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Piece of Hair for Peace of Mind

For Black men, Sheffield's barbershops are a site of community and alternative ways to explore mental health and masculinity. 

A man wearing a red clothes protector having his hair cut.

Haircut in progress in a Black barbershop

Shinade Walters

An audio version of this article is available on Now Then's TikTok.

I still remember the first time I hopped in the barber’s chair. I was 6 years old and it was at the famous Mr T’s Barber Shop at Park Hill. My Dad went first and then it was my turn, which was indicated by the barber pumping up the chair and placing two cushions down for me to boost my height. I left feeling 6 feet tall.

For many years this has been a frequent tradition. Going to the barbers with my Dad, being in a cultural classroom of laughter, heated debates and unwinding among Black men.

The Black barbershop has been a staple of the British Black community for over 50 years. During a time when the Windrush generation faced hostility and racial tensions, the barbershop became a safe space where Caribbean men could reside and seek comfort from the struggles of being a Black man in England.

A barbershop with large windows and a red sign with the words Face Lift.

Face Lift Barbershop on the Wicker

Shinade Walters

Sam’s Barbers was the first Black barbershop in Sheffield, established in 1976. Nestled on Spital Hill in Pitsmoor, his barbershop was the pioneer for not only barbers, but also Black businesses at the time.

The shop grew in popularity because of its friendly services but also because it provided a safe haven to those who entered the shop.

During that time, Sam’s clippers catered to the hair of Caribbean men who worked in the steelworks, construction and transport services. When the pubs would state ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’, the barbers became a hub for men to socialise, speak about their problems and find community.

The activities that took place in Sam’s Barbershop are the epitome of what the barbershop represents for the Black community. It signifies a place for peace of mind for Black men.

This is important given the pervasiveness of mental ill health across the Black community.

Black people of African and Caribbean heritage are far more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, 40% more likely to access treatment through a police or criminal justice route, and less likely to seek mental health support from mental health services or even acknowledge their mental health.

Much of this is due to a lack of trust that Black communities have with mental health services and a stigma that exists when engaging with ‘professionals’.

As a way of survival, Black people have created and reinvented alternative approaches to therapy and healing that sit outside the Westernised model.

Like the Pan-African Saturday schools that were set up to resist a Eurocentric education system, Black communities have had to find and create spaces and methods that catered towards their culture and experiences.

Two men stand in front of a shopfront painted in blue, with the word FADES in red.

Two men in front of Fades on Wolstenholme Road

Shinade Walters

In this abolitionary spirit, Sheffield-based Black barbershop Fades on Wolstenholme Road aims to create a space where Black men can receive community healing, as well as a trim.

On the first Friday of every month, owners Andrew and Kevin keep their shutters up till late to host a Black men's mental health group.

The sessions are facilitated by Robert Cotterel, who has 40 years of community involvement as a youth and community worker and is chair of community centre SADACCA in Sheffield.

The group is set up to speak about what it means to be a man, how to understand masculinity and manage emotions.

There's a lot of things that shape our identity in society like colonialism and stereotypes and as a result, Black men are polarised when it comes to emotions. We’re either extremely emotional at a ‘ten’ or we just say ‘we’re bless’ when really, we’re at a ‘one’.

But most of the time we’ve had to be strong and live up to being macho, and toxic with our emotions.

The aim of the group is to resist the ways that Black men are framed in society. The group creates a space where men can talk about emotions and be vulnerable with each other, safely.

Two Black men in barbershop chairs in front of mirrors.

Two Black men in barbershop chairs in front of mirrors

Shinade Walters

Robert explains that feeling safe while being vulnerable is essential, particularly when Black men are subject to compounding images of hyper-masculinity in their everyday lives. However, the barbers is one of the few socially accepted forms of Black male intimacy which is why the group works so well.

We speak about health and fitness and set challenges for motivation. We even speak about prostate cancer and how we are dealt with by the NHS - all while getting a cut.

The barbershop has been a gatekeeper to the Black community for many years and has acted as a trusting public health service provider for whoever walks through its doors. From grown men voluntarily sweeping up the hair of their brothers to seeking relationship advice, it’s a place where boys learn about what it means to be a Black man in today's society.

In the 30 minutes of sitting in the chair (or more if your barber needs to do a school run), the mirrors symbolically reflect a process of self-transformation. The barber ‘brushes the hair off your shoulders’. And you step up feeling like you can rock-a-nation.

The Black barbershop is a site of debate, counsel, therapy and storytelling - all happening amongst the soundtrack of the clippers.

They are truly assets of the community.

Learn more

In line with the ongoing community movements, The Centre of Equity & Inclusion at the University of Sheffield has partnered with SACMHA to celebrate the Black barbers of Sheffield and raise awareness about Black men's mental health.

They are organising a pop-up barbershop within the Students’ Union in October, during Black History Month, where people can turn up and learn about the mental health services that SACMHA offer for the Black communities of Sheffield whilst getting a trim.

by Macole Lannaman (he / him)

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