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Back in time in a barber's chair

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, November 2, 2009

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Chapel Hill, NC - What is the most segregated hour in the week?

The 11 o’clock Sunday church service? Or maybe it is the hour we spend every week or two at the barber shop or beauty salon. Those institutions of renewal, relaxation, and exchange of information and opinion continue to be largely divided by sex and race—especially those that serve the older population.

Growing up in Davidson 50 years ago, the barber shops on Main Street were strictly segregated. Whites were the only customers, even though the shops were owned and run by African Americans.

Fifty years ago, the favorite barber of many Davidson College students was a young man named Joe McClain. He had grown up in Davidson and served in the military. He looked like an athlete and shared an interest in sports with many of his customers. A good listener, he made friends easily and probably knew as many students as anybody else in town. He could have fit in at any college classroom or fraternity house, except….except for the color of his skin.

He was quietly tactful about everything. He never complained about the segregated social system that kept our lives from intersecting at places other than the barber shop and also limited his options for professional or social acceptance in the college community.

He was a big basketball fan. When I was playing for the Davidson team, we developed a special friendship around that common interest. Always supportive, he nevertheless found a diplomatic way to make a few suggestions for how we might do it a little better. At almost every game, I could look up in the balcony of Johnston Gym where the African American fans sat and see Joe on the front row.

Last week, passing through Davidson, I looked in Raeford’s Barber Shop and saw Joe McClain standing by a barber’s chair. It was closing time. Joe was closing down his station, ready to go home.

“Wait,” I said to him, “you haven’t cut my hair in almost 50 years, and I might never have another chance to get the McClain treatment.”

I wondered what we would talk about. But not for long. “You know, D.G., I am glad I lived to experience some of the new ways, the new things….We’ve made some good progress.”

We talked some more. Then I asked him how he had felt about having to watch the basketball games in the balcony, when he was one of the biggest fans.

“It didn’t bother me much. It was just the way things were back then. We just found ways to work around most things and get along. Most white people were nice to me, and I tried to be nice to them. I tried to get along with everybody. In fact, I didn’t have any problem—except for once when I almost attacked a man who called me a [the “N” word].

I wondered, still wonder, if he was just pretending, maybe still covering up some powerful hidden anger. Or had his friendly connections simply reached across that oppressive segregated divide?

I left home and Joe’s barber chair in 1962. Soon afterwards, the winds of change blew a little stronger. Joe’s nephew helped integrate the North Mecklenburg Rebel football team.

In the 1970s Joe, himself, opened another door, becoming the first African American town council person in Davidson.

I had been in the chair almost an hour when Joe gently laid a hot towel on my face. It felt so good even as it signaled the end of our reminiscing. Soothing as it was, this conclusion still left me wondering how either of us could have been the least bit comfortable with the way things were the last time I had felt his warm towel fall on my face.


D.G. Martin is hosting his tenth and final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

This Sunday’s (November 8) guest is Barry Popkin, author of “The World Is Fat,” a compelling professional appraisal of the causes and consequences of the accelerating world obesity epidemic.

November 8
Barry Popkin
The World Is Fat
Today, the planet's 1.3 billion overweight people by far outnumber the 700 million who are undernourished. This figure would have seemed ludicrous just fifty years ago, when hunger was the world's most pressing nutritional problem.

In The World Is Fat, Barry Popkin argues that the fattening of the human race is not simply about that next cheeseburger; rather, it is a result of an unprecedented collision of human biology with trends in technology, globalization, government policy, and the food industry that are changing how we eat and how we live.

Popkin, whose expertise in both nutrition and economics makes him uniquely qualified to write this book, compares our lifestyles today with those of half a century ago through the stories of five families living in the United States, Mexico, and India. He shows how increasing access to media and exposure to advertising, a powerful food industry, the rise of Wal-Mart like shopping centers, and a dramatic decline in physical activity are clashing with millions of years of human evolution, creating a world of overweight people with debilitating health problems such as diabetes. Ultimately, Popkin contends that widespread obesity is less a result of poor individual dietary choices than about a hi-tech, interconnected world in which governments and multinational corporations have extraordinary power to shape our everyday lives.

In this episode of North Carolina Bookwatch, Popkin discusses his eye-opening look at the obesity epidemic

Upcoming Bookwatch programs:

Nov 8

Barry Popkin The World Is Fat

Nov 15

Erica Eisdorfer The Wet Nurse’s Tale

Nov 22

Kate Betterton Where the Lake Becomes the River

Nov 29

Shelby Stephenson Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl

Dec 6

Ron Rash Serena

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Back in time in a barber's chair

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