By Bert Ashe
Bolden. 243 pp. Paperback, $15
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 new book, “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 to myself 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. It may 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.