Taalib-Din Uqdah disagrees with those who think that braids, cornrows or dreadlocks are extreme hair styles. From his point of view, whether something is extreme depends a lot on who is looking at it.
"What's extreme to me, as an African American male, is blond hair. That's extreme to me because that's not part of my culture," he said.
Uqdah, who with his wife, Pamela Ferrell, owns Cornrows & Co., a salon specializing in braiding and other natural hair styles for black women, started to wear his hair in dreadlocks, rope-like coils, two years ago. Why? Because he liked the look and ease in caring for hair styled this way and because he wanted to challenge people's perceptions.
"I did it on purpose," Uqdah said. "I knew it would evoke a strong reaction. People see my locks and they don't know how to accept me." He said he refers to his hair style as locks, not dreadlocks, because of the negative overtones of the word dread.
Dreadlocks originated centuries ago in Africa. But in this country, they are most commonly associated with Rastafarianism, a religion that developed in Jamaica in the early 1930s and that combines Bible study and belief in natural living with reggae music.
Rastafarians limit their hair care to washing -- no combs or cutting. Reggae singer and composer Bob Marley, who died in 1981, made Rastafarianism popular.
Braided hair styles, such as dreadlocks, long have been intricately woven into African as well as black American culture.
African sculpture, some dating back thousands of years, frequently depicts men and women wearing braids as well as dreadlocks.
Braiding "is a part of African and African American culture. Children learn to braid through osmosis -- sisters, cousins, next-door neighbors teach it. Every black woman in America knows how to do it. It's just a part of us," Uqdah said.
Cornrows, so named because the twists of hair braided tightly against the scalp resemble corn growing in a field, are practical and can be styled in hundreds of ways from simple twists to elaborate sculpting with beads.
While some styles may take as many as 12 to 16 hours to create, many can be done in four to five hours or less.
The braids can be left in for six to eight weeks, after which the hair should be unbraided, washed and conditioned thoroughly.
While the braids remain in place, little care is required.
Uqdah said he usually recommends that people wash their hair once a week and rub oil into the braids twice a week, although they can wash their hair more frequently if they wish.
Braiding is done in salons such as Cornrows & Co. where appointments must be made far in advance, and more informally in homes.
"Some women when they go to the braider, it's like going to the barbershops. There is a relationship that develops with the braider, particularly for those women wearing styles that take seven to 15 hours. They get to know the braider's children. It's almost like a family affair," said Judi Moore Smith, a journalist with National Public Radio, who has worn her hair in a variety of braided styles for more than 15 years.
The decision to wear one's hair in dreadlocks or braids is a personal one.
Monica Jackson, 25, a social researcher for a private research firm in the District, said she wears her hair in dreadlocks as an expression of her cultural identity.
"Basically I have spent years studying my history, trying to find my own identity in the form of what I consider my roots," said Jackson, who wore her hair in a short Afro style before switching to dreadlocks about a year and a half ago.
She had thought about making the change for a while, but she recalls the exact moment she decided to do it.
"I was at a reggae concert in Oklahoma and saw some non-African people growing dreadlocks," Jackson said. "Since I consider dreads an expression of African culture, I questioned myself seriously about why I wasn't wearing them."
Smith said: "Originally I did it for cultural identity. I thought it was an effective way to wear my hair to make a cultural statement. I found that it was also easy to take care of and I didn't bother to change."
Today, Smith wears her hair in cornrow twists, which she said can be styled in about 45 minutes.
Smith said that her hair works well in all kinds of professional settings, including board meetings, and that, for the most part, reaction to her hair has been positive.
"People have pretty much said that they liked my hair. I have never really got any negative statements," she said. "Perhaps one of the reasons is that the styles I wear are very conservative. Personally, I don't like beads."
But cornrows, braided hair styles and dreadlocks are not always accepted by employers. The Marriott Corp. recently asked Pamela Mitchell, one of its reservation agents, to change her braided hair style. Mitchell filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights, contending that Marriott's request was discriminatory. Marriott subsequently allowed her to keep her hair style.
But this case is not the first time employers have taken issue with hair styles and it is not likely to be the last.
"We live in a society where the aesthetic map simply does not include enough variety in terms of cultural perspective," said Bernice Johnson Reagon, director of the black American culture program at the Smithsonian Institution.
"So that people will actually train you if you belong to a minority group to change your sense of color, your sense of dress, of what you can do with your face, if you want to be successful in mainstream society."
Employers aren't the only ones who balk at such hair styles.
Jimmy Banks, owner of the Adams-Morgan restaurant Fish, Wings & Things, said that he has been stopped by the police several times because of his dreadlocks, which he has worn for three years.
"I guess people assume that you are a Rastafarian or into drugs," Banks said.
For Jackson, wearing her hair in dreadlocks has sometimes meant enduring stares and remarks, including from other blacks, who particularly questioned why she would want to wear her hair in such a way.
"I see that as a repercussion of our self-hatred," said Jackson, who shrugs off snide remarks. "We are taught that nappy hair is negative and to be civilized we have to assimilate, look the way Europeans look."
"The biggest problem in America today is integration. People have mistakenly misdefined it as assimilation. So now people are going out into the work place trying to look the part of white corporate America," he said.
"When you go into a job, man or woman, hair should not make a difference. If I lean over your desk and lice flies out of my hair, well, then you've got a complaint. But if I lean over your desk and my locks are clean and healthy, what do you have to complain about? I am not going to lose my dignity, my self-respect or my culture," Uqdah said. Staff writer Patrice Gaines-Carter contributed to this report.