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On a Friday afternoon at Bolling Air Force Base, a man who has won laurels for sculpting elaborate hairdos on four different continents has about a half-inch of hair with which to show off his magic. The enlisted man in front of him is no cosmetological model, but Nathaniel Mathis”Nat the Bush Doctor” to fans in less regulation-bound environsdoesn’t look fazed.
“I come here to exercise my eye-hand coordination skills by keeping up with barbers fast as anyone in the world,” Mathis explains. “At this speed, you draw on your unconscious competence. Once you touch someone, the hands know what to do.”
Without a word, they’re off: Mathis’ hands barely appear to move as he calmly crafts what for that brief minute is the most important half-inch of hair on Earth.
For Mathiswhom Time magazine in 1981 called “The Mahatma of Hair”military regulation cuts are a form of haiku; they represent creativity within rigid boundaries. Spending three days a week using just a scissors, a clipper, a brush, and sometimes a razor to commune with the heads of a hundred souls is his favorite form of meditation.
Before the weekend is over, the Bush Doctor will snip his way through dozens of similar haircuts on clients ranging from the airman who started the day to the 12-year-old blond boy whose active-duty father is picking up the $7 tab. All of the ‘dos are short, conservative, and decidedly unglamorous. But all of them, Mathis says, bring out their owners’ inner beautyeven when that translates into a nearly shaved martial head that looks more suited for an Air Force than a fashion runway.
The clients this afternoon don’t realize it, but the guy wielding the clippers is a living legend. Last spring, the 52-year-old barber earned himself a place in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The Nathaniel Mathis Collection of Barbering and Beauty Culture, an array of papers, photographs, and videos documenting Mathis’ career, became part of the National Museum of American History’s business-history collection. Mathis’ patented leather vest to hold barber tools and his trophies are in the collection of the Division of Cultural History. Nat the Bush Doctor’s African-American styling innovations now live in close proximity to America’s ultimate blond goddessthe Breck Girl.
Most barber shops have rows of pictures lining the walls. Maybe they’ll depict some choice haircuts, or, if the barber’s lucky, some celebrity clients. At Mathis’ Capitol Heights headquarters, though, the wall features snapshots of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Companyon whose D.C. run the Bush Doctor worked as head stylist.
Not far away from the thespians is a depiction of the Mathis-created straight-yet-curly “Wave Nouveau” style as worn by its most famous model, D.C. go-go music godfather Chuck Brown. Sprinkled here and there are quasi-Eastern accoutermentsto help Mathis visualize prosperityand tapes of his motivational seminar, in which he talks about “balancing the wheel of life.”
The decorations round out the eclectic life of Nat the Bush Doctorpractitioner of yoga, cultural politics, and the old-fashioned buzz cut. Born to a single mother in 1946 at the old Gallinger Hospital, Mathis grew up in far Northeast D.C. At Spingarn High School, he ran track and formed a singing group called the Stereophonics. The group sang locally, performed twice at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and left Mathis with a lifelong love of showmanship.
Mathis started cutting his friends’ hair at about age 12. After a year at Spingarn, he transferred to the one-year barbering course in Phelps Vocational School. In 1963, at 17, he dropped out of school once he got his barbering license.
Unlike many other black male barbers, Mathis learned to style women’s hair and also acquired a barber-stylist’s license. He worked for several shops around town and gained a following. But Mathis’ life really changed when his talents intersected with the explosive politics of the ’60s in the form of the Afro hairdo. All of a sudden, his array of styling optionsliterallymushroomed.
“When black folks first went to the Afro hairstyle, it had two different impacts on barbers,” Mathis says. “On one hand, it cost them, because men who had come in every week started going much longer between haircuts. On the other hand, women, who spend much more on their hair, started coming to barbers.”
When Mathis started off in the business, barbershops and beauty parlors were profoundly segregated by both race and gender. But in 1969, he and a partner broke the taboo by opening Washington’ first unisex black salon on Dean Avenue in far Northeast. Mathis banked on his ability to help men and women with different kinds of hair achieve the smooth, round Angela Davis look. To prove this effect was a result of skill, not only genetics, he once created “the perfect Afro” for a white customer live on television on a local black variety show, The C Thing.
On TV, the perfect Afro was played up as yet another sign of the changing times, but Mathis remembers it as more of a marketing triumph. “I did it to get attention and prove I could work with any type or texture of hair,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the far-flung world of competitive hair styling, Nat the Bush Doctor was gaining a national reputation. In 1976, he became the first African-American to compete in the World Hair Olympics. In 1981, he dominated the international competitions, winning a gold medal in Cairo using black women models. He won first place in Paris a few months later using a white male model.
By the ’80s, Mathis was a marketing attraction for the highly competitive black sector of America’s billion-dollar hair-care economy. In 1983, he says, Senegalese women treated him like a rock star when he was the first person to demonstrate Soft Sheen’s Care Free Curl in Africa during the continent’s first African-American-sponsored black-hair-care show. He later took the relaxer to Cameroon and Nigeria before coming back home.
For students of black culture, such a trip represents a paradox. Black nationalists regularly wax horrified at the folks making and selling products to straighten, curl, or relax black hair. But as Mathis and his Soft Sheen gear jetted to Senegal, he was among the few black Americans actually fulfilling Malcolm X’s dream of doing real business with their African brothers and sisters. For his part, Mathis has no regrets. “I felt great representing a black-owned company that was world-class,” he says. “Until then, the only service where [African beauticians] could charge, say, $50 was hair weaving. I saw the Care Free Curl as something that would help African stylists make a better living.”
Mathis’ deposit in America’s national attic represents more than one man’s professional triumph. The fact that the Smithsonian even has a collection dedicated to the business of beauty represents the arrival of a new scholarship in which everyday expressions of culturelike haircuts, blue jeans, or graffitiare considered every bit as historically valid as novels, paintings, or treaties.
And in no other community, perhaps, has the cultural significance of hairstyles been as great as among African-Americans. Malcolm X equated getting the straighteners out of his head with freeing his mind. More recently, Village Voice columnist Lisa Jones subtitled her first book “Tales of Race, Sex and Hair.”
Locally, historians of various stripes have been doing interpretive work on the history of barbering and hairdressing. According to George Mason University historian Jeffrey Stewart, the Afro, for instance, can’t be understood outside the larger youth politics of the ’60s. When young black men joined white guys in growing their hair long, they got just as much grief from their conservative elders. The Afro was as much a rebellion against the black bourgeoisie as it was against white people or the Vietnam War.
“My mother hated my hair long,” Stewart says. “My one black college adviser felt the same way. Because of my Afro, he banned me from the reception Brown University gave at my high school in L.A., even though I was the only brother in my class with a chance to make it into the Ivy League.”
Stewart’s wife, Duke Ellington High School teacher Marta Reid, had her hair voted “Best Afro” by the Anacostia High School class of 1973. Before Afros, Reid says, virtually all black women straightened their hair, and most used a hot comb. “At the time, me and most of my friends wore our hair in a style we called ‘fried, dyed and over to the side,’” she says. “I used to hate my mother, sisters, and I spending Friday night with the hot comb, going through the whole tugging, burning, and crying routine.”
But what scholarsand folks who simply lived through the Afro eranow regard as symbols of cultural liberation or generational conflict, Mathis experienced as just another professional challenge. To stylists, the Afro was a decadelong trend between the hot comb and the cold wave. As a commercial style, it peaked, just like everything else. Women who wanted to wear their hair “natural” began opting for other choices, such as braids and cornrows. Others went back to straight looks after the invention of the gentler cold and no-lye relaxers that have largely replaced hot combs.
Years later, the style, like the conflicts it created, lives on in old pictures and personal memories. Yet for historians seeking to put their fingers on the pulse of ’60s black America, something as concrete as a stylist’s collection of hairdos and personal papers provides a crucial tool. All of which makes folks like Mathis as important to the nation’s collective memory as the likes of Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt.
“We turn down many more collections than we can accept,” notes Smithsonian Chief Archivist John Fleckner. “So we evaluate potential acquisitions in terms of the richness of the stories they tell about the person and his times….We’ve inherited a long visual heritage, and some of it is full of stereotypes. It’s great to be able to include some of the images black people have made of themselves.”
Looking at the Mathis Collection in the Archives Center on the third floor of the National Museum of American History isn’t as tough as getting onto the air base for one of his Friday haiku-cuts. But it’s not quite as simple as popping in to the museum’s pendulum exhibit, either. First, you have to make an appointment. During your first visit, you’re required learn the proper handling of the materials. You have to be gentle and precise, because what you’re looking at is now an official historic specimen. Only after you’ve promised to be careful will the archivists let you research the collection.
Nat the Bush Doctor’s 36-year journey through the art, business, and politics of the cultural revolution in African-American self-images is held in nine gray acid-free boxes. The somber, quiet research room couldn’t be more different from the intensely social space of the barbershop.
That’s not to say, though, that Mathis’ place in black hair history is off-limits to everyone but cloistered academics. Buy yourself a ticket and a bucket of popcorn, and you can relax with Nat the Bush Doctor’s craftsmanship at any movie theater in town.
Mastering straighteners, perms, and relaxers has allowed Mathis to get Hollywood work doing period ‘dos. He scored his first movie job with Dick, a forthcoming movie about Richard Nixon. The script called for about 100 black demonstrators with ’70s styles. He’s hit Hollywood fairly regularly ever since. Last month, Mathis was part of a massive hair mobilization for Diner creator Barry Levinson’s new Baltimore film Liberty Heights.
“It was just madness,” says Eileen Barrett, a theatrical hairdresser who also worked on the film. “We needed 500 black extras with the right hairstyles for a 1950s James Brown concert. That’s when you need the Bush Doctor to help teach all the rest of us what was the authentic look at the time.”CP