How do you know the right time? For much of my undergraduate years at San Jose State, beginning in 1977, I didn’t wear a hairstyle—I wore a white hat, a lot like Gilligan’s hat in Gilligan’s Island, and I wore it all the time; if you saw me, you saw the hat. And although I was aware dreadlocks existed, I didn’t actively consider them a stylistic option. Dreadlocks, alas, simply wasn’t a conscious possibility for me at that time. What I couldn’t know was that, for years to come, I would have regular dread-growing possibilities tantalizingly dangled in front of me, and I would reach out, would flail about, but ultimately fail to launch the locks.
The first time I seriously considered growing dreadlocks was 1983, while I was working as a disc jockey at KBCE-FM in Alexandria, Louisiana. I was a bit older then, somewhere around age 24, and I actively wanted them. I had a little more awareness—I knew they were important to the Rastafarians— but I didn’t know much more than that. I was attracted to the style, and so I considered it, even though I knew less than nothing about how to go about it.
But as fate would have it, I briefly dated a Jamaican woman in Louisiana. And when I told her I was getting locks, she talked me out of it. Honestly, I wonder if, even though I wanted to do it, 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. Nevertheless, her argument was that it was wrong for non-Rastas to wear locks, that it was sacrilegious, that it would be a massive cultural insult to Rastas everywhere. Rastafarians took a solemn Nazarite vow not to cut their hair, she said. Rastas wore dreadlocks as an important aspect of their religious faith, and to lock my hair, since I had no connection to Rastafarianism, would be, in her view, to do it for stylistic purposes only. “Fashion dread” is the term I’ve heard Rastas use since, and even though she didn’t use those words exactly, that was her point. “Please don’t do it, Bert,” she urged one day at the radio studio, touching my hand, looking deeply into my eyes.
Well. How do you know the right time? Apparently, that wasn’t it. I don’t want to believe that her urgings were the reason—I want to believe that it was just not something I was ready to do. I want to believe that, given my stylistic acumen at the time—and the fact that I barely had a “stylistic acumen” at the time—I wasn’t nearly ready to make such a drastic move, whether or not I had ever even met her, but the fact remains: No matter how much her words actually did count, whether her urgings were foundational or merely the basis for my own pathetic excuse not to do it, I didn’t grow dreadlocks. Locks remained on my radar screen, but the blip faded and beeped with far less urgency for about six years.
By 1989 I was an English graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and my closest buddies in the program were three other black students: Agymah, Ronica, and Erika. Two of them wore dreadlocks, and the clicking and beeping on my dread radar intensified once again. Our little black grad quartet met often, and I had a lot of time to study Erika’s and Agymah’s dreadlocks. Erika’s were thick, luscious, and shoulder length, as I recall, and Agymah’s were thinner and longer, although he would gradually, relentlessly twist the smaller ones into larger ones over the years I knew him. If there was a genesis of my “lock lust,” my desire for a particular lock “look,” it might well have occurred as the four of us would regularly meet for coffee or beer, in graduate seminars, in school hallways, or at the meetings of a local black writer’s group. Any time I saw them, I was “all in” their hair. I’m not sure I talked about it much at the time, but both their heads remained vividly alive in my eyes and my consciousness.
And I still didn’t get locked. And I know why: It would have felt too imitative, I thought. It would have had too much of the “me, too” about it. How do you know the right time? This didn’t feel like it. It would have felt less like my own idea, and more like an idea that I’d latched onto, based on my friends’ hair, both of whom had arrived in Richmond already wearing dreadlocks. At least, that was what I told myself, anyway.
I have no conscious recollection of actively desiring dreadlocks while I attended William and Mary, studying for my doctorate in American Studies beginning in 1991. I don’t recall thinking overtly about dreadlocks when I went on the academic job market. I began as an assistant professor in the English department at the College of the Holy Cross in the fall semester of 1996, but before I went north I attended a Paul Beatty fiction reading on June 17, 1996, in Washington, DC, and he tellingly inscribed my copy of The White Boy
Shuffle this way: “Bert, good luck. Don’t let New England get you down.” He already knew what I was about to find out: Climactically—and culturally—New England was the polar opposite of anywhere I had lived before. I’d grown up and gone to college on the West Coast, and then spent nearly fifteen years in the south. Moving to Worcester, Massachusetts, was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
I loved my colleagues at Holy Cross. “New England” wasn’t their fault, and it also wasn’t their fault that their warmth couldn’t counteract the chill in the region. In their own way they did everything they could to ease the transition. But crusty, grouchy, cranky New England is what it is, after all, and I struggled to come to grips with living in my new home, particularly since Val and the kids stayed in Richmond my first year at the school while I finished my dissertation. Was race a factor? Of course. Race is always a factor, in everything. But I’m also aware that people of all races can move to New England and get rocked, get destabilized by the provincial peculiarities of the region.
It didn’t happen right away, and I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but gradually I began to think that perhaps this was the right time to get locked. After being aware, hyper aware, critically aware, of dreadlocks for better than twenty years, dancing close to locking, stumbling away from locking, barely thinking about locking, then slouching toward locking yet again, I had, over the years, somehow actually matured into someone who could make the decision for myself, regardless of what anyone else told me I should consider, or how it might look to people who surely wouldn’t have cared what I did with my hair in any case.
I’m pretty sure I would eventually have gotten locked no matter where my first academic job was, but since I only landed in New England, I’ll never know. I think, however, that at least part of why I actually, finally wanted to grow dreadlocks is that I urgently wanted to create some space for myself; I wanted to make a statement to myself and for myself, and I didn’t want to say it aloud: I wanted my hair to talk for me. And this time I was old enough and wise enough and centered enough to finally give myself permission to do what I’d long wanted to do: to go outside. I didn’t have to ask myself How do you know the right time? I think the answer is that when it’s truly the right time you don’t have to ask—or answer—that question. It was just time. Period. And I knew it.