Sometimes a well-done children’s story is the best way to introduce complex and difficult issues, even reminding adults what is really at the heart of the matter. The loving tale of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, is one of these.
The story is told by Sarah Jean – great-niece of sweet Uncle Jed – in a readable storytelling style. Growing up in the American South just before the Great Depression, her Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county – and by extension, the only barber who would cut a black man’s hair. He traveled to his patrons on horseback, accepting what payment his neighbors could offer. Little Sarah Jean loved his visits. Uncle Jed would tell her all about the beautiful barbershop he was saving up to open one day. Nobody ever thought he would, because times were hard and a black man was at a disadvantage to say the least. But Sarah Jean dreamed right along with him.
Then little Sarah Jean fell desperately sick, and doctors would only perform the necessary operation to save her if the family paid cash up front. Only one person in the family had that kind of money, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. Jed lost his life savings a second time when the Great Depression hit, but no matter what obstacles rose between him and his goals he kept on dreaming, and he taught a wide-eyed little girl to do the same.
Uncle Jed’s kind smile comes to life in both the text and the gorgeous paintings of this winsome book. The difficulties of segregation and racial injustice are not minimized or sugarcoated, but are treated gently and respectfully. Some details should be discussed with children upon reading it, such as the separate waiting rooms at the hospital and why the doctors treated white patients first. But the story is not dominated by these very real hardships; like Uncle Jed, it rises above them. The most remarkable feature of this book is the character of Uncle Jed; a man who faced oppression and injustice with hard work, dignity, kindness, hope, and a generous love of his family and community.
I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Uncle Jed ever opens that fancy barber shop, but I will tell you the ending warms the heart. The challenging themes of inequality represented in the book will be more easily explained to children age five and up, but the overwhelming message of goodness is perfect for all ages.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco