Exploring the art of prose


Excerpts from The Space Between by Herb Harris

Image is a color photograph of a barbershop with a yellow door; title card for the 2023 CRAFT ME&EC editors' choice selection, Excerpts from "The Space Between," by Herb Harris.

These excerpts from Herb Harris’s memoir, The Space Between, form one of two pieces picked as an editors’ choice selection for the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest. Our editors chose work that demonstrates the unlimited vibrancy and scope of creative nonfiction.

Mirrors and reflections appear throughout these outstanding memoir excerpts from Herb Harris. In a setting as innocuous as a local barbershop, Harris strikes out on a journey not only to assess his own identity, but also to examine how he is perceived by the world around him—no matter how disorienting that quest might prove. Harris opens the piece: “I must begin by telling you that I am Black.” He makes this declaration in the space between pride and confession. By focusing on hair and optical illusions, he affirms that identity is not a singular concept; it is many selves—mirrored individuals and slightly altered reflections—that compose a person and make them who they are and who they will become.

Recognizing simplicity as a tool to dissect multigenerational issues is one of the many strengths Harris displays in his writing. Innocent details such as ear wiggling, hair clippings scattered on the floor, and “bottles containing mysterious liquids and powders” open the essay to larger themes of racial identity, belonging, and the bleak injustices foundational to a country built upon slavery. A simple haircut or catching your own image in a mirror might be infinitely more complex than expected. Herb Harris discovers that a reflection takes many forms, including a tool to prosecute the long chronicle of cultural erasure pervasive in the United States.  —CRAFT



I must begin by telling you that I am Black. This is a very strange thing to have to say out loud. It is usually something self-evident that goes without saying. But my light skin and blur of African and European features are rarely recognized as Black.

This racial ambiguity reflects many generations of mixed heritage that go back to the beginning of the slave trade. My ancestors were both the enslaved and the enslavers who sexually exploited them. I have many white ancestors, but their identities are almost entirely unknown. These perpetrators and their victims still live inside me, where their violent entanglement continues. I am an outlier among people who identify as Black, but most of Black America has some degree of white ancestry. This painful heritage is an aspect of slavery that is seldom discussed, but the white man is among the foremost absent fathers of history.

My family has lived on the edge of the color line for more than three centuries. This dangerous neighborhood has always been my home. In my childhood, the color line was like a concrete wall topped with barbed wire and brutally policed on both sides. Still inviolable, it is now drawn in the shifting sands of culture, fashion, and opinion. The wind blows, and I cross it without moving. I am constantly guilty of these motionless transgressions.

How do I know who I am? Almost everything we know about ourselves comes to us through the eyes of others. Throughout our lives, other people are the psychological mirrors that inform us as we work to figure out who we are. Our identities are manifested in the gazes of others. We are revealed in their attitudes and actions. Unfortunately, what they show us is always distorted and fragmented. We must build a collage of ourselves from the reflections we see in our families and communities. Too soon, we enter a society afflicted by the pathology of race. We are no longer seen as individuals but as racist projections, delusions, and hallucinations. We become objects in the white gaze and begin a lifelong battle to defend our identities from its withering effects.

I had to search for clues about who I am among looks of confusion, perplexity, and skepticism. I learned to read the most subtle signs to know how others identified me. My racial camouflage often makes me invisible, but race keeps finding new ways to blindside me with contradictory messages. My first consciousness of race began in a Black preschool in the early 1960s. My best friend, David, compared my light brown skin to his dark brown skin and proudly announced that he was Black and I was white. Suddenly, I felt like an outsider, different from all my classmates. Living in a segregated community, I had never seen a white child before, and I had no idea what David meant. But later, in a predominantly white elementary school, a classmate called me a nigger. I don’t know how I knew the meaning of this word, but it triggered an anger I had never felt before.

W. E. B. Du Bois called it “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Who do I see reflected in the warped and broken mirrors of our race-obsessed culture? What do I mean when I say that I am Black?

