Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a Chicago barber is utilizing the support of her community to spread a powerful message, “Just Persevere”. On a sunny day while sheltering in place, I had the privilege of having a virtual sit down with my friend and barber, Jessica Putman aka J. Putman, to discuss how the pandemic has impacted her and her business. These conversations are usually ones we have during a haircut or over dinner with friends, but we recognize and respect how times have changed. Interviewing Putman has been on my mind for years, but the timing was never right. Now that we are finding ourselves with more time on our hands, this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to share the perfect message. This hour long conversation was filled with laughs and watery eyes as we dove into how she has been able to persevere.
J. Putman is many things to many folks, but to know her is to know her story. “For that I have to take you way back.” She says. Germany was not her first home but it’s where she developed a love for gymnastics. Putman's skills in tumbling led her to cheerleading once her family made their way to Houston, then Austin, Texas. If you ask her she’ll tell you. She is a 100% Texan, unashamed and a totally proud cowgirl; cowboy boots, big belt buckle, and a cowboy hat to complete the look.
“I still need my eyebrows done, I still need my nails done.”
Most times you see her in pants with the right amount of give, a t-shirt tight enough to show off her muscles, and a fitted cap. We know this style to be defined as “studly” in the Black queer community, but she’s so much more. Despite how some may assume that dressing more masculine equates a lack of femininity, Putman doesn't play any games when it comes to her self care. “I still need my eyebrows done, I still need my nails done.” Putman talked about how cheering instilled a love for grooming and pampering herself in this way. “You know I’ll do an eyebrow and a soft beat in a minute.” As someone who has walked into the shop to witness the look, I’m impressed that she does it herself. It was during one of our earlier sessions, when I noticed her nail set.
At that time she worked out of a Black cis man-owned barber shop. It was in that moment I realized she was different from any idea I had for a woman in this profession. This small detail made me more comfortable with her as my barber. She wasn’t overly masculine to fit in with the “boys” or extra feminine in this “man’s job” as a way to let people know she was still a woman, and most importantly, still herself. In the three years she has been my barber and as our friendship has developed, I can honestly say she has been authentically Jess, “I like to feel pretty."
Even though her tumbling days are behind her, the bubbly personality associated with cheerleaders is alive and well. During the process of building her brand, she reached out to her clients asking, “What makes me stand out from other barbers?” She received a flood of answers, but the responses consistently showed it was not only her talent but her personality. Her character has led her to ensure the shops she works in are safe spaces for her clients. The clients she has worked so hard to protect over the years are the ones extending that same protection during the pandemic.
This isn’t the first time she has leaned on her community to stay focused on her vision. Near the finish line of a decade-long journey of turning a passion for cutting hair into a profession, Putman was struggling with full-time work and full-time school. Forced to choose, she chose her passion but it was her chosen family who embraced her. Struggling to make payments for school as well as needing a place to stay while she finished, her friends offered her a place where rent was paid to make room for her to achieve goals. Her purpose grew bigger and the goal became the mission of her community. Trusting her community isn’t new for her, but it’s always a “humbling moment.” There is a different level of uncertainty during a pandemic because we are experiencing it as a collective. As scary as the lack of job security has been, she hasn’t let it wave her morals or her commitment to the overall wellbeing of her clients.
Putman stood firm in following the stay-at-home order brought down by Governor Pritzker and used social media to advocate for people to stay at home to protect one another. As hard of a decision as it was to abide by the order and live with the uncertainty accompanied with loss of income, Putman remained steadfast in protecting the community. Leaving the salon on March 14th with $400 in her pocket and overwhelming anxiety about when she’ll be able to return, it wasn’t long before her community stepped in once again to ensure she made it through.
Putman’s clients paid her in advance, donated funds to help her sustain, and actively supported her rebranding. By quickly turning to her community she was able to create a new logo and merch with her brand new look. The new logo from the looks of it, it is a “J” and a “P” for her initials but her new logo has a meaning we can all carry with us, “It’s my initials but it also means Just Persevere.” I thought to myself that’s a bold message, this idea of pushing through a struggle. It wasn’t until after our conversation when I realized how accurate this phrase is to her life. I chuckled because it made complete sense.
Putman altered her career plans to focus on her passion and with ups and downs, she did just that, persevered. She recalled the time her car was broken into and all her equipment was stolen and how her community had her back to ensure she was able to complete her program. “It’s definitely where it started but the real meaning took a little time to actualize.”
Over the years of haircuts and game nights, I’ve heard these stories. Putman is an example of the possibilities that come with walking in your truth. From her expression to her purpose, Putman stands true to who she is and doors open up in the darkest moments. It’s not about fighting through hard times and struggle, but maintaining who you know yourself to be and remain consistent during the struggle. When times get hard, such as a pandemic that stops or limits your ability to work, or when people may not understand the things you do, “Just Persevere.”
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Erma. Ishara (Standley) is a trans non-binary artist, writer, facilitator, and community organizer. They are the creator of The FemmeBoi a trans non-binary multimedia company creating affirming, entertaining, and educational content centering the lives of BIPOC creators. Ishara’s work focuses on creating content and community spaces centering diverse queer experiences. Ishara has facilitated gender education workshops for nationwide brands as well as consulting and coaching. They have worked with Chicago-based Black LGBTQ+ organization, Affinity Community Services, and currently work at a Black youth political education organization.