Abstract: The Bush Doctor Cometh: Putting the Soul into the "Soul" Market

Douglas Bristol, Jr.


In 1969, Nathaniel Mathis, a 23-year-old, African American barber, opened the first unisex shop in Washington, D.C., and quickly won national press coverage for his talent styling the latest fashion, the Afro. The publicity touted him as the self-proclaimed "Bush Doctor," a title Mathis later had trademarked. After cutting Muhammad Ali's hair and being featured in an article in <i>Cosmopolitan Magazine</i>, the Doctor was recruited by the Johnson Products Company as their Soft Sheen specialist, and in this capacity, he advised the management on new product development in addition to traveling around the globe demonstrating the use of Soft Sheen. Simultaneously, he launched his own Bush Doctor line of hair-care products. Mathis' burgeoning career placed him in the vanguard of the flourishing "soul" market of the late 1960s and 1970s. As Susannah Walker and Robert Weems have shown recently, white-owned corporations played an instrumental role in creating the soul market by appropriating the imagery of the Black Power movement to gain a larger share of the African American consumer market. They also note the subsequent depoliticization of cultural symbols such as the Afro, the decline of black-owned businesses, and the marketing of degrading products such as the "blaxploitation" film <i>Superfly</i>. This paper offers a more balanced account of this chapter in the history of African American consumerism by showing that entrepreneurs such as the Bush Doctor put the "soul" in the soul market, creating successful businesses by giving expression to a new mood in Black America. Through oral history interviews with Mathis and an examination of his papers at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, this paper examines the soul market at the point-of-sale in black-owned barber shops and beauty salons. Barbers and hairstylists shaped fashion by introducing products to consumers and by telling corporations what Black America wanted. In the process, they also became interpreters of the new urban consumer market, helping their customers reconcile the tensions between national advertising and the traditions of African American community. The influence and success of hair-care professionals such as Mathis demonstrate that, although white-owned corporations may have reaped most of the profits from the soul market, African American business people made a positive contribution by shaping a marketing trend that celebrated blackness.