Anyone who has a platform should use it to elevate the voices of those marginalized– not as charity, but as our duty to humanity so that what is truly important and integral to our society does not go undocumented.
To quote the late, great Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” So many stories remain untold. Most often, these are the stories of those who are traumatized by an unprepared, calloused, and apathetic system which is already hostile towards those with disabilities, and even more so for those who are not White.
– Wolfheart Sanchez, autistic Black and Indigenous author and poet
Featured image is by teen autistic Black artist Rob Boone.
So, I would like to use my platform to share something from a brilliant, wonderful soul named Courtlon “Champ” Turner. He’s a Black barber from Virginia Beach. I think that most white people are unaware of the role that a Black barber plays in their local community, and that is a shame.
Here’s what Champ Turner had to say:
Sure, I’d love to tell you about the importance of Black barbershops.
In America, there is a real attack on Black families. It is hard to avoid being locked up and divided from our families, even over small driving infractions. As a result, there are a lot of single-parent households.
But it’s not even just that. The conditions we face as Black people, period, whether you’re in a two-parent household or not, are really hard to navigate. I think of it as something like PTSD, or maybe it is PTSD–something instilled in probably 90% of Black people in America.
PTSD is a traumatic anxiety condition due to something that has taken place in your life or you witnessed. It manifests itself in episodes, normally accompanied by shortness of breath, paranoia, and heightened stress.
When you’re driving while Black, and you pass a police officer or trooper– even if you are doing the speed limit, have your license and insurance, are wearing your seatbelt, you still get nervous and keep checking the rearview.
The same stress applies when simply walking through the mall or down a sidewalk. We could be walking from our car to the front entrance of a store, and a patrol car pulls in the aisle in the direction we are walking. We get a tightness in our chest and look over our shoulder. Simply by walking by an officer can bring on an episode of anxiety like this.
The Black Barbershop is a Therapeutic Safe Haven
The Black barbershop is a therapeutic place for us. Black people don’t trust anyone touching our hair, so we normally find a bond with the barber as one of the only places where we can be touched in a non-threatening way. For Black people, even our hair is a political issue.
The Black barber gets to know each client, giving them a deep understanding of the social and political issues that are national and systemic, plus local issues. So, people are able to talk about what is going on in the world and in their personal lives, whether is marital, work-related, health, education, or something else– and the barber develops a multi-dimensional view of how Blackness and all of these institutions intersect.
There are not many therapists, social workers, educators, lawyers, or other people who are Black and have that same level of understanding, and so it is a burden to try to explain to people who don’t understand how being Black means that their experience is not the same as a white person in similar circumstances.
Simply, its a place to vent and not be judged. It’s a place to discuss sports, relax, and discuss politics– where in almost any other place, Black people feel threatened and can’t let down their guard enough to relax and just be heard, respected, understood, and seen.
Black barbers tend to be in their positions for a long time because they understand how important their role in the community is. When one barber cuts your father’s hair, then yours, and now your child’s, they hold family secrets from each, and a strong bond is created. I have these relationships with men and women.
The barber is often like a therapist and might even be more trusted than local pastors– who also play a pivotal role– in the Black community.
We Have Influence
The Black barber is often the person to go to when parents aren’t getting through to their children or children aren’t listening. You see, most children feel like their parents aren’t connected or are out of touch with the times. The Black barber is typically up to date with the current styles and trends in fashion, hair, slang, music, sports, and other things that interest kids.
They trust the barber more because they feel we are relatable. I’ve had so many parents say to me, “Please talk to my child. I just can’t get through to them.”
Most people– young or old– feel like they are the only one in the world who is experiencing what they are going through. Being a barber, we have usually experienced it ourselves or have talked to others who have. We can help kids to learn from other people’s mistakes and to do what others have done to come out on top of a tough situation.
Black Barbers are the Ultimate Networkers and Problem-Solvers
We are the ultimate networkers. We cut everyone’s hair from lawyers, to contractors, to artists, to preachers, to politicians. Young, old, and everything in between. We build so many relationships with each class and industry in the community.
We have a unique position to gain perspective and insight because people trust talking to us. It’s of the utmost importance that we keep everyone’s trust and use the right amount of discretion, and if we don’t, then we won’t have any customers.
