At the start of "Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles," Bert Ashe writes that he decided in 1998 to realize a lifelong dream of growing dreadlocks because he wanted to "go outside." By that he means he wanted his inner view of himself as rebellious to match an outward appearance and manner that was evidently anything but.
Ashe was, he says, "this outcast on the inside, but all the world could see was the obliging, adroit facade, the Universal Negro: good guy Bert. … I just wanted to figure out a way I could come closer to finding the perfect green bubble on 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?"
This is both hyperbole and not. Beneath the sometimes outré humor and self-deprecating tone of "Twisted" are serious and poignant questions about the nature of black identity, who shapes it and why and how black folks might finally seize control of that identity themselves. Chronicling his experience with growing dreadlocks is simply a way for Ashe, a professor of English at the University of Richmond in Virginia, to get at this.
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Dreads work splendidly as a metaphor; for one thing, since to grow them you have to leave your hair largely alone, to resist the urge to manipulate what much of the world still deems unsightly in its natural state. Growing locks, especially for "mainstream" black people such as the author, is therefore an act of resistance and also of affirmation. It is what Ralph Ellison — quoted here by Ashe — would likely call a "freewheeling assault upon the traditional forms of the American aesthetic."
But that affirmation is hardly automatic. It is hard won. In the tedious process of leaving his hair be, Ashe struggles with its frank unsightliness while also reveling in an emerging look that speaks unequivocally to racial pride and a certain self-acceptance writ large. "Twisted" teaches us interesting things about the history of dreadlocks, how they've reverberated socially. Though the conversational writing style feels a bit overwrought — a conscious effort, perhaps, not to sound academic — Ashe's insights are often startling, such as his explication of Whoopi Goldberg's comic lament that, unlike white-girl hair that swings, "black hair don't do nothin'."
Sometimes it's clear that as he explains the nature of the black identity crisis he's living that crisis on the page. Ultimately he wants to separate his hair and its politics from the essential Bert Ashe who loves rock music and independent films. What he's really doing is declaring both his blackness and his humanness, two identities that have long been deemed incompatible. Yes, dreads have a cool factor, and they offer a thrill of racial spectacle. But in the workday world they are basically a big middle finger to a white mainstream made nervous by black males with "regular" hair.
Ashe has fun playing with all this. While he repeatedly insists that he, a philosophically inclined, mild-mannered professor and self-styled geek, is the furthest thing from threatening, he also observes — with great interest, sometimes with relish — the effects his steadily dreading hairstyle has on other people: men and women, black and white. Thanks to our enduring history of racism in public policy and social custom, there is virtually no aspect of blackness that isn't performative, and that certainly includes hair.
For Ashe, dreads started out as a "stylistic disruption" suggesting a cultural aggressiveness inherent in the fact that dreads eschew combing or otherwise tamping down what everybody assumes must first and foremost be tamped down. Musicians and other black performers are exempt from this; the rest of us, like Ashe, are left to measure the impression our appearance makes, to weigh our personal proclivities and self-perceptions against the expectations of a world that judges black people reflexively. It's the curse of double consciousness.
And yet, that curse is qualitatively different now. Late in the book, Ashe describes being caught off guard by a question from a young white girl on a train who professes to love his hairstyle. "How'd you do it?" she marvels. Poised between anger at her ignorance and grudging sympathy that this post-racial-era girl probably sees black and white hair the same way, Ashe goes with empathy. At points, he himself takes the post-postmodern view that hair is simply hair and that dreadlocks, once common only among the cult of Rasta, have become mainstream enough to be declared, like the novel, "dead."
Of course, were that true, Ashe would have no need to write a book such as "Twisted." He would have no need to explain to us why he wanted to grow dreadlocks, what he endured and how a particular look transformed his view of himself and the world's view of him. He would have no need, in other words, to try and put his real self finally where it has always belonged — on the outside.
Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles
Agate Bolden: 250 pp., $15
Kaplan's second book, "I Heart Obama," is scheduled to be published in 2016.