Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 1, 2007

Haircut

Here follows a miscellany regarding haircuts:


I got a haircut on Sunday.

Up through the middle-school years, my father cut my hair and that of my brothers. He had purchased some clippers, probably from a mail-order catalogue (Montgomery Ward). He gave us all buzz-cuts, and he had a buzz-cut, too, so I'm sure we looked like a family of Marines or a cult of some kind. Only my mother, the sole female in the family, was allowed something besides a buzz-cut. She chose something akin to a Katherine Hepburn parted-look, right out of the 1940s. Good for her.

Rain, shine, snow, or sub-freezing North Wind at 4,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, my dad always cut our hair outside. That way he didn't have to sweep up anything. Ever had your hair cut while the snow is falling--around you? I have. It's become a fond memory, but its becoming a fond memory took decades, believe me.

The buzz-cut didn't become a problem until a)I turned 12 or 13 and, like every other kid who turns 12 or 13, became hyper-self-conscious and b) longer hair became the fashion, owing in part to the arrival of the Beatles in . . . 1964--if I have my history right. I entered high school in 1967, and long hair was not just a style but a statement. And there I was with my buzz-cut. Damn.

Things have come full-circle, and I'm back to a modified buzz-cut, spiked up with some hair-gel.

The culture of hair and hair-cuts is endlessly fascinating, of course, especially in the U.S., where the meaning of hair is conditioned (so to speak) by so many factors: ethnicity, politics, gender, images of sexuality, class, age, and--above all--relentless advertising, which has convinced us that hair is alive; it isn't; only the follicles are, I believe.

Interestingly, I am well past the self-conscious era of my life, at least with regard to haircuts, so when I went to work today, I was surprised when many people registered recognition that I'd gotten a haircut. I'd actually forgotten that I'd gotten one. My standard blast-from-the-past response is, "No, I got my ears lowered." My head seems to get bigger (I'm not referring figuratively to ego, although that's possible, too) and more perfectly cubicle as the years go by. I attribute this phenomenon to my being partly Scandinavian, as Americans once referred to Swedes as "square-heads." Cube-heads would have been more accurate. . . .Today a student said, "At least you still have hair" (meaning, I suppose, that a lot of other men don't still have their hair and that, even if my haircut looks stupid, at least I have hair to cut).

I also think the etiquette surrounding the question of noticing someone's haircut is interesting. Are you supposed to comment on someone's change of "hair style"? If you just say, "So, you got a haircut," are you leaving some rhetorical space open that could be filled by the following assumption: "...and it looks [or you look] funny"? Sometimes people add, a bit late, ". . . . it looks good!" Once more with feeling, please.

Barber shops, per se, have almost disappeared in most mid-sized to large cities, at least on the West Coast. Franchises like Hair Masters have replaced them. You can get a relatively inexpensive haircut at the franchises, but elsewhere, you have to drop some serious coin to have somebody work the scissors or the clippers. I think the first haircut a child receives is still a big deal, probably across all cultures. In spite of the women's movement and feminism, women's hairstyles have remained fairly stable, with regard to length and (added) coloring and other treatments. In the U.S. most women still seem to shave their legs and under-arms, too. I wonder why that's so. Anthropologists would know, perhaps. . . . In spite of or maybe because of my buzz-cut in the late1960s and early 1970s, I was a big fan, as a spectator at least, of the afro. Mainstream magazines deployed photos of afros to suggest radicalism, I remember. Angela Davis's afro became a symbol of radicalism (to some), I recall. Me, I liked it when NBA players started "wearing" afros, and I liked movies such as Shaft and Superfly in which the afro made appearances. (The sound-tracks were what sold me on the movies, however, I must admit.) I thought Joe Willie Namath's long hair was cool, although I realize I probably have to point out that Namath was a famous football player at the time. (Joe Who?). . . . .To date, I have not gotten my hair "permed." I think I probably won't, ever. When I was a kid, I wondered about that term, "permanent," applied to a hair-treatment that was so obviously temporary. Older now, I've given up on the possibility that the language connected to such things as grooming might make sense.

The best hair-story I know is still the one with Rapunzel, but I love the "Barber Shop" movies, all about African American men in barber shops, and I love Eudora Welty's story, set in a hair-parlor, "Petrified Man." It is a perfect short story. My favorite hair-poem is Karl Shapiro's "Haircut," which John Updike includes in his recent selection of Shapiro's poems. The movie (based on the musical) Hair is not as bad as you might think it would be (there's a stirring recommendation), even if it makes you wince in a few places. Treat Williams is the star, and Milos Forman directed. Beverly D'Angelo is in it, too.

Not that you asked, but "haircut" or "hair cut" seems to have entered the English language in the early 1800s. Words in which "hair" now appears have proliferated to such a degree that the OED can barely keep up.

"Hey, you got your hair cut. . . . . It looks good!" Right.
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