Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Erin Aubry Ka­plan Ka­plan’s sec­ond book, “I Heart Obama,” is sched­uled to be pub­lished in 2016.


My Dread­lock Chron­i­cles

Bert Ashe

Agate Bolden: 250 pp., $15

At the start of “Twisted: My Dread­lock Chron­i­cles,” Bert Ashe writes that he de­cided in 1998 to re­al­ize a life­long dream of grow­ing dreadlocks be­cause he wanted to “go out­side.” By that he means he wanted his in­ner view of him­self as re­bel­lious to match an out­ward ap­pear­ance and man­ner that was ev­i­dently any­thing but.

Ashe was, he says, “this out­cast on the in­side, but all the world could see was the oblig­ing, adroit fa­cade, the Uni­ver­sal Ne­gro: good guy Bert. … I just wanted to fig­ure out a way I could come closer to find­ing the per­fect green bub­ble on the mid­dle of the level bar, achiev­ing that del­i­cate, ideal, teeter-tot­ter bal­ance be­tween the Me I felt my­self to be, and the Me I seemed to be to those who could see me. I won­dered, Dreadlocks, can you do that for me?”

This is both hy­per­bole and not. Be­neath the some­times outré hu­mor and self-deprecating tone of “Twisted” are se­ri­ous and poignant ques­tions about the na­ture of black iden­tity, who shapes it and why and how black folks might fi­nally seize con­trol of that iden­tity them­selves. Chron­i­cling his ex­pe­ri­ence with grow­ing dreadlocks is sim­ply a way for Ashe, a pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Rich­mond in Vir­ginia, to get at this.

Dreads work splen­didly as a metaphor; for one thing, since to grow them you have to leave your hair largely alone, to re­sist the urge to ma­nip­u­late what much of the world still deems un­sightly in its nat­u­ral state. Grow­ing locks, es­pe­cially for “main­stream” black peo­ple such as the au­thor, is there­fore an act of re­sis­tance and also of af­fir­ma­tion. It is what Ralph El­li­son — quoted here by Ashe — would likely call a “free­wheel­ing as­sault upon the tra­di­tional forms of the Amer­i­can aes­thetic.”

But that af­fir­ma­tion is hardly au­to­matic. It is hard won. In the te­dious process of leav­ing his hair be, Ashe strug­gles with its frank un­sight­li­ness while also rev­el­ing in an emerg­ing look that speaks un­equiv­o­cally to racial pride and a cer­tain self-ac­cep­tance writ large. “Twisted” teaches us in­ter­est­ing things about the history of dreadlocks, how they’ve re­ver­ber­ated so­cially. Though the con­ver­sa­tional writ­ing style feels a bit over­wrought — a con­scious ef­fort, per­haps, not to sound aca­demic — Ashe’s in­sights are of­ten star­tling, such as his ex­pli­ca­tion of Whoopi Gold­berg’s comic lament that, un­like white-girl hair that swings, “black hair don’t do nothin’.”

Some­times it’s clear that as he ex­plains the na­ture of the black iden­tity cri­sis he’s liv­ing that cri­sis on the page. Ul­ti­mately he wants to sep­a­rate his hair and its pol­i­tics from the es­sen­tial Bert Ashe who loves rock mu­sic and in­de­pen­dent films. What he’s re­ally do­ing is declar­ing both his black­ness and his hu­man­ness, two iden­ti­ties that have long been deemed in­com­pat­i­ble. Yes, dreads have a cool fac­tor, and they of­fer a thrill of racial spec­ta­cle. But in the work­day world they are ba­si­cally a big mid­dle fin­ger to a white main­stream made ner­vous by black males with “reg­u­lar” hair.

Ashe has fun play­ing with all this. While he re­peat­edly in­sists that he, a philo­soph­i­cally in­clined, mild-man­nered pro­fes­sor and self­styled geek, is the fur­thest thing from threat­en­ing, he also ob­serves — with great in­ter­est, some­times with rel­ish — the ef­fects his steadily dread­ing hair­style has on other peo­ple: men and women, black and white. Thanks to our en­dur­ing history of racism in public pol­icy and so­cial cus­tom, there is vir­tu­ally no as­pect of black­ness that isn’t per­for­ma­tive, and that cer­tainly in­cludes hair.

For Ashe, dreads started out as a “stylis­tic dis­rup­tion” sug­gest­ing a cul­tural ag­gres­sive­ness in­her­ent in the fact that dreads es­chew comb­ing or oth­er­wise tamp­ing down what ev­ery­body as­sumes must first and fore­most be tamped down. Mu­si­cians and other black per­form­ers are ex­empt from this; the rest of us, like Ashe, are left to mea­sure the im­pres­sion our ap­pear­ance makes, to weigh our per­sonal pro­cliv­i­ties and self-per­cep­tions against the ex­pec­ta­tions of a world that judges black peo­ple ref lex­ively. It’s the curse of dou­ble con­scious­ness.

And yet, that curse is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent now. Late in the book, Ashe de­scribes be­ing caught off guard by a ques­tion from a young white girl on a train who pro­fesses to love his hair­style. “How’d you do it?” she mar­vels. Poised be­tween anger at her ig­no­rance and grudg­ing sym­pa­thy that this pos­tra­cial-era girl prob­a­bly sees black and white hair the same way, Ashe goes with em­pa­thy. At points, he him­self takes the post-post­mod­ern view that hair is sim­ply hair and that dreadlocks, once com­mon only among the cult of Rasta, have be­come main­stream enough to be de­clared, like the novel, “dead.”

Of course, were that true, Ashe would have no need to write a book such as “Twisted.” He would have no need to ex­plain to us why he wanted to grow dreadlocks, what he en­dured and how a par­tic­u­lar look trans­formed his view of him­self and the world’s view of him. He would have no need, in other words, to try and put his real self fi­nally where it has al­ways be­longed — on the out­side.

Jor­dan Ashe Agate Bolden

BERT ASHE writes that grow­ing dreadlocks helped open all sorts of ways to ex­press him­self.

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