Chronicling Black hair with author Bert Ashe

Conversations regarding issues of Blackness and Black people seem to cause tension, when most often tension isn’t necessary. The topics are most often deemed political or controversial when in fact they are more so topics of living life as a Black person. With that being said, the one topic that continues to cause a great amount of turmoil is the topic of Black hair.

Black hair, especially in its natural, unprocessed state has been deemed political by many, and in a sense, unfortunately it is. In the year 2016, many people are still asking to touch and stroke the hair on a person’s head. Some people take the liberty granted to them and wrap their fingers in the coils or locs or place a hand on top of the person’s head. For Black people it can be a continued annoyance or a commentary on the culture we live in. It is a practiced that hopefully, in 2017 or by the end of the year many people will stop.

For many people, their hair is a statement, a symbol or pride or a great representation of who they. For some Black people who have natural hair, it can serve as a political statement because afro-textured was, and is, a little bit of a taboo. The idea of Black hair and theories surrounding it have been explored and explained by many people. For most, when it comes to manners surrounding hair and beauty, they think of women, however University of Richmond Professor, Bert Ashe sees differently. Bert Ash visited the University of Baltimore, reading from his book, “Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles.” In this book he provides commentary on Black mens’ relationship with the “issue” of Black Hair.

In reference to your book, I know your locks inspired you but what else inspired you to create this work?

Well part of it was some love for the fellas. The fact that anybody who’s interested in black hair, talking about black hair, theorizing about black hair, understands and respects as they should, the black female situation. In term of the beauty ideals and the way beauty is much more of a factor for women than it is [for] men. But at the same time, Black men do think about their hair, even if it isn’t as conscious and not as fraught with all sorts of tension as Black women. I wanted to publish a book where the central focus is on a black man and his hair.

Do you have a preference of calling them “locs” or “dreds”?

I do. There is a chapter, about two-thirds of the way through the book called Against “Dred-Locs”. I talk a lot in that chapter about how this idea about there is nothing dreadful about my hair, you know? That dreadlocks with an A is somehow negative and wrong and I disagree with that. The term dreadlock came from the Rastafarians. They’re the ones that brought the hair style as a hair style to the United States. I like the punning double meaning. That dreads in terms of the way the Rastafarians used it did mean negative. It meant different. It meant outsider. It mean separate from but they didn’t mean dread as in dreadful. There is more than one way to use the word, so yeah I’m pretty solidly on “team dreadlock.”

Do you think Black hair should be labeled as “natural hair” or do you think when we talk about our hair it should just be, “my hair”?

I like natural! There does need to be a term used to make a distinction between the texture of one’s hair and the fact that if a woman has natural hair, you know displaying or wearing her natural hair, it allows us to know that it’s her hair. It’s not her treated with chemicals. It’s not her hair pressed and combed. For the most part, it’s the hair that she was born with and in that sense, I think it’s fair to call it natural. It’s only so natural, of course because it’s done in a way that is a conscious stylistic gesture. I think natural is a perfectly fine term.

When you wrote this, how do you think people received it? Were you afraid to write a book about black hair and more importantly, a Black man’s hair?

No, I wasn’t and the response over the fifteen years it took to bring this thing into publication was always positive, people always loved the idea. It was difficult to work it into a narrative form that worked. People were happy and excited about the possibility of the topic. There really wasn’t… I cannot recall somebody saying, ‘you’re a dude! Why are you writing this book?’ But what I do recall people saying, quite regularly, quite frankly is some version of ‘It’s just hair! You’re over thinking this. It’s not that big of a deal.’

How do you feel when people say that to you?

I have to disagree. I tell them that not only is it not just [hair] but that it has all sorts of meaning that are sometimes articulated clearly and other times that clash with all sorts of ideas in presentation of the body. I have two women- two seniors- in my seminar that I am teaching this semester, called ‘Black Style.’ Both of those women have straightened hair. Now, what I’ve seen of the course of the time I have known them at the University of Richmond, I have known them since their sophomore year, if not earlier than that, they have worn their hair naturally. One of them had this sort of modified dreadlocks and the other one had worn her hair in various sorts of braids. Their hair is natural, it’s pressed right now but if I was to walk up to them and see their hair today and didn’t know what their history was, I would assume they were the sorts of women who had to have their hair pressed because that’s the only way they can present themselves to the world and I would be wrong. So the fact is there are all sorts of things hair communicates to the world, even if, as I say in “Twisted”, ‘Black hair is an unreliable narrator.’ It’s telling you something but it isn’t necessarily telling you what you think you see.

