Last night I had the honor of watching President Obama’s State of the Union Address at a barbershop. No, I wasn’t get my haircut or my beard trimmed; I was gathering with local community members to fellowship, laugh, and converse as we watched the President lay out his vision for the country. As the organizer of this of this “watch party”, I was charged with the task of getting people to leave the warmth and comfort of their homes to file into a cozily sized barbershop. On the surface, a place that usually has hair on the floor doesn’t seem like the ideal place to discuss politics. But in fact, as Melissa Harris-Perry points out in her book “Barbershops, Bible, and BET”; much of the political dialogue that goes on in the black community takes place in public spaces like barbershops and beauty salons. In the book Harris-Perry argues that African Americans use community dialogue to jointly develop understandings of their collective political interests. She identifies four political ideologies that constitute the framework of contemporary black political thought: Black Nationalism, Black Feminism, Black Conservatism and Liberal Integrationism. These ideologies, the book posits, help African Americans to understand persistent social and economic inequality, to identify the significance of race in that inequality, and to devise strategies for overcoming it.
As we watched the speech unfold, I sat back and examined the small things in the shop, like the way the Black women in the room faces would light up every time the camera focused on 1st Lady Obama. Seeing their faces beam with pride spoke to the powerful symbolism of a Black women so gracefully defying age-old stereotypes and reinventing the position. I noticed that every time President Obama discussed restoring broad based economic prosperity, this working class group of people would clap and cheer.
The banter surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s solemness was hysterical. The crowd couldn’t understand why Boehner looked so upset. One of the women in the shop jokingly asked, “Can that man breathe?” Yet, what was most inspiring to me was to see the joy on every person’s face when the camera focused on Congresswomen Gabby Giffords. Her mere presence brought tears to a few of people’s eyes in the shop.
President Obama spoke about many things from comprehensive immigration reform to fixing a “broken” Washington DC. However, the point that seemed most poignant to me was when he said that teachers matter. Everyone in the barbershop yelled, “Yes!”. In an age, where working-class individuals, and particularly public school teachers continue to get snubbed, even those who work tirelessly on behalf of this nation’s children, I was glad to hear that the President is standing in solidarity with them. Before you tell me that standing in solidarity isn’t enough, if it weren’t for the stimulus package he proposed, close to 300,000 teachers would’ve been laid off.
So the next time you’re getting a line up at the barbershop or a fresh wrap at the hair salon use it as a time to engage with your fellow community members. These public spaces are the ideal places for discourse on policy; local, state, or federal.