- September 29, 2021
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When seated in Chanta Barfield’s chair, clients can be in their most vulnerable states. No matter what is happening in their lives, whether they lost a job or are fighting cancer, Barfield makes it her mission to lend an open ear.
“You don’t always have to talk all the time,” Barfield said about her role as a hair stylist. “But just being warm, being welcoming and listen.”
Barfield is not a therapist by trade, although it’s one of the many roles she plays. As owner of Pure Essence Salon on Magnolia Avenue, she has cultivated a community hub over the past 10 years in business — a place where people can open up and let their hair down for what regular customers consider the best service in town.
Barfield began braiding her own hair in middle school and later began styling hair for her friends. Next came high school training and cosmetology school, before landing jobs at other salons in town.
“I guess I’ve always liked doing hair,” she said. “It was just natural.”
And whether customers want to wear their hair natural or need braiding, straightening, coloring or a weave, Barfield can make it happen. She’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, she said, and there’s just something extra special about “having your own.”
For many Black women, rocking their natural hair has broken through rigid cultural standards about how to wear hair created and enforced by white Americans and institutions with no knowledge of Black styling.
“It makes you feel confident, strong, and it gives you a sense of self,” said Dennisa Smith, a Pure Essence client who first met Barfield in 5th grade. “It was a stigma in our society to wear our natural hair and people looked down on it.”
“But to be able to stand up and be like, ‘This is who I am, and this is how beautiful I am with it,’ it makes me feel … strong and empowered as a woman.”
For many Black women, Barfield said, hair is their “crowning glory.” But she doesn’t limit herself to Black clients.
“Hair is hair to me,” Barfield said. “I won’t say Caucasian hair or Black hair because some people have thin, fine, straight hair. But most of ours have texture. It’s coarse, curlier than others, thicker than others.”
Barfield first learned to style white people’s hair through a high school vocational program in Knoxville. With fewer opportunities to learn how to style Black hair in East Tennessee, she finished her training in Michigan after graduating from Karns High School.
Despite her versatility and the handful of white clients she sees, not everyone can see past color.
“I don’t know if people feel comfortable with African-American stylists sometimes,” she said. “You don’t get all the help that is out there, and sometimes it’s just because of color.”
Being a Black woman and a single mother is an important part of her role as a business owner. Representation is important in the Knoxville business scene, she said, because it proves to aspiring business owners that their dreams can be reached.
“Success for me, I think, is longevity,” she said. “Anybody can pick up and start a business. … But keeping your business and running it and keep growing your business, that (sets you up) for a successful business.”
But in the short term, success is seeing her clients turn around after a haircut with a smile on their face — feeling and looking better than when they first walked in the salon.
Patricia Talford recently visited Barfield for a trim, perm and dye ahead of starting a new job.
“I wanted a change and so, in order to have a change, I have to come to the best,” she said. “Just not anybody can (cut) this old lady’s hair.”
Barfield feels rewarded each time this success is achieved, whether the hair she styled was for a special occasion or just because it was growing too long. But the conversations she has with customers can be equally important.
“When I get through, I’m going to feel better,” Talford said from the salon chair. “Your guard is down. So, this is a time where we can just feel at ease and just have a nice conversation.”
It’s the salon owner, Talford said, who helps customers feel comfortable sharing their stories, from the hardest struggles to the grandest achievements.
“The salon, barbershop just in general is a place where people feel comfortable – where they can talk about their life, talk about what’s going on or even get some helpful advice,” Barfield said. “And you do have to make your clients or your people feel comfortable and feel like they’re welcome.”
Barfield’s kids grew up running around the shop. But even when they’re not there, she feels surrounded by family just by speaking with her customers.
“Don’t take people or anything for granted because there is a few of my customers that have passed away,” she said. “You miss their stories or them just talking to you. Or, you miss their presence.”
Barfield always wanted to be a business owner, so she is appreciative of her career trajectory and the invaluable lessons that came with working her way up.
Having a partner in the early years of Pure Essence helped her adjust to the business owner lifestyle. And when that partner left, Barfield’s own perseverance helped her take hold of the reigns.
For anyone who wants to start a business, her advice is simple: “Do it.”
“You’re going to have some challenges, but stay focused,” she said. “Set your goals and go for it. Even if you hear ‘no, no, no, no,’ then you take another avenue. You can do it.”