Adapted from Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles by Bert Ashe, out now from Agate Bolden.
It can happen anywhere, at any time. The recent confrontation over black hair and cultural appropriation at San Francisco State University occurred in a campus hallway, but with an ongoing, everyday flow of bodies of all colors in motion all over America, cultural disputes are simply inevitable. It’s just that no one knows when or what form they’ll take. One Saturday afternoon, several years ago, I was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in the latter stages of locking my hair. I left my house in the afternoon, on my way to a reading in Cambridge, but I’d decided not to drive all the way in. I love Cambridge; I hate trying to park there.
I drove to a nearby parking garage and took the “T,” planning to get off at Harvard Square. I waited, the train came, I boarded. I had just sat down, ready to open my Boston Phoenix, when two teenage white girls boarded, looked my way, gasped with pleasure, and darted straight toward me. They were so excited and exclamatory that I couldn’t help but smile.
That’s all they needed. One had a jacket with patches all over it, the other was generously tattooed, and clearly both were trying, gamely, to grow dreadlocks. “I love your hair!” Jacket breathed. “It’s so cool.”
“How’d you do it?” asked Tattoo.
Now, there are two schools of thought in regard to whites and black culture. According to one prominent school, my reaction should be, “What do you mean, ‘How’d I do it’? I have black hair—it locks because that’s what black hair does.” I’d say it snappishly, according to this school, irritably, weighed down by centuries of instances where, as (white) actor and playwright Danny Hoch once put it, white people demonstrate that they might love black style while not necessarily loving black people.
It’s the school of thought that says, Why do you want it, white girl? Can’t we have anything to ourselves? You want this too? Damn—leave me alone! It’s the school of thought that Richard Pryor had in mind when he suggested that black men “hold their dicks” because “y’all have taken everything else.”
The other school of thought is one that says, Of course I understand, well-meaning white person—black culture is so attractive, so compelling, so engaging that you want “in,” you want to be a part of it; you can’t help yourselves. I get it, and I understand. So help yourselves to the buffet of black culture—pick and choose; it’s all you can eat, folks. Stuff yourselves.
But understand this: It’s gonna look different when you do it, whatever it is, continues that second school. You can afro-friz your hair in the 1970s, but it’s not going to look like Huey P. Newton’s afro. Bo Derek can braid her hair in cornrows ‘till six becomes nine and back again, but it won’t look like my daughter’s cornrowed hair when her mother tightens her up. So go ahead. Eat up. Want some more? Have a fifth helping of blackness. Please.
Just make sure you credit the source—that’s what makes me crazy. Every kid in America wears ball caps, often backwards. But do they even know who popularized the style? The banjo is an African instrument—complete with an African name (bahn-jo)—but how many people know that? That’s what was on the table, for me, when these all-too–well–meaning white girls, without a clue as to what they were really asking, essentially said, Take our hands and lead us into blackness, please, sir. We’ve gotta have it.
And yet, it’s astonishing the number of white people who see my dreads and tell me they used to wear the style. These are, often enough, quite conventional–looking white folks who, when I ask, say they cut them to get a job, or because they were graduating, or some such other rite of passage. When white people get dreads, they’re walking on the wild side. As are blacks, in some important ways. But if I ever cut my locks—should they ever deign to lock up in the first place—I’ll still be black. When they cut theirs, they’re white. It ain’t exactly the same.
There I sat, on that “T” train, the embodiment of the black male outsider, arguably the most compelling figure in American culture, the “envy of the world,” as Toni Morrison wrote, sardonically, in Sula. For those young whites who see dreadlocks as an oppositional, angry outgrowth of hair that symbolizes the latest incarnation of the black male outlaw figure, the urge to adopt the style must be well-nigh overpowering. It certainly seemed that way for these two young girls with their windowpane-wide, eagerly anticipatory faces. And so I’m supposed to—what—help this poor child, the one who asked me the question, this innocent girl who thinks (and why, in this present, so-called “post-race” era, wouldn’t she?) that society sees our heads as exactly the same? Do I help her? Do I give her a hand, help her up to the very Mt. Dread I’m trying to scale myself? Or do I turn coldly away?
I thought about it. I thought about it for so long that the moment threatened to become uncomfortable …
Then I helped her. In the end, I pleasantly answered her questions, knowing full well that as hard as I struggled with my own hair, she’d struggle even harder—because her hair doesn’t grow in circles like mine does. And even when she has it, even when, if she sticks with it, she’s locked up, it won’t look like black dread, it simply won’t. I suppose what I felt was akin to a veteran pro football wide receiver giving advice to a high school kid he knows will never compete for his job. What’s the loss?
We chatted easily about process as the train rocked gently from side to side, inevitably rolling us closer to our destinations. They got off, and I started reading my Boston Phoenix, shaking my head in amusement, when I should have been shaking my head at myself: How could I know that just by growing locks my own utter conventionality was endangering the style’s rebellious reputation? I idly wondered if I should have discouraged them. Would that have helped preserve the edgy lock style? Or is there no preservation?
As I thought about those two girls, I couldn’t help thinking about something my wife Valerie had told me when she’d returned to Worcester from shuttling the kids back home from their summer in Los Angeles. At the time, my son Garnet was wearing the buzz cut he’d worn most of his life. It had happened at Disneyland. Val, Garnet and my daughter Jordan had walked into the waiting area for one of the rides and the ride attendant, some Southern California teenage white girl, saw Garnet, squealed with delight, and began to rub his head, repeating, “Good luck! Good luck! Good luck!”
Val stepped up to her. Grabbed her wrist; got up in her face. “Don’t do that,” she said through clenched teeth.
The girl quickly began falling all over herself, apologizing profusely. But Val was still bothered about it, and so was I. She’s sorry she didn’t report the incident to the girl’s supervisor. I wish she had too, but I know all too well how hard it is to think of exactly what to do when you’re in the moment, when a cultural drama is unfolding in real time.
But even though the girl apologized, the question remained: What was all that about? Where’d that come from? Whenever I’ve argued that black hair is, indeed, a window into American cultural attitudes and mores; when Lisa Jones writes, “Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at black people’s hair,” people usually seemed skeptical. But there it was: A suburban, Orange County white girl loses her mind while working at Disneyland, of all the places for an American cultural drama to unfold. When she spotted the hair on my son’s head, some historical bubble was released deep in her subconscious. The bubble popped when it hit the surface, and it was ugly. Garnet was an inadvertent, unwilling participant in a real, live American minstrelsy flashback. Primitivism ain’t hardly dead yet, even as one century crashes and another one rises.
Previously on Slate:
White Women, Black Hairstyles