And as a result, I don’t see how it can just be hair if it has so many complicated things to present to the culture about individuals, about groups, is so complicated. So the idea that you can say ‘eh… it’s just hair’- no it’s not! It’s not just hair. You’re wrong is what I would say. It’s deeper than that.

You wanted locs for a while before you actually had them. You contemplated a while. What was the “give all” that made you say I have to do this?

I think the bottom line has to do with a kind of, sort of maturity combined with acceptance of self. See, I’m not the only one-I think every healthy person, I’m not talking about people who are, you know narcissist or have some sort of mental illness or emotional issue, just ordinary healthy people, have a persona that they project to the world and they have a persona that they are inside. I think that what we try to do with our clothes and our hair and our affect and our presentation and our voice and a variety of ways that speak for us; we try to match how we are inside

by projecting a persona outside. And I, for a variety of reasons that have to do with the culture of my household and where I grew up in the suburbs and my own personality and my own sense of who I am, I struggled with the ability to present to the world a hair style that I felt reflected my edgy and sort of bohemian sensibility that I felt like I really was inside. But [I] could only managed to reflect to the world, this pretty conservative- not politically but in terms of clothing and hair style, way of being a version of Bert Ashe that communicated who was nonverbally to the world. And it took me almost until the end of my 30s to actually feel comfortable presenting to the world, truly what I was inside.

Do you think the uncomfortability came from society of people you knew?

Oh absolutely! Sure! Part it was people I knew but a lot of it was society, the culture. It’s kind of like when I, in the book about a third of the way through, I started talking about people reacting to my hair. Random strangers in grocery stores, random strangers on the street. Four or five days ago, I was coming out of the grocery store, I had done the grocery shopping for my wife and I and a woman- a white older, sixty something said something. I was listening to head phones at the time, so I paused my iPod and I said, ‘excuse me’. The expression on her face wasn’t aggressive, it wasn’t off-put- ting, and so I said, ‘excuse me’. And she said, ‘are you a musician?’ I said, ‘No… why do you ask?’ And she started tug at the air beneath her ears as if she was referencing my hair and she finally said, ‘Your hair.’
To me, when a random stranger says something like that, it’s not just her as an individual. It’s the culture talking. It’s the world saying, in one way or another, when you wear your hair like that, first and foremost I have to say something—I have to ask you who you are because your hair style is so provocative and so out of the ordinary that I moved to speak to a total stranger. I don’t mind it personally. I think it’s fascinating and curious. But in a sense, that’s the culture talking and if in fact you are uncomfortable with that sort of thing, if you feel like you’re not quite up to wearing clothing or ear gages or a hair style that is so outside of the norm that people will ask you about it or people will

look at you with a double take, then you need not to have that hair style. I wasn’t ready to be able to wear and present to the world a hairstyle that wasn’t conventional.

Would you say culture needs to change or understand black hair?

Culture changes. Change is slow and incremental. Sometimes the change seems like change but isn’t that much change. For example, for as long as dreadlocks have been in American culture, for as long as they have been around, you would think the sheer number of people wearing dreadlocks would disconnect the presumption that if you are wearing dreadlocks you must be Jamaican. But I am here to tell you, that with startling and amazing regularity people assume that I am Jamaican because I am wearing dreadlocks. Even though the culture has changed in the way we view the dreadlock hairstyle, to a certain extent the culture hasn’t change but so much because its inability to see dreadlocks any other way than attached to Jamaicans. The culture changes but it only changes so much and that change is going to be slow and incremental indeed. I’m not relying on culture to change. I’m not expecting culture to change to make me comfortable. That’s not the way cultures work. For me it’s probably better for a person to attain a certain level of comfort inside a culture that simply is not going to change but so much.

Bert Ashe reflects on writing this book for himself and for culture. The book began as journal entries in his process to loc his hair. It then grew from his personal thoughts and struggles. Ashe has an interest in Black hair as it relates to men and to himself, and will continue to explore this topic with a new project he is working on about the hair of Black men throughout history. Ashe is taking famous historical figures ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Malcolm X in hopes of talking about the figure and the media representation of the figure—looking specifically at their hair and how their hair was a part of them and the legacies they left behind.

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