Life Log

I Never Had Dreads

I was at a con a while back where someone swore they’d met me ‘back in the days when you had dreadlocks’ and nothing I could do would dissuade this person from believing I’ve never had them.

It’s true though, nonetheless.

I’ve had long hair, but not locks.

Because I’m not rasta.

Let me take you back to the first rastafarian I met. I remember the man clearly to this day. I met him under the old rickety jetty by the hotel bar my parents ran in Lance Aux Pines bay on the southern tip of Grenada. The old weathered gray planks ran overhead, but they were fastened to an old concrete slab.

If you swam under the jetty, you swam in a private little place in the clear water, over the white sand, by the thick slab of stone like a shelf.

I met him under there, a place I considered my own hangout. I usually splashed around that little space, but this time, he squatted in the water where I usually played.

He was using that slab of concrete, with barnacles and algae all covering it, to hold several slabs of cactus that he’d cut. He washed his hair, and slathered and squeezed the aloe out of the cactus into his somewhat long, knotting hair.

Never said boo to me, after doing his thing, he walked out from under the jetty and across the beach, past tourists lying in the sand watching him curiously, and off into the bush.

I saw him a few times after that, using the beach to clean up, before he went back into the bush.

You see some poor people, see people hard up, but he had an air of deliberateness. Someone said he’d taken ‘the vow.’ He was spending forty days in the wilderness, not talking to anyone, living wild.

The wildness scared me at first. Here was something different.

I never realized how tied I was as a little child to social mores, but meeting a wildman, turning his back on things and society for the wilderness: it was somewhat scary.

Why was he doing this?

What did it mean that others didn’t?

What did he believe, that drew him to do such a thing?

Some people, black like the nice lady who made hops bread and shared it with me from time to time and some of the maids, said locks were dirty and something poor people ‘got.’ White people sniffed about them in similar fashion. As a child, I’d grown to assume they happened to people who couldn’t cut their hair.

So why would this man purposefully create them?

It was something I shelved for a while. The man under the jetty, he didn’t look ready to talk to anyone. Others told me ‘that’s just rasta.’

Then an older man with long, natty dreadlocks started squatting in a stone cottage halfway down the beach: one of those old ruins, probably from colonial times.

He would talk to me. He’d ‘breaks them bread’ with me whenever I’d come by. Things were lean in my life. We lived on the old wooden boat out at anchor and I roamed the beach. Often I’d skip lunch, eat seagrapes or mangoes from trees around the area, skinning up them like a monkey.

But this rasta always welcomed me, a little blonde boy with pale skin and a lot of questions, into the cottage with its thatched palm trees fixing the roof, somewhat, against some of the rain. He often had fish stew with thick, chewy dumplings, which he’d ladle out into a wooden bowl and share with me.

And this rastaman would talk. About the bible, about rastas, about my questions. About ital food, and how it was good for your body.

Locks were grown to signify rasta, he said. Because he’d taken the Nazerene vow: no shaving or combing the hair or beard. The other rasta had gone into the wilderness, like Jesus.

There were other young men, out of jobs, throughout the area. They would shout things like ‘yankee go home’ at me. Words that hurt because the island was all I’d ever known, and was home. Half my family was Grenadian.

But most people didn’t say such things.

And even though others didn’t like rasta, and were relieved when the man in the stone cottage was busted by the police and taken away for squatting, I always felt comfortable around true natty dreadlocks because of him, his charity, gentle patience, humor, and friendship. Long locks, irregular, lifelong. Not styled, or carefully managed. They were a sign of devotion and faith and lifestyle.

They taught me my own bubble of perception wasn’t the only path. Other perspectives existed. That there was more than one interpretation of religion. Ways of eating. These things added to my growing framework of questioning, pluralism, and questing that books later then nurtured far further.

I wonder about that man sometimes, and if he remembered sharing what little he had with a little white boy on the beach. If he’s still alive.

But those two rastamen had a bit impact on me. And they’re also why I don’t have locks, anymore than I wear yellow robes, or a priest’s white collar. The locks were a definitive statement, and thinking of the man who’d spent time in the wilderness, and man in the cottage and his almost monk-like manner, every time I considered locks, I thought it wouldn’t be true.

I know they’re more of a fashion statement these days, and for many, a tie or a claim to ethnicity. Later on, I would meet more and more people who took on the dreads, but not the careful thought and commitment, the philosophy, the monk-like approach.

But for me growing locks would ring hollow to the memory of what they really meant. So I may joke about it, or consider it.

But I don’t see myself doing it.

Because I’m not rasta, but I respect rasta.

