Children get your culture
and don't stay there and gesture
Oh the battle will be hotter
And you won't get no supper
Natty dread, natty dread now
Following my father's death in January 1991, I neglected my hair care for several
days, giving in to grief and tears. My already thick ebony hair, worn in an afro,
began to tangle, twist, and dread.
Days later, I stood in the mirror and attempted to fork it out. It would not cooperate.
It had wadded into large clumps that could not be worked apart. Combing it now meant
cutting it first. I would have to go to a barber shop. And I'd have to get a quo
vadis, the haircut favored for Black boys when I was in high school and currently
sported under do-rags and duck-billed caps by many gangster rappers. The image of
myself as nearly bald rankled.
So be it, I thought. I'll let it dread. I'd always wanted to do it. Ever since that
time I first met Bob Marley and the Wailers, back in the early seventies. I had always
had the nerve. But in those days it was tough enough finding a job when you wore
your hair au naturel. Dreadlocks, new at the time, were associated with renegade
Jamaicans and evil weed.
But now was the time. At last. Young White ska aficionados had made it briefly trendy
for Whites to try and adopt the hairstyle. More than a decade had passed since Bo
Derek aroused the ire of Black women by wearing her blonde hair braided in 10,
her name momentarily attached to our locks. So I figured the 'do had to be
safe, at minimum, if never quite fully sanctioned by the corporate establishment.
And if I tire of it, I can always shave it off, do a Sinead O'Connor, and start growing
a fresh thatch.
Besides, I need all this kinky crowning glory to balance my weight. It makes me look
slightly more streamlined. A trim of fifty pounds would help put me on the low end
of voluptuous. Have to get that excess under control, as my friend Dee keeps not-so-subtly
saying. If I ever decide to cut off the dreads, I'd look better as a skinhead if
my weight were down. It would certainly make my earrings stand out.
At forty-three, Dee's been skinny for nearly two years. More class, status, and fad
conscious than I am, she's hooked into a West L.A. fat doctor who melts the flab
off overnight via some mystery concoction. She's offered me his number, anytime I'm
ready for the cure.
Dee is many years a vegetarian and has learned that giving up red meat and intermittent
exercise are not enough. The steatopygia that characterizes most women of our race
is stubbornly diet-resistant. Dee once cut an eye-popping, traffic-stopping figure
at size twelve. But, in her case, economic considerations outweighed sexiness, with
a mortgage, a college diploma, and an upscale sports car to support. She found her
answer in a combination of drug treatments and a yoga class.
"Mama's down to a size seven. My babygirl and I can wear the same clothes-blows
"I'm selling my words, not my body," I insisted.
"You're not only selling your writing ability, you're selling how young, hip,
and Black you are," she argued.
For emphasis, Dee told me her price paid was the loss of some righteous steady dick-whipping.
Her twentysomething Black love-interest complained, "Where'd those hips, thighs,
and ass go?" He didn't want no bone, as James Brown puts it, and made a fast
And yet, broad as I am, my "catch action" remains strong. Heads still turn,
heads still raise. Especially those Black and/or Hispanic. I've never had so many
Latinos hit on me in my life. When I say no, nada, no se, no trabaja,
their feelings get hurt. "Why?" the young men whine. They even make passes
or call out "puta" when I'm with my husband, assuming he's either
my trick or my pimp. Should granny get angry or enjoy the compliments while she's
Short of having to revamp my wardrobe, how would skinny benefit me, since I'm not
in the market for male companionship? It might lengthen my planetary staying power.
But I'm not anxious to live another thirty years in poverty. Though if I must, why
not live it as a dread-head?
And that's a long way
for natty to be from home,
Don't care what the world seh
I and I couldn't never go astray
just like a bright and sunny day
Oh we're gonna have things our way
Natty dread, natty dreadlock
Despite peer pressures, the most immediate effect of going dread is a deep and instantaneous
rush of relief and inner well-being. Dee's having none of that.
In order to maintain the appearance of being politically correct, Dee has gone as
far as having her hair woven and plaited into intricately attractive styles. She
has spent as many as forty-eight hours and 500 smackers having her hair braided.
