By Justin Williams
The relationship between a man and his barber is often an intimate one. It takes a huge level of trust to allow another person to use shears, clippers and blades on your face and neck. This bond is especially strong in the Black community, where the barbershop has traditionally not only been a local grooming salon, but a place of social, political and community discourse.
During the Civil Rights movement, barbershops were used to mobilize Black voices; some were vandalized or burned down as a result. There are books, movies and television shows devoted to Black barbershops. Every year, thousands of barbers attend Black hair expos dedicated to haircutting techniques, innovations, trends and even competitions. Hundreds of blogs, websites and Instagram accounts showcase trending and traditional Black hairstyles.
So as soon as I found out I would be studying abroad in Rome for six months, one of my first thoughts was, “Where would I find a barber to cut my dense and curly hair texture?”
Anyone unfamiliar with hair textures would naturally assume that I could simply go to any barber for a haircut, because hair is just hair. This was the general misconception in the few Yahoo Answers threads I followed (yes, I scoured the Internet for barber location tips). But anyone who is experienced in this understands the complexity of maintaining the Black hair care regimen.
In my world, my hair says a lot about who I am. So when I saw other Black men in Rome confidently walking down the street with coarse black hair, natural hairlines, braids, locs, and fros, I felt comforted. I was hopeful that I would find a barber in Rome, a place that would remind me of home.
My quest began in Trastevere, where I was living. I looked out for other Black men to check their hair style. There were few African-Americans like myself; most Black men in Rome come from African countries. I appreciated the spectrum of styles I saw, ranging from short buzz-cuts to thick-long locs. I saw Black men confidently wearing braids, cornrows, locs and fros. Some styles were quite common in the US; I was less familiar with some African ones. The more interesting cuts were a fusion of European and African styles.
In the course of my quest, I popped into a few white Italian barber shops in the area that goes from Testaccio to Prati, for laughs more than anything else. Every time I walked in, all laughter and conversation came to a halt. Barbers and customers alike furrowed their brows and gave me puzzled looks. I always kept one foot out the door because I knew what they were about to say. No need to Google Translate the facial look that says, “Are you lost?” One barber, struggling to find a polite excuse, looked at me while pointing to his watch and said, “Maybe tomorrow…” It was only 2 p.m., but I took the hint and continued my search elsewhere.
I relentlessly pestered local residents in my broken Italian, “Dove posso trovare un barbiere?” I shamelessly approached every black man I crossed. I asked vendors on the street and businessmen on trams. I finally met a man named Roger, who had a fresh low cut which seemed relatively recent. I shuffled through the crowd and asked him in English where he got his haircut. He was taken aback by my question and responded in French with an African accent. He asked if I spoke French and I replied, “un peu.”
We fought through the language barriers, communicating mostly with our hands. He told me that he cut his own hair but suggested that I go to Termini if I wanted to find a barber. We spoke briefly about our backgrounds and I learned that he was from Congo and had been in Rome for three years. I stayed on the bus two stops past my destination just to learn a little more about him. I thanked him for his time and he wished me luck.
While on my way, I bumped into a classmate of mine named Connor. He is a tall White guy from California with a great sense of humor. We made small talk and he began to grin as I told him about my dilemma.
He told me that he had just gotten back from a Black barbershop in Termini. I stared at him, assuming that he must have not heard me correctly. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a professional business card for a barbershop on Largo Leopardi, right outside of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. I was stunned: Connor, a White man with red curly hair, had already found a Black barbershop. All roads seemed to lead to Termini, so I hopped on the bus and headed toward Vittorio Emanuele.
When I reached the shop, the scene was immediately familiar. The atmosphere was very relaxed. Current American hip-hop and R&B was playing. Customers and friends of the barbers hung out outside and inside the shop, just as they do in Black American shops.
The people there gave me a friendly greeting and asked who I was looking for. I held up the card with the name “Waddy” printed in bold and a young, light skinned African turned around with clippers and shears in hand. He said hello and added regretfully that it would be an hour wait. I nodded and told him that I would wait in the row of seats tucked to the side of the room.
I couldn’t help but notice Waddy’s bold haircut. I became a little nervous as I stared at his medium fade and long double parts slicing through the left side of his head to the back. It was not ugly or ill-fitting. I had just never seen such a long double part. And then I looked down at the customer Waddy was working on. He had a fairly wild hair style also, with long straightened and bleached hair formed into a rounded mohawk. Along the sides was a fade with tribal details and a large diamond was taking shape in the back. Slightly worried, I searched my phone to look for a picture of the modest haircut I wanted.
In the background the barbers and customers relaxed, listening to Tupac and even cracking open a few drinks. In between Waddy and me was a trophy case and along both sides of the trophy were half empty bottles of Ciroc and Grey Goose vodka. Waddy reached in and poured his friends some mixed drinks and then vibed to the music as he finished with his customer.
When my time arrived, I introduced myself as he draped the smock over me. I showed him the picture I had found, but he was already mapping out his vision for the cut by slightly tilting my head and drawing with his fingers where he wanted the fade to begin. I could appreciate the vision, but pointed to the picture just to make sure we were on the same page. He nodded with a smile and immediately began. We could not talk much because of the language barrier since he spoke almost exclusively Italian. We communicated primarily through hand gestures.
After about thirty minutes he handed me a mirror. It was a very solid first cut. It was not as good as my typical barber, but I was happy with it. I gave him ten euros and we dapped hands. Before I left, he grabbed my phone and found his Instagram page, suggesting I follow. He said come back soon and I left comforted with the feeling that I achieved my goal, I had found my home away from home.