The Barbershop

Pop could wiggle his ears. It was a surefire way to make us laugh. He would have a straight face, but his ears would suddenly twitch. He did it at the dinner table when we needed something to laugh at. Mom and I would always crack up. I couldn’t figure out how for a long time, but I wanted to be like Pop. I stood in front of a mirror and tried everything. I smiled and grimaced. I did rabbit twitches with my nose and mouth. I scrunched my forehead and raised my eyebrows. I discovered I could raise one eyebrow at a time, but nothing happened with my ears. One day, I got it. My brain connected with the right muscles, and my ears moved up and down. At first, my eyebrows also moved, but I learned to wiggle only my ears with practice. I explored this new gift and soon discovered I could move each ear independently. I showed Mom and Pop at the dinner table. Both roared with laughter. None of my friends could do it. I couldn’t explain how it happened. Ear wiggling became my best trick, handed down from father to son.

I decided to spring my new skill on the barber. It was Saturday, and Pop and I walked around the corner to the barbershop. It was late summer when tufts of crabgrass and weeds were growing out of every crack in the concrete. There was always trash and broken glass on the sidewalk. Our block had a canopy of trees arching over the cobblestone street, but there was no shade from the morning sun on Florida Avenue. It was a scorching day, and the red and white helices of the barber’s pole twined up to the sky like flames. As we entered, the air conditioning unit in the transom over the door spilled welcome drops of ice-cold water on us.

The barber was cutting the hair of a young man with electric clippers. He looked up from his customer, giving Pop a big smile.

“Got you next, Mr. Harris,” he said.

The barber’s name was Mr. Blue. I never got tired of trying to make jokes about his name. At every visit, I asked, “What color are you, Mr. Blue?”

“Blue like you too,” he would fire back.

A transistor radio sat in the window where the reception was best, its antenna fully extended. The men argued over what station to play all the time. It might be jazz or a baseball game. When President Kennedy was killed, they had the volume up as far as it would go listening to the news. Mostly, they played Motown.

There was usually another barber on Saturday mornings, but we always got our haircuts from Mr. Blue. If we arrived late in the morning, a few men might be waiting in the uncomfortable chairs against the wall at the front. Most weekends, an older man with white hair and a beard sat near the door reading the newspapers. He was Mr. Blue’s father. Old Mr. Blue had cut Pop’s hair when he was a boy like me. Pop loved to talk to them all while he was waiting. They argued about sports and politics. In football season, it was the Redskins, but now it was the baseball and the Senators. We never watched games on television, but Pop knew everything about the teams. He was older than the other men, but this was where he seemed most relaxed.

When my turn came, I climbed into the chair, my eight-year-old feet not reaching the footrest. They stuck out in front of me, and I bobbed them up and down as Mr. Blue placed the drape over them. I looked at all the objects on the shelf before the wall-mounted mirror. There were scissors, combs, and many bottles containing mysterious liquids and powders. There were electric clippers, a straight razor, and a can of shaving cream like Pop used. Each object had its twin reflected in the mirror. A large jar filled with a blue liquid held many combs soaking in the liquid. The combs seemed to bend and stretch when Mr. Blue immersed them. The morning sun poured through the storefront windows, splitting into a rainbow when it hit a crystal decanter on the shelf. The lines of the rainbow spread across the wall at the back. A science teacher in school showed us how a prism worked, but I had never seen a bottle do this. Best of all, the mirror was not completely flat, and I found a place where my face got a little longer and narrower as I moved my head from side to side.

I looked down at the floor Mr. Blue swept with care after every customer, but there were always residual clippings in the corners. The men of our Black neighborhood had so many kinds of hair. I could make out colors that included brown, like mine, but also blond, Black, gray, and even red. There were short, kinked clippings and long, straight strands.

“What will it be today, my man?” Mr. Blue had an in-between complexion that wasn’t dark or light. He had heavy dark eyebrows and a curled mustache like a pirate but with friendly, twinkly green eyes.

“Do you want it straight, or do you want to grow a ’fro?” he asked with a bright smile.

I was not sure if he was serious. Straight hair? I didn’t have straight hair. It was very curly but not as curly as the darker boys in the neighborhood. It was in-between. I didn’t like it that way. It made me feel different from the boys in the neighborhood and different from the white children I went to school with. They had straight hair. Would I look white if it was straight? I wanted to fit in with the kids at school, and my hair was one of the most conspicuous things that divided me from them. My skin was almost as light as theirs. I looked around at the posters showing men with different haircuts. For a long time, the posters seemed to change every month as styles changed. There were pictures of light-skinned men with slicked-down wavy hair. They looked like Pop and most of his friends. There were also many posters of dark-skinned men with very curly hair. Some of them had big Afros. A few of my neighborhood friends were growing Afros, but I wanted to look like Pop.