But what I respect Dee for most is that she has, thus far, resisted the temptation
to go blonde.
There are some sistuhs so fair they're borderline albinos, with naturally flaxen
hair or hair which blondes when exposed to sunlight. But only the dark-toned bimbos
who've succumbed to self-hatred go ash, platinum, or gold.
At times I get so homesick I have to crawl into a funked-up little bar somewhere
and sit among down-home Black folk. Getting my blues fix has become one of the few
luxuries I allow myself. It's not the alcohol. It's not the cigarette smoke. It's
the flesh that gives me the high. It's the chorus of so many Black voices passing
the minutes. It's the darkness inside the darkness. The way nappy brown black hair
waves under the pressure of social pomade. It's the sawdust politics that sprout
out of the understanding that we are who we are because we've had no choice but to
be who we are.
Group belonging is a good feeling. But it's instantly spoiled when an unnatural blondie
makes her way through the room. A kind of atmospheric bristling takes place. Sometimes
it's a fair-skinned mama in her wig hat. Sometimes it's an ebony queen with a dye
job. But the effect is always the same.
Racism has intruded.
"A blonde will always draw," a brutha once informed me as I pouted over
why there was almost always a blonde-skinned and/or blonde-haired lady behind the
counter in working class Black joints (tony Black places can always find and afford
real White women). It made me even angrier that I couldn't successfully argue
"You brown-eyed girls are common," he continued, "and what's common
don't make for excitement. Or didn't you see King Kong?"
I had no comeback.
What I tend to want to forget is how deeply self-hate is rooted in the Black psyche;
how deeply internalized the racism. So when I'm with my folk, kin and non-kin, it's
not long before I'm reminded it's not the ghetto alone that's the problem, it's also
the "ghetto mentality."
The record promoter had set it up for me to meet this guy Bob Marley and his group,
the Wailers, at the Tropicana Motel used to be up on Sunset. They sent me the Catch
A Fire LP. I liked the sound. When I got there Marley was sleeping. I waited
outside about twenty minutes before they finally invited me in, nervously clutching
my tape recorder.
In those days I enjoyed celebrity interviews. Almost all of the stars I talked to
were Black men and women. The usta-wasses, the justabouts, and the wannabes. Among
them were Smokey Robinson, Jerry Butler, and Martha Reeves, long without the Vandellas.
Most were into blues, soul, or rock. But this Marley guy was something new. He was
on his second tour of the U.S. and on the verge of igniting the reggae rage.
A petulant, gorgeous mahogany Peter Tosh (Mackintosh) opened the door when I knocked.
He had on cutoffs, a denim shirt open at the chest, and this large yellow, red, green,
and black cap. There was an odd electricity in the air, and I immediately suspected
an argument had just taken place. The Barrett brothers were standing around. Brown-skinned
Bunny "Wailer" Livingstone was sitting in a lounge chair, his massive dreads
draped in a partial snood. He rose and went to the bathroom to check on Bob Marley,
a big funnel-like thing held in his fingers. He was taking puffs from it. I'd never
seen any such dingus before.
"A spliff," Tosh answered.
"Yonno, mahn. Kinda like a joint. Much bettah."
I got it. But I didn't smoke marijuana on my own and, at that point, had never been
high. Peter Tosh was darkly edgy. Bob Marley trailed Bunny Wailer into the room,
yawning sleepily. Peter Tosh gestured, and they went off into a corner of the room,
the three exchanging words in rapid-fire shanty-town patois, too quickly for me to
understand, then Tosh about-faced and hit the door. The Barretts stood silently for
a moment, then followed Tosh outside.
Bunny Wailer opened a leather pouch and busied himself rolling another spliff, stuffing
it with a rich red-brown weed as tangled as his dreads. Marley sat down on the bed.
I looked around for a comfortable squat. One of the Barretts appeared with a chair.