Because we hear from everyone, we often can provide a common ground that works for everyone because our business is conducted with everyone in the community. We solve a lot of problems before they become real problems and resolve disputes before they escalate.
A Privilege and an Honor
I asked Champ what his favorite part of the job was. Here’s what he had to say:
Most weeks, I would be backed up and booked. To be honest with you, though, the most rewarding work I would do is when I would cut hair for the less fortunate or homeless. They are often seen as a burden and they don’t have the resources to do the self-care they would like to do. For a lot of people, it’s been a long time since anyone has shown them kindness or respect or has touched them without treating them like they are dirty.
Sometimes, charities or other places would offer buzz cut all over to people who couldn’t afford a haircut, but I never did that. I have a great body of work and have even competed and won shows. Whenever I had the privilege and opportunity to cut their hair, I would show off my best skills on their hair. The most rewarding part of the job was seeing the look on their faces when they got a look in the mirror. Their eyes would light up, or fill up with tears, and they would be so appreciative.
Some of the children I cut on the regular would be spoiled and would expect all the extras, and their parents would give them whatever they wanted. Of course, I did my best for them, too, and gave them whatever they wanted. I didn’t mind doing that work because it paid the bills enough for me to be able to do the rewarding volunteer work.
Black Barbers Matter
By getting to know Champ, it’s easy to see what a vital role the Black barber plays in the community. They are peace-keepers and a port in the storm for so many.
Unfortunately, Champ isn’t cutting hair anymore. In July of 2015, Champ did something he rarely ever did and closed shop early. He was going to have a barbecue with his best friend, David. They were close, so close that Champ had served as best man in David’s wedding.
But David was acting “off,” paranoid, and afraid that he was going to be caught for selling counterfeit merchandise in his shop. David went outside to speak to someone, and Champ took a call from his girlfriend. When David came back inside, he grabbed a butcher knife and started asking Champ who he was on the phone with and accusing him of “snitching” about David’s fake shoes and purses.
David is an extremely large man, more than 150 lbs. larger than Champ. When he lunged at Champ with the knife in his hand, Champ defended himself. David picked Champ up and pinned him against the door while Champ struggled to safely get the knife from David’s hand. David sustained a deep cut from the struggle. When a neighbor finally opened the door, Champ walked outside, called 911, and sat on the curb waiting for them.
Except, when the police arrived, they arrested Champ for malicious wounding.
Here’s what the judge said at sentencing (excerpt from court transcript below; emphasis mine):
Transcript: This is one of those situations — and I’m sure I said it at the end of hearing the case — that you have two people who are best friends. You have a defendant with no real prior record who from the evidence appears to have gone crazy when these things happened. There is — the only evidence as to the defendant is that he had been contributing to his community that he has a nice family, that he has a lot of folks here in his support, but the evidence with the victim are the photographs of all of the injuries. I — again, I still haven’t figured out an answer to what happened or why this happened and I’m sure I never will and we never will. I guess it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to try to figure out how we can stop these things from happening in the future to other people. I’m going to sentence him — the minimum on the aggravated malicious wounding is 20 years, so I’m going to sentence him to 20 years and suspend 10 of those. Good behavior for 10 years after his release.
David was a white man. Champ is Black. The burden of the court is to prove that someone is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
Assuming someone with no mental health history, no motive, and no violent history suddenly attacked his best friend because he “went crazy” is not how the court system works. Not knowing what happened, or not understanding the series of events, is not enough reason to remove a father from his children for ten years.
It’s not enough to remove a productive, beloved, gentle public servant of the community from his vital post, sentencing along with him everyone who benefited from the good he brought to the world and those who love him.
This happened in Virginia Beach, in the same place where Matthew Rushin and RJ Brothers were victims of the Virginia Beach Police Force and the justice system. BlackLivesMatter757 has a petition for Champ asking for his release, and their words are the perfect conclusion for this article:
Although we have come a long way, we have not have come far enough when a judge can blatantly ignore facts and rule unjustly. Please don’t just share or repost, but become a voice for people who don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Please consider sharing Champ’s story, sharing this article, and signing the petition.