Pop stepped in and said, “Just the usual.” He smiled, and I guessed that Mr. Blue had been joking. It was a relief not to have to make such a big decision. But Mr. Blue frowned and seemed disappointed that I was not making any changes. He picked up a comb and scissors and went to work. I winced as he combed out the tangles before attacking the top with scissors. I was a very fidgety, impatient child, and the haircut seemed to go on for hours.

When he was done, he pulled the drape away like a matador with a big smile and said, “Keep it handsome, my man. Maybe next time we will do something more interesting.”

I was about to climb down when I remembered my ear-wiggling trick. I looked straight at Mr. Blue and started wiggling my ears. At first, he looked like he couldn’t believe it. His eyes were wide with amazement. Then, he started laughing. He almost doubled over. I kept wiggling as the other men looked at me. Even Old Mr. Blue was laughing.

When the laughing died down, I bolted out of Mr. Blue’s chair and climbed into the adjacent chair, which was unused. It was Pop’s turn, and while I waited, I tried to spin myself around to get dizzy. I could reach the edge of the sink with my foot to push off, but I could not get enough momentum for more than a slow merry-go-round speed.

The barbershop was full of the magic of optical illusions. The mirrors, the rainbow, and the glittering crystal bottles with their colored liquids seemed to revolve around me as the chair slowly turned. When the chair came to a complete stop, I found myself facing the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

I was sitting between two large parallel mirrors mounted on opposite walls. My reflection bounced back and forth between the two mirrors, creating an endlessly receding cascade of selves. They went on and on, seeming to grow more distant and fainter. I squinted and strained as I tried to follow them to the last one. I was this one, and then I was that one. They were reflections reflecting reflections. How could they ever end? When I tilted my head, they tilted their heads. I waved, and they waved back. Which one am I? Who were the others? Were they looking back at me and asking the same question? I wiggled my ears; they wiggled their ears.

The barbershop was gutted in the 1968 riots that rocked our neighborhood in Washington, DC. Everything about the neighborhood changed after the riots. Like many neighborhood businesses, the barbershop windows were boarded with plywood for years. I do not know what became of Mr. Blue, his father, or the men who frequented the shop. Pop drove me to dozens of barbershops in strip malls and shopping centers in the suburbs. There was nothing that could replace our neighborhood barbershop. Each time we went to a new place, I felt like an alien life form with hair no barber on Earth had ever seen.

When I was about nine or ten, Mom tried straightening my hair. I do not know what made her try to impose this transformation on me, but in that year, I had been called a nigger in school. She understood the brutality of children in their tween years and knew that more trauma was on the way. It was a time when advertisements for hair straightening products filled every magazine that targeted Black readers, and neighborhood drugstores had shelves lined with curl relaxers and greasy gels that promised beautiful, handsome alternatives to natural hair. It must have seemed like a harmless experiment to see what would happen when my curls were forced to relax.

I remember it as a lengthy, unpleasant procedure that took a couple of hours on a Sunday night. Mom applied a cream that had a biting odor that stung my eyes. The smell was like nothing I would experience again until organic chemistry lab in college. There was a lot of painful combing to get the curls and tangles out of my hair. The cream took an hour to do its work. Mom shampooed it out and replaced it with an oily goo that held my hair in place. This stayed on for an hour before the final shampoo. At the end of the process, Mom combed my hair into place. The smooth passage of the comb through my hair seemed like a miracle. Mom was pleased with the results. The image of a white child with straight brown hair, neatly parted on the left, returned my disbelieving gaze.

I had no idea how many lines I had transgressed. I just wanted to be like my classmates. I wanted to disappear among them and gain the acceptance of invisibility. I went to school on Monday expecting the worst. I feared that they would see through my phony hair and laugh. None of this happened. There was no ridicule or laughter. No one even noticed. It was a mystery how I managed to pull off this disguise. Time passed, and everything seemed normal. My tense self-consciousness began to ease. Had I gotten away with it? Was I now just like everybody else?