I sat the tape recorder on the bed next to Marley, and scooted up to the edge of
it so that I was close to the microphone. He was handsome, with small features and
honey-colored skin, and radiated magnanimity. His finely braided dreads were slightly
flattened in the back where he'd lain in bed. He was bare-chested, modestly buff,
in denims and bare feet.
I tried not to stare, said there was no hurry and he could put on a shirt if he wanted.
Bunny snorted, went into the closet, came back with a light blue, long-sleeved shirt,
and tossed it to Marley. He put the shirt on but left it hanging loosely open.
As I did a brief sound check, I looked over at Bunny Wailer. He had fired up the
dingus and was pointing it at me. I looked around. The door was standing wide open,
failing to close behind the hasty exit of the two Barrett brothers. Marley reached
for the spliff, took a draw, and inhaled deeply. He handed it to me, amused. I looked
Shit-what if I, we, get busted?
The seconds were stretching out, and I figured that if I wanted a good interview
I'd better go along with the ritual. I took the spliff and imitated Marley, drawing
deeply, inhaling and letting the smoke exhale through my mouth and nose. They watched
"Ganja. We grow it in Jamaica."
"Oh. Sure. Yeah. It's great," I lied. I was afraid I'd end up too punchy
to do a decent interview. But I was so numb with fear I couldn't feel anything except
the sweat rising in my scalp.
In those days I wore studded denim slims constantly, black leotards, stacked-heeled
boots, and a black leather jacket. I wore my hair in a packed trim little three-inch
afro, always accented with monster earrings. I fancied myself a cultural outlaw,
but wasn't looking forward to cooling my butt in Sybil Brand for possession. During
the Marley interview I kept glancing towards the door. No irate police officers appeared.
Later, I learned that motel management discreetly looked the other way, and that
the gendarmes tacitly avoided the Tropicana, infamous for housing music business
banditos, unless violence occurred.
Swallowing my fear with the smoke, I proceeded with the interview. Marley was laid-back,
open, and made a major effort to communicate. It took about twenty minutes for us
to get into each other's idiomatic rhythms. Reggae/dub/ska was such a fresh cultural
phenomenon I had few linguistic reference points. That night and into the next day,
I spent sixteen hours poring over the tapes, doing my best to "translate"
our awkward exchange. I was very proud when my Marley interview made the front page
of the L.A. Free Press, Art Kunkin's underground counterculture rag of local
note, months away from folding. When I read that interview now, I blanch.
As strong an impression as the Wailers' music left on me, their hair left the strongest
impression of all. For months afterwards I thought about Marley, the Wailers, and
their wonderful Rastaman dreadlocks. I envied them their hair freedom. I fought the
temptation to go nappy, reminding myself that I had two children to support. I was
experiencing enough hostility towards my afro, from both Blacks and Whites. My now-classic
hairdo was still regarded as a sign of political militancy even into the late seventies.
Dreading my hair would make me virtually unemployable, to my, and my family's, detriment.
By the end of the eighties, fellow Blacks frequently chided me about the bush
I sported. When was I going to get a Jeri-curl or a braid? My 'fro was horribly passe.
Once, while I was guest-speaking before her mixed-race class, a Black English teacher
pointed to my afro as an example of the old-time hairdo discussed after reading a
chapter from The Autobiography of Malcolm X the previous week. She then thanked
me for being such a staunch individualist.
Dee informs me that human hair is the best. Italian is the first choice, Chinese
is second. Artificial hair is desperation time.
Not all Blacks can dread their hair. Or wear the hair extensions. Dandruff can become
manic. Extensions, woven into natural Black hair in order to lengthen it, often cause
permanent damage if not removed every few weeks so that the scalp can "breathe."
Permanent hair loss can occur.
It takes forever to put in fake hair extensions. But the results can be wonderful.
I tried it twice. Not only did it cost a goodly amount of hard-earned cash, but the
price included brain-deadening conversation, and having to endure endless boring
soap operas and schlock talk shows. The most beneficial aspect of this torture is
that the braids, when done correctly, promote rapid growth of one's natural hair.
