Harold Brown, a self-acclaimed “Best One-Armed Barber in the World,” is the perfect example of the few people who choose to capitalize on their lack and make the best of it after going through the worst. Even with only one working arm, Brown manages to complete every fade, layer, and dye job.
The native of Queens, who endured the hard life of prison for years, gained the admiration of many young people and set himself up from nothing, credits his life journey to his crippled hand.
“My deformity is a birth defect,” Brown told ABC7. He explained that his arm was twisted during a difficult childbirth because cesarean sections were neither common in the 1960s nor as accessible to his family. According to him, he didn’t get the proper medical attention he needed to fix his arm when he was a child.
He began to realize he would have to live with the condition his whole life when he began school, though it did bring some challenges.
“Some kids were scared of it. They didn’t want to play with me. Sometimes some girls told me they didn’t want to be bothered with me because of my arm. So I had to overcome that,” he disclosed.
He developed a tough exterior as a result of the rejection, which ultimately drove him to become a criminal. He said to the outlet that he started off selling “joints” on the Staten Island Ferry. He spent the money he earned on nice clothes for himself, which made him feel better about himself, and people even accepted him.
This motivated him to sell more drugs, which landed him in prison, where he spent many years in and out of prison from the 1970s to the 2000s.
“The last time I went to jail, I didn’t have no more support system,” he shared. “I was in this real state of depression. And it was a correction officer that I grew up with and he was like, ‘That ain’t you, man.'”
His silver lining came from a prison barber named Desperado, whom Brown hung out with. “He was the nicest one there. I used to hang out with him every day. So the officer, he says to me, ‘Yo, Brown, why don’t you cut hair, man?’ I was like, a barber? I didn’t even see it. So I gave it some thought and came back a few days later and said, I think I want to be a barber, man.”
With a newfound purpose, Brown revealed that he made sure he used the opportunity to learn from everyone he could.
“The more I cut, the better I got, and I messed with everybody in there. The white guys showed me how to cut their hair. The black guys showed me how to cut their hair. The Spanish guys showed me how to cut their hair. The Asian guys showed me how to cut their hair. Every walk of life was in New York State Penitentiary, and I learned how to cut every kind of hair in jail.”
In November 2011, Brown, who was 48 then, was released for the last time. Only now, he was armed with life-changing knowledge. Having nowhere to live, Brown moved into a shelter with only the clippers he brought with him from prison. Fortunately, most of the people at the shelter needed haircuts so the entrepreneur got straight to work. His first night, it earned him about $100.
He took advantage of the shelter as his starting point before enrolling in the American Barber Institute to obtain his license. Soon he found a decent career after landing a job at Levels, a famous barbershop in Harlem. Then he received a call that revolutionized his life once more.
“One of my old instructors called me and said, ‘Yo Brown, would you like to become an instructor at American Barber Institute?’ And they hired me. I came there with me. I couldn’t be nobody else but me.”
In three years, Brown trained hundreds of students. Using his deformity as a source of motivation, he told them, “I’m going to show you how I could do it with my deformity and then I’m going to show you how to do it with your hands, your two good hands.”
“The friend that Desperado was to me, I became that friend to a lot of the students. I became the friend that helped them change their life around, the same way Desperado helped me change my life around,” he expressed.
Currently, Brown works with his former student, Willis Cudjoe, who invited him to barber at his shop, Will Du, in Jamaica. Cudjoe has worked with the autistic community for many years, combining his two passions. People with autism are brought in from a group home once a week so Brown and Cudjoe may trim their hair. Anyone who cannot afford it is given a free fade.
“I’ve been picked on, I’ve been laughed at, I’ve been not accepted. So I don’t want to put anybody through that. They’ll get that sharp line, and they’ll look good,” Brown remarked.
He still teaches local youths in the neighborhood the art of barbering. He said the most difficult thing about cutting hair with one arm is, “Honestly, the first time the person is in the chair. Their perception is the hardest part.”
Nevertheless, his love for cutting hair makes it all worth it.