The Black Man and his Beard

It’s no secret that there is something about a beard that exudes power and virility. The whiskered look is definitely enjoying quite the resurgence; especially within the African American community. We have officially entered the era of the “bearded black guy.” Many have judged this “new Black” guy look as intelligent, sexy, ambitious, employed and well kept. And, perhaps, we should include patient to that list, too. The “bearded black guy” is no longer assumed to be of faith or street roots but moreso a man of substance. There’s no doubt that the bushy long beards on African American men are a new style of this decade.

But, if you’re like me, you’re wondering where did this begin? How this become a “thing” in the African American community? For answers, I sought out a Master Barber Educator – yes, that’s a real thing. A master barber training curriculum includes all the usual barber aspects of hair cutting, coloring and styling using tools like shears, razors and clippers. What makes a master barber different than your standard barber is mostly due to experience, expertise and a quality of service that sets the regular barbers apart from the master barbers. They have mastered most men’s hairstyles and hair services, and have a more proficient level of skill in the barbering arts and sciences. Also, standard barber technicians may not be trained, licensed and permitted to perform certain services, whereas a master barber is.

Master Barber Educator Ray Richmond of Success Barber School in Chicago revealed that the “bearded black guy’s” origin is hard to trace.

“The beard predates any written words,” he said. “The origin and practice of shaving is difficult to determine when the form of hair removal and styling began. But, the ‘70s may be the premier facial fuzz decade of all time probably thanks to all the residual hair leftover by the hippies of the 60s.”

Some scholars have argued that the marking of the beard is officially a symbol of the 19th Century American oppression of women and black men. In The Atlantic’s "The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard" piece, the story examined the current fascination with facial hair, alongside its previous revival in the 19th century. Before the beard’s reemergence in the mid-1800s, and after the American Revolution, there was a period when African-American men actually dominated the barbering job market. Thousands of former slaves were foisted upon a market that offered them little in the way of employment. One of the few jobs that represented hope for them was barbering. Black men became quite prosperous working as barbers and, unfortunately, this did not sit well with many privileged white men of the time. By 1850, American elites had abandoned black-owned barbershops in droves, and many African-American men began to view barbering as a dead end career. Early on there was resistance to this new beard trend—many felt that a beard was the mark of "maniacs, fanatics, and dissimulators." But by the late 1860s, the trend had stuck. It was then that white males claimed that beards were actually the mark of a superior race. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards ’to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.’

Richmond feels that the “bearded black guy” historical history forgot to include the medical condition that happens to black men when they shave too frequently. It’s called Psuedofolliculitis Barbae, also known as the barber's itch, and, it can produce razor bumps, scarring of the beard and shave bumps with persistent irritation caused by shaving.

“Particularly, improper shaving or broken hair below the skin surface, which is prone in African ethnicity,” he said. “Based on our skin, we can’t shave all the time. So, we had to grow our beards to prevent the ‘barber’s itch.’”

The internet is littered with articles that ask the question: how to grow a beard like Rick Ross or James Harden. Rappers and Hip-Hop artist have a long history sporting magnificent beards, so it’s no surprise that one of the trendiest styles comes to us direct from the music industry. Although it’s not the look I fancy, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that guys such as Rick Ross have helped to move along the “bearded black man” spectrum - his beard has always been a part of his image. Black men have several styles of beards to choose from that are extremely popular right now. The goatee is loved by some black men but some prefer the Rick Ross, which is gaining a lot of traction in Chicago.

With many guys begging to know how to grow a Rick Ross beard, it’s truly an art to grow an impressive beard, and while not every man can manage the heady style (including myself), Richmond feels that the main reason why the beard/mustache was important in the Black Community was for social status across all cultures.

“Prominent figures of the community wore facial hair during the civil rights era,” he said. “Richard Pryor, Dr. King, Billie D. Williams, Julius Erving are all men with beards and that represented wisdom and manhood. The beard is considered a sign of patience, strength, virility, and sexual prowess. Our community leaders had a beard and mustache to exude power.”

It's no surprise that social media has taken a hand in the “bearded black guy” epidemic. Bearded and Black, a Tumblr page filled with black men sporting the scruffy look. And it's not just the beards purists I’m digging, but these dudes are also serving up some serious style.  On Instagram, Black Men With Beards promises to uplift, empower and support black men in owning their bodies and their image, while defying stereotypes.

The scruffy fashion statement in the Black community seems to change meaning given the political climate in the world. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a symbol to show power and leadership. For the Black millennial, it’s a statement of style, sexiness and strength. Given the plight of  today’s Black man, the beard could symbolize a movement for justice and civil rights. While my DNA prohibits me from joining the beard movement, I’d like to think that my little stache shares the same message.

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