I used to spend days, if not weeks, at my best friend James “Baby T” Smith’s house. He was the first person I met when I started first grade and I ended up walking home in the afternoons to hang out at his dad’s barbershop on Jefferson Street until my mom got off from work at Meharry Medical College. I know you’re asking yourself…an after school program at a barber shop in the hood… what mother would allow this? Frankly, in the Black community, the barber shop or hair salon is second only to the church because they serve as the hub of community-building, advice-swapping, comic relief and unsolicited salespeople. It is the village hall/community center, so my mom was doing what she thought was best for me. Plus, it was FREE!
Before you panic, here’s the run down on the after school program at JT’s Barber Shop. “Baby T” and I got out of school at 3:00 pm and we had exactly 30 minutes to get to the shop which was just a few blocks away. We had just enough time to stop at the store for candy and try to look cool as we walked by the girls’ dorms at Fisk University. Once we got to the shop, we had to “get our lessons” and JT had to see that we were done before we could go outside to play in the vacant lot across the street. He also would allow us to watch the Woody Woodpecker cartoon but again we had to get our homework done before our moms showed up around 5:30 pm. However, before we could go outside or watch our favorite cartoons, we restocked the drink machine, ran to the drug store for JT and cleaned up the shop.
As we got older, we would even engage in conversations with the college guys that were in the shop to get their haircut. And I remember many of these guys from Tennessee State University, Fisk University and Meharry Medical College always would encourage us to get our work done and stay in school.
In addition to the students, JT had a cast of characters that hung out at the barber shop (for those of you that have never had the black barbershop experience, I encourage you to watch scenes from “Coming to America” with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall and “Barber Shop” with Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer to get a real sense for what I mean by cast of characters). I learned so much about being a man in those few hours a day on Jefferson Street, because real men talked about real problems and not just about who was going to win the game that weekend. I watched a man, a small business owner, become the “mayor” of Jefferson Street. He put his life into that shop and shared his rewards not only with his family, but also with me, other kids and families in the community.
To this day, JT continues to organize a Thanksgiving food drive and distributes meals to needy families in the community where his business has been for more than 30 years. He always had other responsible men around him just dropping by to say hello and catch up on the latest gossip (yes men gossip too). I also watched how JT treated everyone, from Walking Paul, the man who was mentally challenged after coming home from Vietnam, who literally marched up and down the street, to King, the kid that just hung around the shop all the time running errands for JT. No matter who you were, judge, doctor, handyman, hustler, JT greeted you with a smile and often a joke. He made you feel welcomed. Most importantly, I saw JT spend quality time with his son. Teaching him life lessons and being there for him when he needed his dad the most.
Now that I’m a father, I often think back to those moments I looked at my best and his relationship with his dad. JT worked hard and sacrificed for his family. But he always found a way to show up and support those closest to him in whatever they did. He was also this way with me and so many other kids around the shop and our school. JT helped to instill character in me by his actions, but most importantly, he was a great example of being a man and a father. He wasn’t my daddy, but I never felt like I wasn’t his son.
As my relationship with my dad grew, I realized how similar he was to JT. My dad is a giving man, who tries to set a great example for other fathers and children. He loves all of his children and is there for all of us in ways that we couldn’t imagine. I’m so glad that I was able to forgive him unconditionally so that I could receive the true gift of a father’s love that I only imagined as a child watching JT and Baby T.
Dads – Are you setting the example for your child and other children around you to show them what it takes to be a REAL man and father? Even if you’re not a father, are you sharing your time with children that need a positive male role model?
Moms – Are you surrounding your child with REAL men and fathers? Do you set your own standards high in terms of the type of guys you date and bring your children around?
I hope you can respond affirmatively to these questions. There’s a little kid out there – just like I used to be – who needs you to get it right!