I’ve been reading The Atlantic off and on for over twenty years, and have enjoyed a number of articles despite the fact that I’ve never felt that it represented my own point of view. I’ve even found some borderline feminist pieces engaging, including a couple written by Sandra Tsing-Loh, who, despite being a bit of a nutcase, sure can entertain in print.
But under Scott Stossel, scion of a Harvard clan, the magazine is going to shit, and that’s quite literal in the case of Stossel, who regaled us with tales of his vomiting and diarrhea in a recent piece.
Now, according to the publication, the history of the beard is fraught with racism. Who would have thought that how we choose to wear our facial hair should provoke deep introspection on the matter of race? As a man, no matter what I do with that stuff that grows out of my face, I can’t escape the vile legacy of racism. Do I shave? Do I grow it out? Ah, this is all such a conundrum. Perhaps I should hire a sensitivity coach to give me the proper advice.
The article, written by Sean Trainor, a man who majored in women’s studies, begins with this subheading:
“Washes and razors for foofoos,” scoffed Walt Whitman. But the story of 19th-century facial hair is more tangled than modern nostalgists may realize.
Hmm. I have facial hair, so I’d better read on…
Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. And the online craft marketplace Etsy now sells a limitless variety of wares imprinted with images of mustaches, from wine glasses to electrical outlets….
Ah, so having facial hair is cool these days. So far so good…
What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.
Oh crap… “white supremacy”?! Does this mean my beard makes me a Nazi? I’d really better read the whole thing!
One of the barbers’ most vexing tasks involved maintaining order in their segregated workplaces. While the gentility of many shops helped restrain customers’ worst behavior, lapses were frequent. In moments like these, white patrons might squabble over politics, grow belligerent when “full of drink and insolence,” or even light each other’s hair on fire.
Keeping the peace required the lightest of touches. The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically restraining them. Besides, many barbers understood the cruel reality that customers’ ability to flagrantly disrespect them was part of the space’s appeal.
But perhaps barbers’ most difficult challenge was the simple intimacy of the shop: the physical closeness of barber and patron. Here, men of color listened in on the schemes and foibles of the American elite, keeping their secrets in confidence.
Little did his customers suspect that Natchez, Mississippi, barber William Johnson was studiously recording the rumors that permeated his shop—from vicious acts of violence to white citizens’ gambling losses and marital infidelities. Johnson’s diary even refers to a moment of unexpected intimacy between two townsmen: “Mr [Blank],” Johnson confided, “attempted to suck Mr [Blank]s El panio.” Just as Johnson had intended, no one discovered this record until long after he had died.
Oh man, this is not good. Not only are we bearded white men violent drunks, but cock-suckers as well…
Finally, we learn that simply being able to grow a beard is racist:
An anonymous “lady on beards,” writing in an 1856 issue of the New York Tribune, made the case even more succinctly. The “bearded races,” she proclaimed, “are the conquering races.” And in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman transformed the case for beards into poetry: “Washes and razors for foofoos … for me freckles and a bristling beard.”
But the “manly appendage,” as one commenter grandly called the beard, also served a number of important functions closer to home. As historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, beards were one response to a growing women’s rights movement, typified by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards “to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” The 19th-century beard may have sprouted from a fear of razors and a distaste for black barber shops. But it grew into a symbol that set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home.
This may not be the story bewhiskered moderns would like to hear. It’s easy to imagine the 19th-beard and barbershop revival as an homage to a quaint, innocent fashion trend. But today’s revival presents a chance to redeem the legacy of facial hair with a more complete understanding of the men who shaped it—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut.
As Trainor takes us on and on through the years, we can learn more fascinating tidbits about the violent, racist, misogynistic history of facial hair. Truly fascinating work. However, I am left at a loss. To be a proper, right-thinking American, how should I wear my facial hair? I’m not sure, but the implication seems to be that to be that I should simply stop growing it, period. Perhaps castration might help in that regard, but Trainor demurs.