Ideally, over time, one can abandon the extensions and let one's own hair take over,
a boon to sistuhs with short or chem-damaged coifs.
It's not only blonde hair that makes a Black woman sexually preferable, it's long
hair of any color. Another remarkable thing I learned from Rastas is that dreaded
Black hair may grow as long as any colleen's or geisha's-right down to the toes.
Male or female. Something I always suspected but never accepted as probable until
seen with my own eyes.
My second personal braid experience resulted in an eight-inch bushy afro once I tore
out the extensions. I removed them after a maddening itch-fest, nearly clawing away
the top layer of my dermis. Another drawback of the hair extensions is that they
make it difficult to get one's scalp squeaky clean.
In order for the dreads to "take" you have to go three to six weeks without
washing the hair. It's probably a myth, but when I expressed concern about contracting
lice, one girlfriend told me authoritatively that lice did not like hair as kinky
as mine. That figured, since, apparently, nobody else liked my hair either. I braved
it. Used lots of expensive perfume, and got away lice-free.
Mine are not the neat, acceptable, plaits of artificial or store-bought hair. My
twists are straight out of Jungle Jim.
It gets my mother's goat when we're out in public and I get compliments on my dreads.
The good words come largely from Whites of all ages but, when at all, from Blacks
under fifty. While it is universally within normal limits for women to fret and primp
over their hair, Blacks of slave origin have elevated this art to a pathology.
Once a young sistuh leaned over the stall that separated her table from ours to ask
my advice on how she should start dreading. My mother stared, hers a rueful little
smirk, no doubt wishfully envisioning Chinese bangs and Greek curls.
"Your head makes me itch!" Mom frowned and offered to take me into the
kitchen, wash and straight-iron my hair that first time she saw my stubby little
nubbins. She hadn't voluntarily touched my head since puberty.
"You'll get used to it."
"No I won't."
And she hasn't.
The incredulous stares I drew at one recent family picnic didn't deter me. Instead,
I felt a vague pity for my dyed and fried bloodfolk. They had bought into the White
man's lie about self-image. I was liberated from such mental tyranny. I was freed
of slavery to the mirror. Of having to stand in it two-to-three hours a day either
braiding it up or taking it down, or combing/forking it out. Just like the Rastafarians.
Aunt Enid nearly died right there, on the spot, in front of us when she saw my head.
Hooked up to a respirator, she was barely able to breathe. I'd driven nearly a hundred
miles to bring mother for that final visit. But Aunt Enid seemed more concerned about
my dreads than her own impending death.
It absolutely floored me when she asked her sister what (on Earth!) had happened
to my head?
"It's a new style, Aunt Enid. It's called dreadlocks," I spoke softly.
She didn't seem to hear me. Shocked, she could only stare. She raised a frail entubated
arm and pointed in my direction. I stammered, then fell silent, realizing how useless
it would be to attempt to explain what a Rastafarian was to this devout Methodist.
In her easy-listening lexicon, reggae and Bob Marley were a foreign tongue.
Obviously I was a distraction, so I left the room and let my elders visit alone.
Ignoring the occasional double take, transfixed stare, or Tracy Chapman joke, I wear
my dreads everywhere. They've grown out regally, nearly shoulder-length, and mother
has stopped her gripes.
When preparing to go out and pitch my stories, I fashionably cradle my dreadlocks
in a bandanna or scarf to match my outfit. I'm acutely aware of just how dreadful
they really are to the uninitiated. Especially to colored folk who haven't embraced
the Black new age aesthetic. This is the notion that any Blacks who do not have their
hair "in coils" when the millennium arrives will face eternal damnation.
That's one worry off my chest-er, mind.
The longer my knots become, the wilder. They snake and fork like the Medusa, the
name my son christened my 'do when I first revealed that I was "going dread."
I knew it embarrassed my kids to see Mom's tresses in such a severe state of kinkiness.
But I knew they'd get used to it. They have. And they know that the only possible
influence on how I wear my hair is the job market indicator.
Children get your culture
and don't stay there and gesture
Oh the battle will be hotter
and you won't get no supper