But within a week, my hair’s soft, fine texture began to stiffen. It did not want to lie flat. Kinks and curls gradually returned. At first, it was just a few unruly strands. Because their length was short, these strands tended to stick straight up. They could be brushed down, but their number grew over the next few days. The rebellion could no longer be ignored. Mom came up with a quick solution. She applied a slick gel that imposed order. Apart from a greasy look, my hair retained its shape for another couple of weeks. Over time, it became increasingly tangled and matted until combing and brushing were impossible. The only option was another treatment with the curl relaxer. By then, it had grown longer, and the tangles made the process more painful.

I do not know how many treatments I endured before the experiment was deemed a failure. Each cycle gave birth to a new stranger I could see in the mirror. He was me, but he was not me. He was the one I thought my classmates accepted. He belonged, but he was not real. The near-white child I thought I saw in the mirror melted away like cotton candy in the rain. He never returned.

My hair became a battleground in a war that raged for years. As I got older, the struggle with my hair took different forms. In college, I went through a period in which I tried to make my appearance more recognizably Black. I tried to grow an Afro to reinforce the Black identity I hoped others would accept. This was no more successful than the hair straighteners. My hair became a formless, unmanageable “Afroid” that drew a lot of teasing. I tried a beard and then a goatee, but nothing gave me the visible identity I wanted. My hair had always seemed like a treacherous enemy. Whoever I might claim to be, it sold me out, gave me away, and said that I was someone else. Which of us was to be believed?

When I graduated from college, I began to make peace with my hair. I returned to a short natural cut, leaving my ambiguous curls to speak for themselves. Between medical school and residency, I realized that low-maintenance, consistent hair was the only viable solution. I needed hair that could roll out of bed at 3 a.m. and look competent and professional. It had to be resilient through long stretches of abuse and neglect. This became my look for the next thirty years. After all the traumatic struggles, I decided that the less I thought about my hair, the better.

Not long ago, I settled into a salon that catered primarily to people in their twenties. The music was loud, throbbing, and unintelligible. The lighting was harsh. I did not belong there, but I was a very inconspicuous outsider. The young people came to look at each other, and I was almost invisible. Posters on the walls featured images of young men and women of remarkably diverse and ambiguous races. These new images seemed like affirmations of racial ambiguity. They were very different from the posters selling whiteness through hair and skin products that covered the walls of the barbershop of my childhood.

I had an older stylist who seemed to understand me. She got what it was like to be invisible in an environment of sensory overload. She could relate to the experience of being unchanging in a place that was all about change. She, too, was an outsider. The name I knew her by was Helen, but perhaps she had another name that her American clients would mispronounce. She came from Hong Kong, where she still had family. She visited them twice over the five or six years we knew each other. Her husband was a pharmacist, and they had a daughter who was in college when we first met. The daughter went on to medical school and planned a career in internal medicine.

My hair must have been a complete mystery to Helen, but she did not try to make sense of it or ask for any explanation. She applied number-four clippers to the back and sides each month and finished the top with scissors. She liked to practice her English with me, and we had almost the same monthly conversation. We knew only a few random facts about each other that were limited by her stock of questions.

Sometimes, I had imaginary conversations with Helen. I would tell her the story of my hair going back to its origins on the plantations of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. I would tell her of the slave owners who raped my enslaved ancestors and sold their offspring. I would explain the generations of segregation, racism, and colorism that have made my hair what it was. I would share the deep meanings, dark history, childhood traumas, and psychological conflicts entwined in every curl.

Even without this information, Helen understood the challenge a simple haircut posed for me. She never asked if I wanted my hair longer, shorter, or shaped differently. After draping me, she turned me toward the mirror, and our eyes would meet in reflection.

 “Same,” she said.

This was once a question. As time passed, it became a flat statement delivered with no hint of inquiry in her voice. I replied with a slight nod that acknowledged our shared understanding. Most of her customers would have more elaborate procedures, but she allowed me and my hair to stay just as we were.

I was happy with this understanding and content that we knew so little about each other. I was just an enigma occupying a tiny corner of Helen’s mind. Maybe the question of race never occurred to her. Did her experience of Black and white people allow for the possibility of someone like me?

I remembered seeing her on a Saturday morning at the end of an unusually hot summer. Helen started clipping faster as her next client took a chair in the waiting area. I watched with concern as uneven clumps of gray fell like snowflakes to the floor. When she was done, she held a hand mirror behind my head to show me the neckline. Everything was as expected, but I worried the bald spot was getting bigger. As she turned the mirror, it briefly aligned with the large mirror on the wall before me. The magical cascade of reflections reappeared, exploding into the wild multitude I call myself.

