|"Most people are sitting on the dock of the bay waiting for their ship to
come in. But, just waiting won't do it...We don't tap our own power or
potential...Everyone has great values, great worth in himself or herself and
can become anything he or she wants." So said Nathaniel Mathis in the 1986
book about his life "Portrait of a Professional: The Nat the Bush Doctor
Story." And 15 years later the famed barber-stylist remains a testimony to
that personal philosophy. He doesn't sit back and wait for things to happen,
he recognizes his value and has no reservation in sharing it with the world.
Nat the Bush Doctor was recently in the spotlight because the 55-year was a
member of the 2001 graduating class of Prince George's Community College.
This is a major accomplishment for a man who did not graduate from high
school. But the Capitol Heights resident, who calls himself a "Master
Student," said that attending college has broadened his life. This is yet
another accomplishment in the Bush Doctor's celebrated story.
In 1999 Mathis was again in the public eye for his inclusion in the
Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History's
business-history collection. The Nathaniel Mathis Collection of Barbering and
Beauty Culture represented the first time that the Smithsonian had recognized
an African-American hair icon. The barber turned over 30 years worth of
materials including letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, trophies and
his patented leather vest, among other things, that tells his story as it
documents the cultural significance of the African-American preoccupation
An oral history component was also added, Mathis explained, as he and some of
his clients, some of whom go back 30 years, were interviewed for the
collection. In fact, the project is ongoing as long as Mathis remains behind
the chair, cutting and styling hair.
But for all this renewed attention, the Smithsonian did not come looking for
Mathis, he took his personal archive to it. He explained that at the
conclusion of a motivational speech by cookie entrepreneur Wally Amos at the
Smithsonian, archivist Faith Ruffins invited those in attendance to look
around in their closets, basements and attics because there was possibly a
wealth of historical information buried there.
"It was like she was talking directly to me," said Mathis, "because
throughout my career I have collected most of the things that I've gotten
acclaim for. I had kept all the things that sorta tell the story about the
things I have done in my life." He approached Ruffins and introduced himself.
She too was familiar with the legacy of "the Bush Doctor" and invited him to
send her a package of his materials. "When they got that they wanted more so
I took it to them and they looked at it all and they said `I think you've got
something here; this is history.'"
Mathis was propelled into the spotlight in the early 60s because of the Afro.
In fact he is credited with its creation. And his evolution as a
barber-stylist in some regard, parallels the hair transformations that have
taken place in the black community. "Back in the 60s black people were making
a statement with our hair and we decided to just let it grow, let it be what
it was gonna be. I saw a market in that and decided, why not beautify this
thing and let it really look the part and represent the person's image. In
doing so I guess I came up with something that was really unique and that
could stand the test of time."
And Mathis' handiwork has indeed helped to transfix an era in our minds. Some
of our strongest images of the 60s and 70s include the majesty of the Afro as
it proudly declared the political mantra "I'm black and I'm proud." It
recalls images of Angela Davis, Huey Newton and other activists who took a
political stand against the racist white power structure that denied blacks
their basic human rights. But this symbol of black power was also clearly a
fashion statement, and like bellbottom pants and platform shoes, the cooler
you were, the bigger your `fro.'
Today, a retro version of the Afro has returned to Generation X. Sports icons
like Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, singer Maxwell and a growing
number of neighborhood youth in the metropolitan area have made the old style
"The Afro has always been with us, it's never really faded out, it may have
gotten a little shorter, in most cases, but it's never really left. Think of
Ron Brown, Jesse Jackson and Eleanor Norton, it's a standard look. And other
people resort to it when they've burnt all their hair out from using too many
chemicals. So, the Afro will always be around," Mathis said.
"The young kids are really into it now and while many of them don't really
connect it to the history of the 60s and 70s; they are making their own
statement today because they are going against what is expected."
Sadly, the absurdity of our reality is we are still in a society where a
celebration of the naturalness of black hair, whether with the Afro,
cornrows, locks or twists is making a `statement' while processing the hair
is accepted as a norm.
Mathis admits that much of his clients today come to him for processed styles
like the curl, but his name, though originally connected to the natural Afro,
he believes is still deserved. "When you do something to the black hair,
you're doctoring it, you're changing it from one structure to another. Even
braiding it extends the natural wave pattern of the black hair. So I still
lay claim to my name, the Bush Doctor. These days anything goes and that's
what's exciting about being in the hair business."
And while the shift from naturals to process styles has political
implications, Mathis says for him the shift was economic. "Financially, a lot
of barbers went out of business because they couldn't do the Afro, then when
the Afro died down there was another craze, the curl. And to stay in business
you had to move to the next phase. But even though you change, you have to
maintain your specialty and I try not to deviate too far from my claim to
fame. What I focus on doing now is building my clientele with all the
services that I do well."
Mathis works his hair magic out of Nat's Beauty Center, a cozy home-based
salon in Capitol Heights, Md., but on weekends he can be found cutting the
hair of military personnel at Bolling Air Force Base. "I do it to keep my
barbering skills sharp," he said. He also lends his expertise to movie
projects. He added a hair of authenticity to the period movies "Dick," a
story about former president Richard Nixon and the Barry Levinson film
"Liberty Heights." In addition, he remains a consultant for Soft Sheen Hair
Care Products, a position he has held since 1979 when he helped the company
expand its market into Africa.
When he's not working on hair, he shifts his focus to the mind with his
motivational seminars. "It was almost natural for me to do these seminars. As
a barber or stylist you bond with your clients. You get to understand the
person, you know how they want to look. And a good hair stylist is like a
good psychoanalyst: you listen well and you relieve people of stress and
tension." The seminar is called "The Dynamics of Feeling Good About Yourself"
and focuses on the Wheel of Life or "the eight phases of life: spiritual,
mental, physical, social, family, profession, community support and
Mathis will be taking his workshop to young people throughout the area in
coming weeks in an effort to encourage teens to do and look their best. He
explains that these teen workshops will affirm for them that anything is
possible, and as proof Mathis only needs to share his own story. "My thing
right now is focused on helping people get to where they want to go in their
lives with my seminars as I continue to reinvent myself. The new attention on
the work I started over 30 years ago is flattering but I can't spend time
ego-tripping about it. For me, what is important is that my love of hair is
just as strong as when I picked up a pair of scissors all those years ago."