I have wondered, though, what kind of spiral I would have taken had the friend on that video call, not said “N.A.A.C.P. lawyer,” if she had looked at my face and said, “You look like Clarence Thomas” or Herman Cain or Ben Carson (Carson’s goatee has, on occasion, been only a mustache). What if she had pinned me to a bootstraps mentality that rejects racism as a root of injustice, that believes you’re your own responsibility? I would have felt cornered, I suppose. Personal accountability isn’t nothing. This country just won’t let it be all. The extant number of Black firsts, rares, onlys, nevers, not yets and not quites attests to that, as does the chronic too manys, too oftens and too soons.
I like to think that I would have absorbed her “Clarence Thomas” and regaled her with a separate lineage. I would have told her that I hail from a long line of family mustaches. Uncle Gene’s made him look famous. Uncle Jack’s got bushy after World War II and pretty much stayed that way. My grandmother’s last husband, Jimmy, wore his in a style best described as “sharpened.” How did she kiss that thing and not need stitches? Her first husband, my grandfather, kept his barely there. Both their sons had one. Her brother Marcellus liked his thin. My mother loved my stepfather’s, because, well, she loved him. My father had his phases. Three of his brothers had them, too; the fourth, Uncle Bill, had an ascot — had you ever met Uncle Bill, you would conclude that the ascot essentially was a mustache.
It might just have been simpler to say who didn’t have one than who did. I don’t know what everybody’s politics were, but as a clan, we were a Thanksgiving spread, a little of everything yet nothing so outrageous that the advancement for colored people would ever be off the table. These were workingmen, providers, not activists but voters, certainly. Their mustaches strike me now as a generational phenomenon. These people were all born between 1920 and 1950. Of their children, only my cousins Butchie and Kyle are describable as mustache men.
This is why I’ve kept mine. It’s me squeezing my way into a parallel heritage. In this small sense, the work I do caring for it feels connected to a legacy of people who did and do the work chipping at and thinking with this nation. The good work.
Something obvious in just about any photograph taken of Black Americans during the civil rights era is how put-together everyone is. They wore to war what they wore to church. The country was watching. People got dressed up to withstand being put down. They dressed with full awareness that an outfit risked ruin: skirts twisted round, glasses cracked, ribbons undone, hair soaked, fabric stained with mustard, cream and blood. What hat didn’t stand a good chance of permanent separation from its wearer? What fine pair of shoes didn’t risk meeting its doom? A mustache, though? Hard to mar one of those. It was a magisterial vestige of elegance in defiance. It couldn’t be snatched at or yanked. It held its ground, no matter how many times a nightstick or fist might attempt to remove it.
I look at those pictures and wonder about getting dressed — for contempt — about grooming oneself for it. Maintaining a mustache requires a surgical delicacy, a practiced lightness. I tend to save it for last, strenuously avoiding that part of a shave, for as delighted as I am by the sound of the scraping of the blade against my skin, some doubt never fails to creep into the mustache stage. It’s a dismount, match point. Can I close this out? Is this going to be the shave the mustache doesn’t survive? I have dreamed that I’ve lost it, that it just leapt off my face and I chased it around my house. Destroying it is always possible, but you’re more likely just to turn it into something else, something you would be terrified to wear. Mine is actually a pre-emption. I go with the Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia” because I don’t trust that I have the hands for the Denzel of “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
This is also to say that, for the righteous and wayward alike, the process entails a disturbance of the line between vanity and knowledge of self. In 2018, Martin Luther King Jr.’s former barber, Nelson Malden, spoke to Alabama Public Radio about grooming King: “He was more concerned about his mustache than his haircut. He always liked his mustache to be up off the lip, like a butterfly. He would tell me, ‘Make it like a butterfly this time.’”