Can Bow Ties and Barber Shops Bring Black Men Together?

What will it take to bring black men together? And, where can black men claim a space to proliferate even the simplest of traditions in peace?

What will it take to bring black men together? Black boys are estranged from their fathers, detained from society and expelled from schools at rates that make us strangers in our own communities. Clearly, driving-while-black, stop-n-frisk, shop-n-frisk and Stand Your Ground laws have become morbid rites of passage that usher black males out of society. But not only does our sanctioned alienation make black men and boys strangers to the rest of society, black men are strangers to one another.

Consequently, black men must find our own place—physical and metaphysical. Inside we must articulate who and where we are. The requisites for self-definition include logistical matters of claiming physical and metaphysical spaces to gather, discuss, and exchange ideas for improvement.

What will it take to bring black men together? This massive question can start with simple traditions like men teaching boys how to tie ties in the confines of a safe space. A few years ago I started organizing what I've been naming "tie-tying ceremonies" of which I recruit approximately 20 upright men and 20 boys who are on the verge of greatness and sorrow to participate in the progressive and taken for granted rite of passage—tie tying. The men and boys teach each other. In the process of tying bows, Windsors and four in hands, we learn the significance of fraternity, the need for safe spaces, and the style of love.

The intent of the tie-tying ceremony is to bring young urban males into social networks that increase the likelihood of college attendance and completion. Tie-tying ceremonies encourage students to consider professions that require tie wearing. In addition, we hope to connect potential mentors and protégés. However, the bigger purpose is to bring black men together.

I recently introduced a tie-tying ceremony—the ceremony's featured in the award-winning documentary Close Ties: Tying on a New Tradition—to a group of urban youth in Grand Rapids, Michigan in cooperation with Grand Rapids Public Schools, Head-N-Sole Barbershop and the Grand Rapids Black Chamber of Commerce.

A consequence of black male isolation is that many boys grow up not knowing how to tie the most distinguishing knots. Bow ties have made a resurgence of sorts particularly in hipster circles, and black dandies have always sported flavorful neck wear. However, the majority of black males are largely strangers to these coteries. In many urban schools that demand uniforms, most students wear generic clip ons, which provide a clue to the kind of education they're actually receiving. There is a basic need to teach boys how to tie neck wear. But again, what will it take to bring black men together? And, where can black men claim a space to proliferate even the simplest of traditions in peace?

One of the few spaces black men can still lay claim to is a barbershop. For one, men actually accept counseling in barbershops. Nothing brings out humanness from a man like clipper buzz. In a world in which Tupac and Kanye West are considered role models for male expression, barbershops often remind men of emotions that exist other than anger and lust. Black men desperately need to be intimate and vulnerable, especially with each other. W.E.B. Dubois famously asked a question of self-reflection, "How does it feel to be a problem?" An honest response requires a safe space. Black men in the very least must admit that we are scared and can't even ask for help.

Barbershops are also places where lessons are readily taught. In the barbershop, I learned how to debate, dress and meet people whom I would seldom see elsewhere. Wayward youth learn from elders, and old sages learn from young bucks. I love the old school barbershops where men and boys tightly line the walls like brown fence planks. I can never remember an unhappy moment in the barbershop. I still don't know of a place in which laughter welcomes you and ushers you out. Barbershops are wonderfully convenient spaces to bring black men together.

Why not bring the traditions of tying ties and the barbershop together? I initiated the ceremony in New Orleans, and I hope all barbershops across the country can conduct similar events.

But let's be clear. Some of the most evil men in the world wear ties. While the event will make Bill Cosby and many grandmothers happy, it's not a "pull up your pants" kind of event. In addition, this is not an easy solvent to a larger problem. If males don't bond during the process, even this rather benign event can become toxic.

I've learned a key lesson from previous attempts to encourage traditions motivated by the larger question of "What will it take to bring black men together?" No, the simple tradition of tie tying in barbershops won't do it. However, claiming space and having intimate dialogues that lead to a reimagined self will.

Pay it forward: Share your skills with youth in your community.

Andre Perry is the Founding Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University and is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City. He can be reached at or on Twitter.


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