Locked Hair Is…

In 1995, my dear friend and colleague, the late Dr. Rudolph P. Byrd, and I decided to lock our hair. This was a fairly radical decision for both of us as we were two academicians firmly situated at well-known and respected institutions, Rudolph at Emory University and me at Spelman College. Choosing to grow our hair and allow it to lock in its natural state was indeed a daring act. This was our own experiment with the presentation of self in a different way and having our hair communicate something about what was happening in our heads. Locking our hair represented the acceptance of our nappy hair and the acknowledgement of the beauty it might reveal if allowed to manifest unbothered. We would repudiate cutting, combing, brushing and otherwise controlling our hair and in so doing reject a stylized norm expected of respectable academicians. We were admittedly a bit presumptuous in our assumption that we could upend the notion of what was acceptable and appropriate for mature, professional African-American males.

We were resolute in our desire to make locking our hair a profoundly meaningful experience. Locks have been worn by people in cultures around the world to signify intense spiritual growth and maturity, racial and ethnic pride, political convictions and deeply-held religious beliefs. Images suggest that ancient Egyptians locked their hair. Maasi warriors in Kenya, Semitic peoples of West Asia, and the Sadhus of India and Nepal are some of the many people who lock their hair. (source: Wikipedia) In locking our hair, we sought to transcend trendiness and join this noble tradition.

To be sure, our journey was not fully appreciated by most, especially, black folks as locks had not yet become the chic, au courant hairstyles of the hip and fabulous. In 1995, locks were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in 2014. Many wondered why we would choose to walk around with our nappy hair growing wildly. These attitudes were predictable outgrowths of the conflicted relationship some black folks have with hair. Nappy hair has rarely been considered beautiful. To render it acceptable, it has always required control, transformation and management. Ours was a journey of consciousness as we were determined to forge a new, loving and appreciative relationship with our nappy hair and dispel time-honored and persistent notions of good hair vs. bad hair among some black people.  In the collective journey of people of African descent to love and  appreciate the color of our skin, the fullness of our lips, the broadness of our noses and the kink in our hair, locking ones hair is a decisivel act. It is, in fact, a big deal!

Dreadlocks_Time_by_NaraikaAt the height of our locking journey, both Rudolph and I sported heads full of long, luxurious locks which needed, as it happened, to be styled, manicured and attended to. Ultimately, even locked hair, at least our locked hair, required some attention. Curiously, we could not completely escape the conversations associated with how one chooses to wear one’s hair. Our locks were referred to as “salon” locks which were to be distinguished from the more authentically perceived “neglect” or “natural” locks. To some, we were decidedly inauthentic, despite our most sincere intentions.

That was a time long ago. I cut my locks in 2002, mourned them for a time then moved on. What has brought me to this reflection about my locking journey is something that I have observed recently that makes me, at once, sad and angry. Nearly every young black man accused of the most horrific crimes and acts of egregious misbehavior and paraded on the local news in the city where I currently reside has locked hair. These images are disturbing because I imagine the inevitable association between locks and bad, dangerous and criminal behavior. Images are seared onto our unconsciousness and shape our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and prejudices. Given what locks represent to so many cultures around the globe, the most exalted expression of spirituality, culture, ethnicity and power; it is outrageous that these ignoble men would dare wear them. It seems almost sacrilegious to me and yet their actions are the outward expressions of the rudderless lives of many young men who feel disrespected and unappreciated in a society that dismisses their value. The painful irony is that if these young men fully understood the significance attached, beyond the merely cosmetic, to locked hair, they might also recognize the dissonance between their hair and their behavior. They might also feel connected to something meaningful beyond themselves and  know that for many people around the globe, locked hair is more than a hairstyle and represents a purposeful way of declaring one’s connection to larger community and one’s value to the world. Perhaps then, many might choose a different path for being and behaving.