I could see myself at every age. There were skinny kids, pudgy kids, sullen adolescents, and adults passing into middle age and beyond. Some looked darker, and others lighter. The ambiguities of my appearance manifested differently in every face. We filled the space between Black and white, from nappy to straight to big floppy Afro. We were all restless, unsatisfied, and eager to be someone else. We became doctors, scientists, husbands, and fathers.

Did any of us imagine the graying, balding sixtysomething seated in front? I am hardly a finished product, but what would come next? I scanned the crowd of reflections, looking for the eight-year-old boy Pop took to the barbershop, whose hair was just hair.

Helen grew impatient as she held the hand mirror. Her arm was tiring as she waited for my final approval.

I wiggled my ears.

A smile bent the corners of her lips into an upturning arc. She resisted, but our eyes met for an instant. I knew she saw me, and she knew that I saw her. It was too late to stop the smile as it spread to her eyes before she burst into laughter.


HERB HARRIS attended Georgetown University, obtained an MD and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and completed residency training in psychiatry at Yale University. He has been involved in neuroscience research and clinical practice for over twenty-five years. His creative nonfiction presents intergenerational narratives that explore race and identity. His essays have appeared in New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus, Solstice, Tahoma Literary Review, and Under the Gum Tree. His essays “Topsy-Turvy” and “A Tourist at Home” were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His essay, “Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man,” won Solstice’s 2021 Michael Steinberg Nonfiction Prize. His work appeared in the anthology The Beiging of America from 2Leaf Press, and he was a contributing editor of the book Racial and Ethnic Identity from Routledge Press. Find Herb on Twitter at @HerbertWHarris.


Featured image by Braden Burson, courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

The protagonist of my memoir often thinks he knows who he is, only to find that he is someone else. Rarely recognized as Black because of the camouflage of his light skin, he spent most of his adulthood living under deep cover in predominantly white settings. Who is this Black man he claims to be? How do others see him? How does he see himself? What does he mean when he says that he is Black? These are my central questions as a memoirist.

Race constantly blindsides my protagonist, disrupting the normal narrative continuities that make linear storytelling possible. Instead of graceful arcs, there are jagged inflection points where one self abruptly becomes another. Connecting, arranging, and making sense of these twists and turns is a great challenge. To make matters worse, his identity is always a multigenerational project. He must go on backward journeys through time to find traces of himself in his parents and grandparents. Ultimately, his search takes him to the enslaved people and the enslavers who were his ancestors. His story is a braided narrative that extends from the beginnings of enslavement to the present.

Unifying themes in his narrative sometimes appear in surprising places. Hair is one of his most ambiguous racial features. It is not curly enough to be recognized easily as a Black person’s hair, but it is much curlier than the hair of most white people. The excerpted chapter begins with an innocent boy walking to the barbershop with his father. A simple haircut begins a lifelong entanglement of hair, race, and identity. Since then, each haircut has been an occasion for him to reflect on who he really is. Every change in hairstyle raises profound questions of belonging, recognition, passing, shame, self-esteem, and authenticity.

Who does the boy see when he looks in the mirror at the barbershop? He has a glimpse of the unending cascade of selves that stretch into adulthood and beyond. There will be curl relaxers, hair straighteners, Afros, buzz cuts, beards, goatees, and dozens of looks that create inflection points in his identity. With graying and balding, an uneasy truce comes to this battlefield of identity. He even finds a touch of humor in this long journey, but the old questions of identity endure unanswered. Who is this Black man he claims to be?


HERB HARRIS attended Georgetown University, obtained an MD and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and completed residency training in psychiatry at Yale University. He has been involved in neuroscience research and clinical practice for over twenty-five years. His creative nonfiction presents intergenerational narratives that explore race and identity. His essays have appeared in New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus, Solstice, Tahoma Literary Review, and Under the Gum Tree. His essays “Topsy-Turvy” and “A Tourist at Home” were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His essay, “Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man,” won Solstice’s 2021 Michael Steinberg Nonfiction Prize. His work appeared in the anthology The Beiging of America from 2Leaf Press, and he was a contributing editor of the book Racial and Ethnic Identity from Routledge Press. Find Herb on Twitter at @HerbertWHarris.