Obsession with black hair is usually considered the provenance of black women, not black men. It is the women we see worrying about whether to go natural, relaxed or straightened—whether to weave, braid or dread. And yet this is where we enter Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, the second book from radio personality-turned-University of Richmond professor Bert Ashe.
Looking at himself in the mirror one fine morning, Ashe determines to make his decadeslong obsession a reality: He is going to grow dreads. Ashe takes us on a tour of his fascination with dreads—ranging from his own personal experience to the use of the dreadlocks style throughout history, religion and other aspects of global culture. Dreads, Ashe tells us, were first worn by the “Vedic deity Shiva” and are of Indian origin. They have been seen in paintings of “Egyptian royalty and commoners” and were sported by “Germanic tribes, the Vikings, the Pacific Islanders, the Aztecs, early Christians” and, of course, the Rastafarians.
In Twisted, dreads become a way of talking about Ashe’s quest for individuality and selfhood. When younger, Ashe was a straight-A kid from a well-to-do Southern California suburb, the class-president son of two teachers. But he longed to rebel, to go outside the established status quo. Even as he grew up in those “vanilla, Spielbergian suburbs,” Ashe felt he really belonged in Berkeley as “the son of radical, militant professors” or “in Greenwich Village, slouching around CBGBs,” where he would have met “his pal Jean-Michel Basquiat for coffee at a café.” Simply put, Ashe spent years longing for his exterior image to match his interior, nonconformist personality. Dreads, he thought, would do that for him.
Ashe nearly dreadlocked his hair at 24 years of age in 1983 but was prevented by his girlfriend at the time, who believed that the style should not be co-opted for fashion but should be worn only by one who espoused the Rasta religious beliefs. “I wonder though,” Ashe adds, if “I was actively looking for an excuse not to do it and for me to now say ‘she talked me out of it’ is, perhaps, displacing the blame for why I didn’t do it then.”
Still hyperaware and jealous of those who wore dreads, Ashe continued to lust after the locked hair of fellow grad students, even stalking unknown dreadheads down miles of city streets to catch a better look. And yet, Ashe admits in another one of his many classic moments of astute self-awareness, he waited until he finished grad school, entered the job market and started teaching—although was not yet tenured—before he decided to adopt such a controversial hairstyle; perhaps he was protecting his employment prospects and his future in corporate America.
Ironically, when Ashe finally takes the plunge, he is tremendously, hideously uncomfortable. Always closely trimmed, he cannot deal with the in-between time of growing out his hair before it becomes long enough to twist. This discomfort reaches its peak at a work conference in Colorado Springs. Disgusted with how bad his hair looks, Ashe hides out in his hotel room as long as possible, afraid of the judging eyes of those he dubs the “Black Hair Police Department.” He needn’t have worried; he is one of only two black people at the conference.
Here, however, Ashe gains strength in his dreadlock quest from the figure of the sole other black attendee at the conference: This woman, with her short, natural Afro and conservative gray suit topped with a kente cloth scarf for flair, makes Ashe realize that he will be able to balance the needs of his corporate life with his new Afrocentric style. In any case, one thing arises as truth: For black folk in America, hair is always political.
From these hard, uncomfortable beginnings grows a meditation on Ashe’s love of black hair and everything black—black children, black women, black brotherhood, black parents, black families, black communities, black culture. “Black hair, how—why—do I love thee?” muses Ashe. “Walk seven pathways to my heart.” These are necessary words to hold onto in a world where, more often than not, we are bombarded with images that turn black hair—and blackness—into something ugly to be destroyed.
And yet, something funny happens. As Ashe wears his locks, he realizes that dreads have become so commonplace and routine that by wearing them, he is not challenging the status quo at all. What, if any, meaning do dreadlocks still have in this day and age, when they have become so conventional?
Crafted in bursts of short flash essays, Twisted is incredibly witty and entertaining. Here is a voice fresh with enthusiasm, both defiant and strong. Although at times he sacrifices narrative flow to stylistic sensation, Ashe deftly manages to weave historical fact with personal experience. There is nothing but pure joy in these pages—a celebration of individual and cultural identity. It is an inspiring thing to witness how Ashe’s ability to finally wear his hair the way he has long desired awakens a deeper understanding of self and the world. A delightful quest in which an examination of dreadlocked hair becomes an examination of life well-lived.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.