. “He was Italian, a gambler.”
“Is that so?”
“Looks like me and you might be around for a while.” He nodded, but didn’t smile. “How long do you expect to be cutting hair?”
“I don’t ever plan to retire. I always gotta be doin’ somethin’, like my daddy. He could never sit in a chair.”
He worked for a while in silence. I couldn’t tell if he was working so diligently because he had to concentrate on a white man’s hair, or because he just wanted to get it right for me, or because he always took pride in his work. Maybe all three. Finally, I pointed to the picture of President Obama.
He looked at it and stopped clipping. I asked, “Did you ever think you’d see the day?”
He shook his head no. “Not in my lifetime. But things changed. The young’uns don’t see color much no more.”
“What about the older ones?”
“Some do, some don’t.”
“Just think. The most powerful man in the world is a black man.” He nodded. I pointed to Oprah’s picture. “And the most famous woman in America is a black woman.” He nodded again. “Now I gotta wait until this country elects an Italian American president.” He didn’t smile. I waited a few minutes while he worked. Then I said, “I didn’t vote for him. Obama. I voted for the white guy. But the way I figure is, Obama’s my president now and I hope he’s the best president we ever had for all of us.”
“Amen. I hear ya.”
“In fifty years we’re all gonna be tan.”
“I believe you’re right.”
“I have three great-grandchildren. They’re all half black.”
“Is that a fact?”
I nodded. Just then another black man came through the door. He had a trim white beard. He stopped at the door and stared at me, then the barber cutting my hair. Then he sat down and busied himself with magazines. The barber said, “So, you interviewed Ali, huh?” I nodded. The other man looked up and said, “Me?” The barber said, “No, I was talking to my customer here. He’s a writer.” The other man went back to his magazines. The barber said to me, “You ever interview any other famous athletes?”
“A lot of them. Did you ever hear of Willye White?”
“I sure have.” Willye White was a black track star in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. She had been a long jumper and sprinter who had gone to more Olympic Games, five, than any other American track and field athlete. “Where’d you interview Willye White?” he asked.
“Greenwood, Mississippi, in the cotton delta. There were cotton balls blowing all over town.”
He nodded emphatically. “I know how it was. We be carrying cotton in an open wagon with a mule. A strong wind come up blow the cotton all over the road behind us, we have to stop and pick it up. Looked like snow, but I ain’t never seen snow, I lived all my life in Abbeville.”
“You’re lucky. Sometimes people are born someplace and they don’t realize how lucky they are. I was lucky to find Abbeville in my old age.”
“You ain’t that old.”
“Older than you by a few years.”
“You know, Willye White picked cotton when she was a girl. But when I met her in the seventies, she was in her thirties and lived a very sophisticated life in Chicago. Her boyfriend was Bernie Casey, the black actor.”
“I know him.”
“Willye had come back to bury her grandmother, who’d raised her. I met Willye at her grandmother’s house, a little wood shack on a dirt road in Black Town. She was sitting on a swing on the front porch, her hair all cornrowed. She wore a ripped T-shirt and cutoff jean shorts and nothing on her feet. She looked like all the other women on the street. That night, when I picked her up for dinner she had blown out her hair into an Afro, had on blue eye makeup, lipstick, and a short dress and high heels. She didn’t look like a country girl then.”
He smiled faintly. “I’ll bet.”
“We had dinner at a Ramada Inn while a band played. I asked Willye if she wanted to dance. She asked, ‘You sure you want to?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ So we danced while the white people glared at us. I told her I grew up in the fifties in a neighborhood of whites and blacks. We all dated.”
He stopped cutting my hair and said with wonder, as if I’d just told him the most far-fetched fairy tale, “Is that a fact?”
“Yes. The next morning I drove Willye to the commuter airport for her flight back to Chicago. While we waited a private plane landed. The door opened and this beautiful blond in a white dress stepped out to the waiting hand of a limo driver. I asked, ‘Who’s that?’ Willye said, ‘That’s Miss Belle. She been to the city.’” I glanced at the barber and added, “Willye White been to the city, too.”
“I’ll bet she has.” He had been cutting my hair for almost an hour. The time had passed quickly. He put aside his clippers and took out his straight razor. He shaved around behind my ears and the nape of my neck. Then he patted alcohol where he’d shaved. It stung. He took off my apron with a little flourish, like a matador with a cape, brushed hairs off my sweat shirt, and handed me a mirror. I studied my haircut.
“This is the best haircut I ever got,” I said. He smiled. I stood up. “How much do I owe you?”
I handed him a twenty. He opened his cash register, put the twenty in the till, and handed me a ten-dollar bill. “You got two fives?” I asked. He put the ten back and gave me two fives. I dropped one of them back in the till.
He nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
As I put on my hat and coat, the other man got in the barber’s chair. With a flourish, the barber wrapped the apron around him. I faced them both.
“So,” I said, “you think you’ll be cuttin’ hair thirty more years?”
“Then looks like you’ll be cuttin’ my hair thirty more years.” “Be fine with me.”
Susie and I went to a Christmas party that night. When Billy saw me he came over and said, “I see you got your haircut. Where’d you go?”
“The barbershop in town.”
“There ain’t no barbershop in town.”
“Yes, there is. Donaldson’s on Washington.”
“Donaldson’s? That’s the black barbershop.”
This article is reprinted with permission from the author.