The black barbershop: care beyond hair

Black barbershops have long been a source of community and support. OB-GYN Pierre Johnson discusses some of the lessons he learned from his days cutting hair.

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Mike Jordan (left) and Mark Belle chat at South Street Barbers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mike Jordan (left) and Mark Belle chat at South Street Barbers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The barbershop was therapy for a lot of people,” says Pierre Johnson, an OB-GYN in Chicago.

Before attending medical school, he spent years working off and on as a barber.

“A lot of people didn’t even really need haircuts at the time,” he says. “They’d come in just to have conversations and to tell their problems and get advice.”

Mike Jordan, a barber at South Street Barbers in Philadelphia, has had a similar experience.

“Barbering is not just cutting hair,” Jordan says. “You got counseling, advising, you get friendships. It’s a lot of different things that go on in a barbershop.”

Many barbers become close with their clients. Because of this, Johnson says, he developed listening skills that have carried over to his medical career.

He adds that his priority is treating disease and medical conditions, but listening to patients is important too.

“If I see a patient that’s sad or that’s obviously depressed when they’re talking to me, I’ll stop talking about what physical ailment they have, and I’ll start asking them about what’s going on at home,” Johnson says. “And having that conversation allows me to be able to help them in all aspects of their life a little bit better.”

Years after trading in his barber’s smock for a lab coat, Johnson recalls his barbershop days with fondness. While there, he received support that helped him achieve his own goals.

“It was some of the best times I’ve had,” he says. “I had men that were right behind me that, you know, believed in me, and knew that I would accomplish great things as well.”

Liz Tung produced the audio version of this story.

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