25 thoughts on “I Never Had Dreads”

  1. Toby, this is so interesting–thanks for writing it up. I never knew about dreadlocks and rasta, though I did have friends, both black and white, in college who wore dreads. I wonder if they knew the significance.
    Have you ever written a story about the little blond kid on the beach? I mean, it could be the start of an amazing novel. Or, y’know, memoir.

  2. let’s remind folks that not all people with long free-form-ish locks are rastas and for some of us it’s not about “fashion” either. im certainly not. im not jamaican, either (though ive been there and loved it there). im nigerian. i started growing my locks over 13 yrs ago because it’s just what my hair naturally did (i don’t even have to twist mine. my hair is very very coarse and thick. it locked itself). it’s not linked to any spiritual belief (i don’t see why letting my har do its thing has to be linked to spirituality, really).
    that said, because western society has such issues with african hair (even black people are uncomfortable with their own natural hair), when u wear locks (especially for a long time) you do end up gaining a certain….attitude.
    nice post.
    Nnedi

  3. I didn’t know any of that. Ohio doesn’t get many dreads. That’s a wonderful story.
    I hate how judgmental our society is. I think half of our problems would be solved if our religions would start focusing a little more on the “judge not” bit.

  4. your story reminds me of my friend from st croix he had those same wild locks and was one of the best people i’ve ever known. i don’t know if it was because of his locks or not, i attributed his personality to his coming from the virgin islands. thanks for reminding me.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I, like many people, only knew superficially about Rastafarians and not very complimentary things either. Like any way of life, there are those who take it seriously and those who don’t.
    I’m kind of sad at the culture of fear and paranoia in America that surrounds children and “strangers”. These kinds of important life encounters don’t happen as much for today’s children. I remember having pretty much the run of a several block radius in my childhood neighborhoods and hanging out with some of the older people just talking about things and listening to them as, at the time, I only had one living grandparent. They were kind of surrogate grandparents and had a big impact in my life as well. My parents did know these people so they weren’t complete strangers, still how many people now actually know their neighbors? I know a few of mine but not all of them.

  6. I think this post is beautiful, but it also saddens me. I have dreadlocks, and I love them more than I could possibly try to explain.
    I’m not rasta; I’m not religious at all. But just because I’m not rasta doesn’t mean my dreads are any less real, does it? There are a million reasons why I have them and a million reasons why I love them. I don’t think I’m being disrespectful by having them just because I don’t believe in Jah or just because I’m not black.
    My dreadlocks are a part of me and I love them deeply. And, I believe, in the end it’s just hair. No matter what reason you grow them for, they’re hair.
    That said, I do like this post a lot and I also like Nnedi’s comment.
    I will continue to wear my dreadlocks proudly.

  7. Other perceptions are needed indeed. I learned a few things about a certain blond boy, faith, wilderness, and Rastas. It is wonderful to read how you model respect and gave reasons why cultural mis-appropriation isn’t good karma. I’ve been meaning to write a post about why I don’t write Yaoi for the same reason. Now you’ve inspired me to get my hands onto the keyboard! You’re so cool!

  8. Wonderful, and very enlightening!
    I don’t think T is being critical of anyone else’s locks, here–just saying that they have a specific cultural meaning that he respects and thus does not feel that they are right for him.

  9. Kathryn, I made no judgement on why other people have dreadlocks. I just grew up where they meant a very specific thing and I chose to respect that, that is all. In fact, that was pretty much the point of the essay.
    If someone wore Jewish sidelocks and weren’t Jewish I wouldn’t care either, their choice. But I wouldn’t wear Jewish sidelocks because they mean something pretty specific. I also wouldn’t get Maori facial tatoos. Truth is, I have more non-rasta friends with dreadlocks than rasta at this point in my life.

  10. The photo you present is from Wikipedia. The very article which states that Rasta culture is not the origin of locks and knots, nor does it in any way lay exclusive claim to what is, essentially, a hairstyle. Everyone who does this with their hair has different reasonings. I, myself, have my own. But I’m not going to look down my nose and condescend to someone who may just be wearing it as a fashion, anymore than I’d condescend to someone who wears it for religious reasons.
    I appreciate your viewpoint, as someone who grew up amongst this culture and who was exposed to that specific meaning, but I disagree wholeheartedly with this seeming mandate against folks with locks who aren’t Rasta, or the implication that the way one does one’s hair is disrespectful of a religious or cultural belief – which your essay seems to be implying. I also don’t appreciate the implications that white folks, or youth, must be ignorant of what they’re doing (which some comments seem to be implying).
    And by the way, I am from Ohio. It depends on where you go, but I certainly see quite a good amount of folks with locked and knotty hair.

  11. Samantha: what fucking mandate? Read the essay without your defenses up. Secondly, if the only knowledge about dreads you have is from wikipedia, it’s not surprising you’re totally unaware of the fact that they were popularized in the US due to rastafarianism, with the efforts of Bob Marley, and then getting adopted in large scale by inspired people. I make no judgement call, but I myself will not be wearing them.
    And lastly, you sort of just proved the ignorant point quite nicely.

