Someone invented fire. Surely, at first, someone discovered it, but the building of an intentional fire? — so that it can be relied upon? — someone invented that. Someone invented drawing. And drumming. Some nameless human somewhere, during the prehistoric era, standing with hands on hips, head quizzically cocked to the side, must have muttered some grunt-filled version of “Hmmmmm,” and thought, if not said aloud, “What if I tried … this?”
A long, long time ago, someone invented dreadlocks. And then the people around that person reacted to the style. Might have been, “I like that,” which spurred the wearer to continue; might have been, “I hate that” — which, perhaps, spurred the wearer to defiantly continue.
Either way, somebody invented dreadlocks — the recognizable style. But who? I’m guessing someone saw matted hair and it triggered a feeling of aesthetic pleasure, and that person figured out a way to duplicate that accident for themselves. Clearly, someone recognized dreadlocks as a distinctive “style,” but whoever that was — and exactly when — is unrecorded.
Cutting — styling — had to come first. In order to “let” hair grow, a culture of cutting would already have to be in place. Once that culture of cutting was set, then one could cut, or let hair grow, resulting from some sort of aesthetic desire. Think of beards. On most men, facial hair simply grows. But for a population of men who decide to “let” their beards grow, the cutting of beards had to come before allowing-to-grow became an intentional stylistic option.
So. Let’s get it straight, as it were: first came hair. Then, over time, came the styling of hair: cutting and shaping. And then, it would follow, came the “allowing-to-grow” option — leaving hair uncut, leaving hair unshaped — which slowly emerged as a stylistic possibility once the culture of cutting had set the aesthetic boundaries in the first place.
On Monday morning, March 9, 1998, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, looking for dreadlocks. I’d been searching for a long time; I’d been seeking them out, trying to talk to them, bargain with them, reason with them. Dreadlocks dropped between my eyes and the world like night-vision goggles fastened over the eyes of a soldier on patrol. I couldn’t help seeing the world through an infrared, black hair prism. It was like a prolonged hallucination; black people’s heads — and the hair upon them — were blown up to quadruple scale, and as they walked the earth their bodies and faces melted, and all I could see, all that mattered, was their hair. My eyes would tear and fog, and when they cleared, I would blearily zoom in on black hair in general or dreadlocks in particular — and I absolutely had no off switch, either, any more than one could imagine a day without weather. It didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, what time of day it was, or what I was doing — the intensity with which I studied and observed and contemplated black hair sometimes made my head hurt.
I stood there, staring at my head in the mirror. Every now and then fast-motion-photography hair would shoot out, morphing my near-baldie into a thicket, into bushy locks, into a head of hair you could lose a hand in. On that second Monday of March in 1998, I decided I wasn’t going to cut my hair again for a long, long time. I said it aloud, my mirror image forming the words as the sound broke bathroom silence: “I’m growing dreadlocks.”
The words changed nothing. No sudden darkness as clouds passed in front of the sun; no rumbling, ominous music slowly emerging from underneath the scene. I simply said it aloud, and then said it again. “I’m growing dreadlocks.” No one knew. And no one would guess. As short as my hair was, the idea that I was growing dreadlocks would seem as absurd as an asthmatic fat boy insisting he was going to run the marathon. My hair was longer than it had been a couple of weeks earlier, but it was still very, very short. When I stood in the bathroom and blinked and my hair shrank back to reality, I laughed at the notion. Dreadlocks? Me? Please.
• • •
I wanted to go outside. I’d tried to get outside for years, I really had. I cultivated an appetite for rock music in college, and I loved going to art movies at Camera One in downtown San Jose. I drove into and hung out in San Francisco and Berkeley as often as I could. Once, in the early ’80s, my across-the-dorm-hallway friend Yvonne and I went to San Francisco to see an indie movie called Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s first feature. Standing in line, I felt like I was finally with my people: emaciated-looking guys in skinny black jeans and Day-Glo Chuck Taylors, girls with spiky, magenta hair, black dudes in torn Clash tees. I felt like just hanging out in line, just being on the scene, took me outside a little bit. I hated the movie, but that’s beside the point. Sitting in that theater, feeling “in” among outcasts, watching similar outcasts onscreen, with me in my own scruffy tee and hole-at-both-knees jeans, I felt slightly … “out.” After the movie, as Yvonne and I walked down the street away from the theater, I spied a black woolen scarf on the sidewalk, scooped it up, and wrapped it around my neck. I lost that same scarf about five years later in a mosh pit at a Fishbone concert at Rockitz in Richmond, Va. I always thought there was some poetry there, in the way that scarf floated toward me — and in the way that scarf floated away from me.
I just wanted to figure out a way I could come closer to ... achieving that delicate, ideal, teeter-totter balance between the Me I felt myself to be, and the Me I seemed to be to those who could see me.
I wanted to go outside. See, yes, it’s absolutely true that I’m the son of a hardworking man who for years was a teacher and then principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District; I’m the son of a woman who was a special education teacher in that same district. I did grow up in Harbor City, in Los Angeles County, and I did play in my cul-de-sac, like that kid from The Wonder Years, on a street whose households were like a mini-United Nations: Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian, African American, and, of course, WASP, all on one multi-culti street, and we all played well with each other and let’s all link hands and sing along, shall we? Because I don’t want to anymore. Yes, yes, I went to Nathaniel Narbonne High School and lived in a subdivision called, of all things, the Palo del Amo Woods — with nary a naturally grown tree in sight: Cub Scouts, YMCA, tennis lessons, piano lessons, swimming lessons, accordion lessons, summer camp, peewee football, alto saxophone in junior high school band, tenor saxophone in Los Caballeros Youth Band, and high school band. High school basketball. Student government, class president in elementary and junior high, student body president in junior high, graduation speaker in high school and every other graduation that I had up through high school — are you sick yet? Queasy? Well, it’s true. It’s all true. I was completely engaged. I was raised to be an achiever, a little brown suburban robot: totally plugged in. It’s what I knew, and I knew as much as I could; I bought “in,” and I bought “it” — I bought it all.
