In 2017, two years before his death, Ernest J. Gaines published The Tragedy of Brady Sims, a novella that opens with the titular character shooting and killing his newly convicted son in the Bayonne courthouse. Unlike his earlier work—especially A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—Brady Sims has yet to be brought into many scholarly discussions, a gap which seems reflective only of time and certainly not of the novella’s richness and depth. Brady Sims, a character who Gaines noted during the 2017 National Book Festival is based on certain men in his own community growing up, is tasked with disciplining Bayonne’s young Black population, often harshly, in an effort to keep them out of trouble and out of Angola Prison, a place in which men were often tortured and killed. Despite the book’s opening scene taking place in the courthouse and the specter of Angola hanging over the text, The Tragedy of Brady Sims takes place mostly in a local barbershop, where young Black cub reporter Louis Guerin is sent by his boss to gather material for a human interest story on Sims. The centrality of the Black barbershop in the novella is impossible to ignore, and one very small first step in discussing Gaines’s final book might be to investigate how the barbershop operates within the text, which starts with understanding that the Black barbershop holds important historical and literary space. Many folks have written about the various characteristics and uses of the Black barbershop, and identifying a few of its key qualities and functions will be helpful in illuminating how it operates within Gaines’s novella.
Aesthetically, the Black barbershop is recognizable because of how it is organized and decorated, and the aesthetics themselves aid in facilitating conversations and transactions that go beyond the hygienic and economic ones we might expect to find in the space. Trudier Harris identifies many of the distinguishing physical features of the Black barbershop, including the presence of “several straightback chairs or benches … for customers and non-customers” as well as “miscellaneous pictures” on the walls (112). David Shabazz notes about a Lexington, Kentucky barbershop he conducted research in that it has “chairs for at least 10 waiting customers” and walls which are “lined with African American icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the current U.S. President Barack Obama” (301). Lucas Felix’s barbershop, which Louis Guerin visits in The Tragedy of Brady Sims, is set up similarly with several “dark green vinyl” chairs for both customers and non-customers as well as pictures of figures such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X (22). Felix’s barbershop also contains other crucial elements Harris and Shabazz identify such as a television and a radio. While these elements may seem on the surface to serve only an aesthetic purpose, they also contribute to the way the barbershop functions—specifically, as an important communal space for Black men to gather.
Harris calls the Black barbershop an “institution,” a space in which Black men feel at home to “sit, chat, and commune with other men in an unhurried fashion” (113) while Shabazz echoes the importance of the non-economic, communal function of the barbershop, likening it to a type of church. In Brady Sims, this aspect of the Black barbershop is reflected in Guerin’s observations about the men who spend their days there: “Sometimes they are there to get a haircut, but most times just to have a place to come and talk” (23). We might understand, then, that the actual haircutting that goes on in Felix’s barbershop and perhaps in Black barbershops more broadly is not the most important function of the business, though outsiders may understand it to be so. Each of the men in Felix’s barbershop has an unofficial role—one which every other member of the community understands. Everyone knows, for example, that Sidney is “the intellectual of the barbershop” (24). Like in most communities, every person serves a vital and distinct role that leads to the continued functioning of the group.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Black barbershop, at least in relation to Brady Sims, is its ability to be a site for storytelling and the dissemination of information. The book is set in the barbershop precisely because Guerin is seeking the roots of a human interest story about Sims, after all. Shabazz reminds us that the community formed by Black men in the barbershop leads to an important (and constant) “exchange of information” (298) while Harris similarly highlights the barbershop’s existence as an “information center” in which “political, social, and moral issues” are discussed (117). This is the barbershop’s most critical task in Gaines’s novella because without the exchanging of stories and information about Brady Sims which Louis Guerin, the narrator, is witness to, we would be unable to understand the complexities of Brady Sims himself and of the narrative more broadly. That is, it is only through the information disseminated by the barbershop community—largely, the character of Jamison—through the act of storytelling that we come to understand Sims as someone who is perhaps seemingly harsh in his treatment of young Black boys and men in Bayonne but whose actions stem from a need to protect those very same boys and men. Jamison tells those gathered at Felix’s that Brady Sims was picked as “the man to do the job” (38) of keeping children—his own and Bayonne’s—out of jail and out of Angola. Beyond functioning as a historically accurate and rich representation of the Black barbershop, then, the scenes in Felix’s barbershop work to both clarify and complicate Sims as a character and to move the narrative forward because it is through the barbershop’s phone and television that everyone learns Sims has committed suicide.
This is, of course, hopefully merely the beginning of a conversation about how the Black barbershop in The Tragedy of Brady Sims functions as well as broader critical conversations about this novella which, despite its breadth, offers a deep portrait of the results of racist, violent legal and penal practices in Louisiana. The barbershop, I suspect, will be central to much future scholarship about Gaines’s final book, and the final line of the book perhaps indicates this: “Behind us, Lucas Felix was turning out the lights in the barbershop” (114). The book ends when the barbershop closes, not when Guerin learns about Sims or writes a human interest story or even when Sims commits suicide. Even after the deaths of Sims’s son and Sims himself, the barbershop is a physical space in which the community members have the knowledge and ability to continue telling stories and disseminating information about those men, and while this is no substitute for a life or for a community in which such seemingly violent protection of Black men and boys is not necessary, it does solidify the importance of the Black barbershop in Bayonne, a place that “fill[s] a void by highlighting Black leaders and events through conversation and imagery,” (Shabazz 310) in this case highlighting the pivotal role of Brady Sims as a local Black leader whose actions—up to and including his own death—have had the protection of the Black body as their goal.
“Ernest Gaines on ‘The Tragedy of Brady Sims’ at the 2017 National Book Festival.” YouTube, uploaded by PBS Books, 13 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b9srFdQkro.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Tragedy of Brady Sims. Vintage, 2017.
Harris, Trudier. “The Barbershop in Black Literature.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 13, no. 3, 1979, pp. 112-118, www.jstor.org/stable/3041528. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
Shabazz, David L. “Barbershops as Cultural Forums for African American Males.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 47, no. 4, 2016, pp. 295-312, doi: 10.1177/0021934716629337. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.