The Amusement and Frustration of Dreadlocks


AT THE AGE of 33, two years into wearing them, I' discovering that dreadlocks are appropriately named. As much as I like them, I'm alternately amused and frustrated by people's reactions to my hair style.

Dreadlocks are as ancient as Africa and India. The regal Masai warriors of Kenya sport them. But today dreadlocks are most often identified with the Rastafarians of Jamaica and, by extension, with reggae musicians.

There are two ways to "create" dreadlocks. Due to the wool-like texture of most black people's hair, it can simply be twisted and will remain that way even after it is washed. The other method is to allow one's hair to keep growing without doing anything to it. Over time, it will mat into long clumps.

Such dreadlocks are often seen on the strictest Rastafarians and on many of the black homeless men and women who wear their hair that way because they must. (As a result, many people who see dreadlocks identify the style with vagrancy.)

Most blacks who wear dreadlocks, no matter what our social status, can tell stories of being followed by security officers in stores, of having car doors locked at intersections when we're standing at the street corner, of being treated like extraterrestrials when venturing into expensive restaurants.

You learn to develop forbearance, if not humor, when you wear dreadlocks. I was walking the other night on Clement Street in San Francisco where there were plenty of people strolling the sidewalk. But when a middle-aged white couple sensed my approach behind them, the man glanced backward to see me. They stopped dead in their tracks, quickly feigning interest in a window display. As soon as I passed them, they moved on. Turning around I said to them, "You don't have to worry. I don't mug people on Friday nights. I only do it on Saturdays."

There are times, however, when it's easier for me to get angry. While shopping in a local drugstore, I turned around to notice a clerk watching me while pretending to stock merchandise. Fed up with one more instance of blatant suspicion from a stranger, I picked out the sandwich I was looking for and approached her. Then I opened my shirt and stuffed the sandwich inside, asking, "Is this what you're waiting for me to do?"

She flushed with anger and then I lectured her and the other

staff members who came to her aid. I told them when they spent their lives being presumed criminals, they could tell me how to behave. Then I paid for my purchase and left.

In a reflective moment, I wonder what unwritten law has determined that black men today must wear their hair shorter than any other group of men on the face of the earth. Our kinky hair, by its very consistency, is feared as something you can hide things in. Even if it's clean it's still a mystery to non-blacks.

My older sister once asked me if dreadlocks were worth the trouble. "Now don't get mad," she said. "But don't you think your hairstyle might get in the way of your getting a job?"

Without question my hair gets in the way of a lot of things. It smokes out the submerged feelings of suspicion and hostility in many people.

If you wear dreadlocks, you have to be ready for every sort of reaction, from fear and repulsion to attraction. If you wear them, you agree to live your life on the edge. Besides liking the way they look, I like the fact that dreadlocks make life more interesting.

Rastafarians view dreadlocks as affirming a life well-lived. I couldn't put it any better.

Hugh Pearson is a San Francisco writer. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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