Jackson (United States) (AFP) - As an icebreaker, Antonio Wiggins often begins by talking sports.
But the conversations between the Jackson, Mississippi, barber and his customers, African-American men, tend to turn very quickly to more weighty subjects.
Wiggins, who is also Black, caters not only to his patrons' hair but also to their well-being.
He plies his trade at Trendsetters Barber College in Jackson, which is the largest city in the southern state and has a population that is 80 percent African-American.
Wiggins said he tends to the grooming needs of people from all walks of life.
"Everybody sits in this chair," he said.
"I have a guy who comes that is a doctor. I've got the pastor. We get the drug dealer," Wiggins said. "I cut a guy on a Friday. He went on to kill someone on the Saturday."
Anthony Kelley, who runs Trendsetters, which also serves as a teaching school, said barbers in the American South are "like pillars in our community."
Wiggins and Kelley recently joined "The Confess Project," a coalition of Black barbers seeking to cater to the mental health needs of African-American men in a region of the country scarred by decades of racism.
"We, as barbers, we try to offer them, you know, shoulders to lean on," Kelley said. "A place where they can come to and open up and talk.
"Because, you know, really a lot of people they can't afford to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist," he said.
"In the Black community, there's not a lot of alternatives that we can turn to. So we try to help them," Kelley said.
The barbers meet regularly to discuss best practices and the topic of their latest meeting was suicide prevention.
"A lot of people, during these critical times, start thinking about suicide," Kelley said. "These are some depressing times."
'You don't feel judged'
Robert White, 49, awaits his turn in the unpretentious shop where the walls are decorated with pictures and posters, including one advertising a hotline for those suffering from depression.
White said that he has been coming to Trendsetters once a month for years and feels "comfortable."
"We talk about just everything in life," he said. "You don't feel judged.
"Sometimes you just want to be heard."
That is particularly important during a year in which the coronavirus pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on the African-American population, and cost millions of jobs.
Two customers of Darius Campbell, a Black barber in the town of Terry, south of Jackson, have lost five members of their family to Covid-19 while others are having a hard time making ends meet.
"The main thing that I see, the worst, is struggling to pay bills," Campbell said.
"I deal with a lot of family men," he said.
Their biggest fear?
"Can I take care of my family tomorrow?" he said. "Are they going to come take my house from me in three, four, five, six months?"
Another frequent topic of discussion is police brutality against the African-American community, which came to a head in the United States in May with the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
"We know people who've been brutalized by police," Wiggins said. "We are in Mississippi so we are so used to racism."
With the November 3 presidential election on the horizon, talk has also turned to politics, said James Bennett, a 34-year-old municipal worker who gets his hair cut by Wiggins every Saturday.
"It's one of the key subjects," Bennett said. "You can join the conversation anytime you want."
Campbell said his customers are in agreement on one thing -- "we need to get (Donald Trump) out of office."
Wiggins said the Republican president lacks "integrity" and is insensitive to the problems of Black Americans.
"We're looking for someone showing love to us because we feel so unloved," he said.
Wiggins said he was encouraging young patrons to register to vote.
He said he'll cast his ballot on November 3 even if Trump is expected to easily beat Democrat Joe Biden in Mississippi, a Republican stronghold.
So will Robert White and he said he'll be back in the barber's chair to discuss the results.