Michael Hampton has been cutting hair for 20 years, but after he arrived in Minneapolis in March, after years in Evanston, Illinois, his plan was to get his commercial license and drive trucks.
The pandemic put a stop to that. “I was kind of hurt that I couldn’t follow through,” he says. “But, honestly, I’ve had this time to take walks and work on myself. I don’t think there’s any better project than that. A truck driver’s license is nice, but my sanity is better.”
Hampton is still a licensed barber, so after George Floyd was killed, he dusted off his kit, busted out cleaning utensils and gloves, and set up shop across from the mural at Floyd’s memorial site on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. He started offering free haircuts.
Hampton, who lives in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood, chatted with me last weekend, on Saturday, just before his first haircut of the day. We talked about systemic inequality, the vitality of the barbershop, getting sober, and the importance of education.
Where he learned to cut hair:
“My first experience cutting hair was in Cook County Jail, over 20 years ago. Then I went to prison and I got my barber’s license in the Illinois Department of Corrections. I cut hair for free for five years in prison. So, that’s a good start, right? Then I started cutting hair professionally in 2003, in Evanston, Illinois.
“I came to Minnesota in 2009, to go to Teen Challenge. I went there for a year, got sober. I had some sobriety time, then I started doing negative things again. But today, I’m sober. I fought with addictions for years, but today’s another day. We just keep going. You can’t give up because things go bad. My life has been up and down, but I’m really grateful…I mean, I could have died in it.
“I’m going to stay here [at the memorial site] as long as I can—six, seven hours, or whatever. I’m going to do free haircuts for whoever wants them, just as a token of my gratitude for being alive—because I, as an African American male, have been through a lot of that. I didn’t die in it. I’ve been arrested, I’ve had police contact. And all of them aren’t bad; some of them are really, really good people, and some are not.”
On dealing with police officers:
“Police don’t listen. I’m telling you, I’ve had situations where I talk to the police. I say, ‘Sir, this is what I did, this is what happened.’ And they didn’t believe nothing that came out of my mouth. Of course there’s going to be resentment there. They’re making me feel like some insignificant nobody. So, what am I going to call you for? Why would I call you for help? Any of them, really. Not even just the ones who did what [former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin] did. Overall, they’re trained for you to prove to them that you’re right. You can’t do that in a sentence. Do you know what I’m saying? You can’t do that.”
On the significance of the barbershop:
“[Cutting hair] is a wonderful thing, it’s an artistic thing, and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re doing graffiti, we’re doing spoken word, we’re doing poetry. And barbering, in the Black neighborhood, is our artistry. I don’t think you can have a street situation in the neighborhood without the barbershop, because the barbershop is a big part of the Black neighborhood. So, I’m representing all the barbers everywhere here today. We’re gonna do a good job; we’re gonna do good work.
“The barbershop in the Black community is absolutely the melting pot. I mean, everybody goes there, whether you’re a bus driver or a fireman, if you’re a father. As the boys in the neighborhood, that’s what we did: On Saturday mornings, we came to the barbershop and just listened to older people talk about their lives. Realtors, lawyers—they come in there and they talk about personal stuff.
“If we’re gonna compare it to something, it’s like being in college. It’s like being in a college of learning applicable to life. Because everything’s going on at the barbershop. I was taught that the profession was: mind your business, respect everybody, and have everybody come in. Everybody’s welcome.
“When I first started cutting hair, it was a requirement to cut at least one homeless person’s hair every day. It’s just old-school. An older guy taught me how to cut hair who had a shop for 40 years, and he was just a pillar of the community.
“It’s about the social aspect, especially for men. I don’t care what color man you are: Black, white, zebra stripes—we don’t talk about our feelings. The barbershop, that’s about as close as you’re gonna get to real, authentic feedback from a guy. You get kind of loose in there. You relax.”
On wealth inequality:
“People who have too much, like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey—I mean, what are you gonna do with a billion dollars? Besides build another house? I think, going forward, distribution of wealth would be a good start. People that don’t have anything—OK, maybe they don’t have the ability to go out and start Apple. So, does that make them worth any less than you? No.
“You, making all this money: Open up a place where people can go and just be safe. Give them a different opportunity, because everybody’s got skills. That’s why I like barbering; it gives me a chance to showcase different skills. I don’t think it’s any more or less important than a doctor, dentist, police officer for sure. We put certain things on pedestals—judges, lawyers. For what? OK, you went to school for nine years. So what? Going forward, we need to stop all this separation.”
On the importance of feeling heard:
“We’ve been giving away food for a week here. If we can do that, other people can, too. That will solve a lot of the hurt—of people feeling outcast. That’s what it is: people not being included. ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because you’re a woman.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because you’re LGBT.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to hear what you have to say because you’re 5.’ That’s nonsense.
“Why am I gonna listen to somebody’s voice in St. Paul, at the capital? Why should your voice be the only one that matters? That’s the problem. Everybody else feels like they’re on the outside looking in.
“Stop calling people that do drugs lazy. Stop all that.
“Why would I contribute to something I can’t be a part of? I can’t speak up; you don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
“[Trade schools] hardly exist. They’ve totally phased that whole part of the education system out. I never was a sit-down-in-the-classroom type of guy. My grades showed that. So, then, when I’m getting ready to go to college, my GPA was 1.9-something. So, I can’t go to a regular school because of three-hundredths of a point? It’s just really ridiculous. There have got to be standards, but anybody that wants to learn should be able to learn.”
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