Jacob Philadelphia, President Obama, and the Barber

Jacob Philadelphia, the little boy who touches a bowing President Obama’s hair, is such an interesting child. He and his family were interviewed on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word and he pretty much stuck to his story about Obama’s hair: it felt the same as his own. The new detail regarding his fascination with President Obama’s hair is that when his mother takes him to the barber, he consistently asks for a haircut like the President’s.

Interestingly, “The Obama” cut is actually a style listed on Hyde Park Hair Salon’s price list given its popularity. Zariff, the President’s barber and thus, First Barber, describes the style to Essence magazine in this way:

The Obama cut is a custom cut. It came about in 2004 when Mr. Obama came into the shop and said he was speaking at the Democratic National Convention that evening. So I had to make him look sharp. Before that he was wearing his hair longer and a little curlier. I took it down to a short cut, tapered on the sides, back and neck. I wanted it to look more natural.

Mr. Obama’s haircut received slightly negative attention in May when reports began circulating that Zariff was trekking from Chicago to Washington, D.C. every two weeks to give him his now famous cut. The ostensible scandal involved whether or not taxpayers were paying Zariff’s expenses; the carbon footprint being created by these trips; and the general notion of extravagance surrounding a seemingly mundane event. Neither Zariff nor the White House addressed the specifics of their arrangement; though Zariff confirmed that Mr. Obama pays $21 for his haircut just “like everyone else.”

“Barber-gate” aside, I think it’s interesting that “The Obama” is a popular request at Hyde Park Hair Salon. I think it’s interesting because it reflects an aesthetic investment and set of conventions usually unseen in popular culture about black men. The clean, neat cut that characterizes “The Obama” was familiar to me as an aesthetic pursued by men who found eloquence in a conventional life. I was reminded of the possibility of black men desiring conventional lives when I considered Obama’s hair and the popularity of the style in conjunction with one of the books that impacted him as a kid, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Obama’s investment in Song of Solomon makes sense in light of how he identifies his quest for self-identity in Dreams from My Father. When he was fifteen, the President writes that he was engaged in a “fitful interior struggle,” as he was “trying to raise [himself] to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Reading the classics of African American literature provided young Obama with material from which to draw on in his efforts at racial self-fashioning. It is clear why Song of Solomon, with its interest in black male questing for identity, would have appealed to him. One scene from the novel resonates powerfully with Obama’s quest, especially as it occurs in a space long associated with black men’s tales of coming-of-age, the barbershop.

Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, the proprietors of a barbershop, provide Guitar and Milkman with the frank talk about black male experience that young Obama, who was about the same age as Guitar and Milkman when he experienced his “fitful interior struggle,” might have yearned to hear. In one powerful scene, the barbers learn that Guitar is frustrated because Feather would not allow he and Milkman to stay in his bar and have a beer. The “lecture” that follows from Railroad Tommy details a host of disappointments the young Guitar can expect as a black man in America:

 “You think that’s something? Not having a beer? Well, let me ask you something. You ever stood stock still in the galley of the Baltimore and Ohio dining car in the middle of the night when the kitchen closed down and everything’s neat and ready for the next day? And the engine’s highballing down the track and three of your buddies is waiting for you with a brand-new deck of cards?”

Guitar shook his head. “No, I never…”

“That’s right, you never. And you never going to. That’s one more thrill you not going to have, let alone a bottle of beer.”

Guitar smiled. “Mr. Tommy,” he began, but Tommy cut him off.

“You ever pull fourteen days straight and come home to a sweet woman, clean sheets, and a fifth of Wild Turkey? Eh?” He looked at Milkman. “Did you?”

Milkman smiled and said, “No, sir.”

“No? Well, don’t look forward to it, cause you not going to have that either.

Hospital Tommy drew a pinfeather toothpick from under his smock. “Don’t tease the boy, Tommy.”

“Who’s teasing? I’m telling him the truth. He ain’t going to have it. Neither one of ’em going to have it. And I’ll tell you something else you not going to have. You not going to have no private coach with four red velvet chairs that swivel around in one place whenever you want ’em to. No. And you not going to have your own special toilet and your own special-made eight-foot bed either. And a valet and a cook and a secretary to travel with you and do everything you say. Everything: get the right temperature in your hot-water bottle and make sure the smoking tobacco in the silver humidor is fresh each and every day. That’s something else you not going to have. You ever have five thousand dollars of cold cash money in your pocket and walk into a bank and tell the bank man you want such and such a house on such and such a street and he sell it to you right then? Well, you won’t ever have it. And you not going to have a governor’s mansion, or eight thousand acres of timber to sell. And you not going to have no ship under your command to sail on, no train to run, and you can join the 332nd if you want to and shoot down a thousand German planes all by yourself and land in Hitler’s backyard and whip him with your own hands, but you never going to have four stars on your shirt front, or even three. And you not going to have no breakfast tray brought in to you early in the morning with a red rose on it and two warm croissants and a cup of hot chocolate. Nope. Never. And no pheasant buried in coconut leaves for twenty days and stuffed with wild rice and cooked over a wood fire so tender and delicate it make you cry. And no Rothschild ’29 or even Beaujolais to go with it.”

A few men passing by stopped to listen to Tommy’s lecture. “What’s going on?” they asked Hospital Tommy.

“Feather refused them a beer,” he said. The men laughed.

“And no baked Alaska!” Railroad Tommy went on. “None! You never going to have that.”

“No basked Alaska?”Guitar opened his eyes wide with horror and grabbed his throat. “You breaking my heart!”

“Well, now. That’s something you will have–a broken heart.” Railroad Tommy’s eyes softened, but the merriment in them died suddenly. “And folly. A whole lot of folly. You can count on it.”

“Mr. Tommy, suh,” Guitar sang in mock humility, “we just wanted a bottle of beer is all.”

“Yeah,” said Tommy. “Yeah, well, welcome aboard.”

Railroad Tommy’s list of disappointments reads like the Blues. At the same time that it details a series of negative experiences, it acknowledges a recognition for, and perhaps even a nearness to high quality. Railroad Tommy and men like him, black men, had seen Beauty. In America, the experience of being a black man essentially means that seeing Beauty, a thing most desired and cherished, being in proximity to it was as close as you would come to having it. No matter how small or minor the wish, you, a black man, couldn’t have it; even a beer.

The elegance of the conventional life that “The Obama” represents reflects a standard born from this context. Black men of Railroad Tommy’s generation invented an aestheticized notion of what it meant to live conventionally in light of the social, political, and economic constraints that may still be found in the pursuit of President Obama’s haircut. Young Jacob’s interest in “The Obama” suggests that the quest for an African American aesthetic sense of the conventional still tugs.

See Also: 

Leaning in to History

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