Locks that sing of race, pride, protest

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY DANIELLE DOU­GLAS- GABRIEL danielle.dou­glas@wash­post.com Danielle Dou­glas-Gabriel is a Wash­ing­ton Post busi­ness re­porter cov­er­ing the eco­nomics of ed­u­ca­tion.

Few things in African Amer­i­can cul­ture are more politi­cized than hair. Whether it’s chem­i­cally straight­ened, at­tached to a syn­thetic mane or left in its nat­u­ral state, our hair takes on all sorts of mean­ing, of­ten with­out in­ten­tion. Much of this is rooted in the out­sider sta­tus of our hair in a so­ci­ety that deems Euro­pean stan­dards of beauty in­her­ently more valu­able than any oth­ers.

African Amer­i­can hair stirs fraught de­bate over iden­tity, race pride, an­ces­tral her­itage and even self-worth. Should I perm it? Should I weave it? Should I twist it up or lock it down? That’s a lot to con­sider when you’re just try­ing to de­cide on a hair­style.

The anx­i­eties around dread­locks, known as locs, are par­tic­u­larly acute for mid­dle-class blacks, who of­ten strad­dle the fence of what’s re­spectable. And to many there is noth­ing re­spectable about strands of long, nappy, un­ruly hair. I am cer­tain that my aunt, a con­ser­va­tive West In­dian, had the best of in­ten­tions when she en­cour­aged me to wear a wig to hide my locs on job in­ter­views. As she saw it, I was al­ready at a dis­ad­van­tage be­ing black, so why make it worse by show­ing up with the equiv­a­lent of a mid­dle fin­ger on my head? This was in 2002 — not that long ago, but a very dif­fer­ent time for the style.

Bert Ashe, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Rich­mond, vac­il­lated for 20 years be­fore he grew out his hair, twist­ing it and let­ting it form dread­locks. His jour­ney, de­tailed in his new­book, “Twisted,” is an ex­plo­ration of his iden­tity and per­sonal style, which have evolved along with the per­cep­tion and pop­u­lar­ity of locs. Ashe was en­am­ored of the “cul­tural chaos” the hair­style embodied, an anti-estab­lish­ment state­ment that chal­lenged Amer­i­can so­cial pre­sump­tions. Yet his hes­i­ta­tion seems born out of his ne­go­ti­a­tion with his iden­tity, rather than sim­ply fears of other peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of him. When he does de­cide to get “twisted” at age 39 (one of the first steps on the path to locs), he ex­plains that he “wanted to make a state­ment to­my­self and for my­self, and I didn’t want to say it aloud: I wanted my hair to talk for me. And this time I was old enough and wise enough and cen­tered enough to fi­nally give my­self per­mis­sion to do what I’d long wanted to do: to go out­side.”

He takes the reader through a fas­ci­nat­ing, in-depth cul­tural his­tory of the hair­style, touch­ing on the var­i­ous the­o­ries of how Rasta­far­i­ans in Ja­maica, who pop­u­lar­ized the style in the West, were in­tro­duced to locs. It­may be that Ja­maicans saw images of Ethiopian monks don­ning the style or pic­tures of the Mau Mau of Kenya, who op­posed Bri­tish rule in the 1950s. Ei­ther im­age of Africans re­sist­ing Euro­cen­tric ideals would have ap­pealed to Ras­tas, who were treated as out­casts. The core of the style re­mains anti-estab­lish­ment and non­con­formist, no mat­ter who wears it and how popular it be­comes.

Just as there are plenty of ori­gin sto­ries for dread­locks, there are many pre­ferred spellings — dreds, locks or locs — all fraught with po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. I’ve al­ways called them locs be­cause I was told there is noth­ing dread­ful about my hair. That may seem like se­man­tics, but given the vis­ceral re­ac­tion the style used to elicit, chang­ing the spell­ing is a way to take pride in it. Ashe calls the chang­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy “a cre­ative, im­pro­vi­sa­tional re­sponse to the ‘call’ of Amer­i­can white supremacy,” a kind of cop­ing mech­a­nism. To be clear, white supremacy in this con­text is as much about the dom­i­nant cul­ture’s im­plicit or ex­plicit in­sis­tence of su­pe­ri­or­ity as it is about ev­ery­one else ac­cept­ing that mes­sage.

Ini­tially, Ashe wa­vers on whether the wide­spread wear­ing of locs has drained the style of its po­lit­i­cal mean­ing. But in the end he ac­knowl­edges that locs “still carry con­tested, am­bigu­ous, un­set­tling mean­ing that prompts to­tal strangers to of­fer ob­ser­va­tions and, in some cases, gen­tle ad­mon­ish­ments.” And yet he also be­lieves that locs, “as a vivid, pul­sat­ing, cut­ting-edge hair­style” are now “com­pletely life­less. Dead.”

Oh no, sir! Locs came, they saw, they were ridiculed and they con­quered — more or less. There is some­thing im­mensely pow­er­ful about the way black peo­ple forced Amer­ica to ac­cept the style into main­stream cul­ture, into cor­po­rate cul­ture. The style may not be as edgy as it was when artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was sport­ing it in the 1980s. But locs are still as vivid and pul­sat­ing and com­bat­ive as ever.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about Ashe’s ac­count of his tran­si­tion into locs is the rel­a­tively mild push­back he re­ceived from friends and fam­ily. This is re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent from the more tu­mul­tous sto­ries many black women, my­self in­cluded, could tell you. Some­times deal­ing with friends and fam­ily was an even greater battle than was deal­ing with so­ci­ety at large.

But let’s face it, hair doesn’t carry the same bag­gage for black men as it does for black women. Hair doesn’t strip black men of their per­ceived mas­culin­ity, although it may in some peo­ple’s eyes af­fect their re­spectabil­ity. How­ever, for women, the choice of hair­style can throw into ques­tion not only their re­spectabil­ity but also their fem­i­nin­ity among crit­ics both black and white. Re­mem­ber all the fuss the Army made over black women wear­ing twists and corn­rows? Or how the ladies in Bal­ti­more and St. Louis were told to cut off their locs or lose their jobs? Or the 12-year-old girl in Or­lando who faced ex­pul­sion for wear­ing her hair in a nat­u­ral afro?

It’s re­ally just hair, but it also rep­re­sents some­thing much deeper for peo­ple who are marginal­ized. And“Twisted” of­fers a com­plete and sat­is­fy­ing ex­pla­na­tion of why that is so.

JOR­DAN ASHE

Bert Ashe has heard com­ments and ad­mon­ish­ments on his dread­locks from strangers.

TWISTED My Dread­lock Chron­i­cles By Bert Ashe Bolden. 243 pp. Pa­per­back, $15

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