It really wasn’t until I went away to school and met some hard-core brothers from the streets — and some real-deal bohemians — that I realized what I’d missed, that I’d been cocooned growing up in a way that I simply didn’t understand before. How could I know? I guess that’s what “sheltered” means: not just protected, but blinkered. Capped. Shuttered.
• • •
As the years went by I grew up in those Palo del Amo Woods, those vanilla, Spielbergian suburbs. My body expanded, lengthened, and jutted away from earth in those suburbs where I lived. But inside, deep inside, I just knew I’d grown up in Berkeley, attended Berkeley High, kicked around Telegraph Avenue as the son of radical, militant professors. Inside my rib cage, my beating heart told me that I’d grown up in Greenwich Village, slouching around CBGBs in the East Village, meeting my pal Jean-Michel Basquiat for coffee at a café at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the son of an herbalist and a jazz musician. Or maybe I’d grown up in Cambridge, Mass., a Harvard Square veteran, the son of an artist — and an experimental novelist.
See, then I wouldn’t have had to get outside myself. I’d have had matching selves — the same one on the inside as the one on the outside. As is, I was this Dark Stranger, this outcast on the inside, but all the world could see was the obliging, adroit façade, the Universal Negro: good guy Bert. But that’s not quite right, either, because I am that good guy, too! I absolutely am that; I wouldn’t want to lose that. It’s real. It’s Me. I just wanted to figure out a way I could come closer to finding the perfect green bubble in the middle of the level bar, achieving that delicate, ideal, teeter-totter balance between the Me I felt myself to be, and the Me I seemed to be to those who could see me. I wondered, Dreadlocks, can you do that for me?
Art, Science, Religion
Homo habilis, the first species of the genus Homo, lived in South and East Africa about two million years ago. They possessed some rough tools, mainly to extract meat from dead animals. But Homo erectus had a larger brain, and it’s around this time that hand axes began to appear. Could Homo erectus have even been bothered to use the hand axe to cut his or her hair? I doubt it. My belief, based purely on common sense, mixed with some brief and scattered examples of camping as a kid with Cub Scouts and my family, is that they had far more to worry about keeping their stomachs full than styling hair. Steven Mithen, who has tracked the development of the human mind, agrees with me; he calls the world of the Homo neanderthalensis “tedious, with the same set of tools being used for narrow purposes and with no hint in the archaeological evidence of art, science, or religion.”
And what is hairstyling, at least in the black community, but a telling combination of artistic expression, an almost scientific approach to dealing with kinks, and a nearly obsessive devotion to the collaborative styling process that borders on the religious: an art, a science, and a religion. By the time Homo sapiens evolved, not only were the dead regularly buried, boats built, and cave walls painted, but people began, about 5,000 years ago, to decorate their bodies with beads and pendants. They also began to cut and style their hair. And it’s at this moment that men and women can choose to opt out of the developing social norms by such gestures as styling their hair — or, rather, refusing to style their hair — in ways that might well frighten, or provoke “dread,” in the prevailing culture. The hairstyle we call dreadlocks would do that, I would imagine, if for no other reason than its harkening back to the days when hair was merely “stuff” emerging from bodies.
My secret lasted exactly 24 hours. My wife, Valerie, is the love of my life, the mother of my children, all that’s good in my world; she also has always had senses working overtime. I walked into the kitchen of our colonial house on a bright spring morning the day after I’d spent so much time in the mirror. She glanced at me, looked away, then ripped back for a double take. She said, “You know what? You need a haircut. Bad. What’s going on?” In my head, I was smug; I thought, This is happening exactly the way you expected it, Bert. Tell her you’re letting it grow. “I’m letting it grow out,” I said carelessly, casually opening the refrigerator.
“Does it have to look so scruffy?” she said. Val and I make a curious pair. We’re both around the same age, both college educated, both love to read, both hold similar views on morals and character. But our differences are stark and plain to see. She was from a military family, I was from an education family. I was raised in Southern California, her home base was in Southern Virginia. Practical and warm, clear-eyed and direct, Val was often the commonsensical voice of reason to my wild and risky ideas. If I was Sputnik, prone to soaring flights in outer space, Val was an earthen garden, feet planted firmly on the ground. That morning she’d barely begun to suggest ways I could grow my hair out more gracefully when the morning carnival drowned out any possible conversation. My athletic, 3-year-old son, Garnet, as subtle as a swinging sledgehammer, needed his shoes tied; my daughter, Jordan, a lithe, graceful 7-year-old, was loudly loading her backpack before I took them to daycare and to school.
A little while later Val and I were on our way to Boston. As I pointed the car east on the Massachusetts Turnpike, she turned to me and said, apropos of absolutely nothing, “Are you growing dreadlocks?”
I was shocked into silence for a moment or two. Then I came clean. What else could I do? “Yes,” I said, grimly.
She smiled and nodded. She’d always liked the style.
“But now, Val,” I said, “how could you have possibly gotten from ‘You need a haircut’ back at the house to ‘Are you growing dreadlocks?’ now? What exactly was the road you traveled in your head to get here?”
She just smiled her inscrutable smile. Conversation drifted elsewhere — we had business in Boston, and we focused on that. But the secret was out, even though I hadn’t volunteered anything. I didn’t mention the other issues I’d been thinking about. I’d have to figure those out for myself.