  12. Well, I’m not the one cursing and calling names and getting defensive. When you make a post in the tone of voice you used, it comes across to me as “this is how it is, and you folks doing it this way are wrong”. Sure, Rasta popularized the look and opened a door to a different way of thinking, but that’s not the sole and only proprietor.
    Because I mentioned wikipedia in no way implies it’s the only source of knowledge on the subject. How narrow of you, to think so.
    I brought my opposing viewpoint to you without any disrespect. It’s unfortunate you could not pay me the same politeness.

  13. I called you no names, I cursed because you put words in my mouth (I asked ‘what fucking mandate?’) and I despite when people, particularly first time commenters, fly in out of nowhere, say I said something I didn’t, and get all worked up and snipe at me. Particularly when they’re working hard to deny that Rastafarianism is a major reason dreadlocks are worn in the US and UK today. Particularly due to the ska movement and dreads being snagged by white ‘counter-culture.’

  14. That’s so awesome. I’ve had dreads, on and off, for purely fashion reasons, but I’ve never met anyone who had such a profound impact on me, as this man had on you, either. It’s kind of sad that commenters here are trying so hard to shout down your personal choice that you’ve made based on personal experience because they’re so defensive about their hair.

  15. hippies getting mixed with hindu culture and travelling back to europe and america also had a significant role in the popularization of dreadlocks… probably a lesser notable impact, but it’s also an interesting part of the story to look at…
    bom shiva.

  16. Tobias,
    Thanks for sharing this. I hope I took the story as I believe you meant to offer it, in a spirit of “because of these experiences in my formative years, this practice is associated with these ideals to me; because of that, I will not engage in this practice without pursuing those same ideals.” I did not know about the ties between rastafarianism and the Nazarite vow; that’s insanely cool, and now I have some more research to do.

  17. I didn’t wear a beard until I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t always shave everyday, but it didn’t get very long, even though the “three day” look that was so popular then. I’d shave it off long before it’s get there. And I tended to wear my hair short back then (not as much as today, but it was a legacy of the Air Force).
    Once I grew my beard (to honor certain professors) and had my pony tail, I would meet people I hadn’t seen since high school and they would recognize me right away (even though I look very different without the beard). They wouldn’t even comment on the beard or tail.
    I’ve taken to thinking that I had spiritual long hair and a beard and they were just responding that way because their memory filled in what wasn’t there.
    For that person who thought you had dreads, they must have seen the dreads of those rasta in you and just filled in the picture.

  18. Over here in the UK you are more likely to see dreads on a white hippy punk kid than on a Rasta just because theres more of us. To many of us (Yup, i have dreads) its kind of inexplicable why but it is often spiritual, cultural, fashion or ‘i wanna be bob marley’. There is an anti dread movement from some folk, either because they are often worn by those citizens who are part of the anti-capitalist movement, are seen only for true rasta or simply because they look untidy.
    I understand and respect your point made in this piece, and i think my meetings with similar, but white, folk in my early teens who had dreads go towards me having them now. That and a combination of bad hair, being a big fan of the Predator and the fact it looks like my celtic ancestors had them 😀
    I once was asked by a Rasta doorman why ‘a white boy has locks’ and gave him the above answers. We ended up debating the Celtic roots (with much humour when another doorman quoted “Feel Jah shtag!” :D) and, although we skirted the bible aspect, the connection between two very different parts of the worlds spirituality and belief in family and honour was telling.

  19. What a wonderful post. I’ve never been religious, and am an avowed atheist, as you know, but since I’ve been exposed to rasta (admittedly later in life, after high school), I’ve known mostly nothing but the same kind of attitude you describe: discipline, commitment, the monk-like approach, as you say. So much so that, years ago, when I resolved to embark upon a major life-change, I decided to lock up in order to signify it.
    I approached one of my closer rasta friends, to inquire about how to go about it, half-expecting an indignant “how dare you”, and a swift dismissal. I should have known better. We sat down, we reasoned, and he said “Dreads are about constance, commitment, strength of spirit; it takes patience and mindfulness to lock up, especially for a man without natty hair, like you. I’d be grateful if you let me help you lock up. If you let me help you on your journey.” And so he did.
    For the years I was locked up, my dreads were a constant reminder to keep going, to stay the course, to not get discouraged when something didn’t quite go the way I wanted it to. It was also a wonderful exercise in patience, as my friend had said—watching them grow from short, skinny baby dreads into full, thick natty locks was a very gratifying experience.
    One day, years later, after I was at the place where I had wanted to be, I decided that it was time for another change. I had just embarked upon yet another phase in my life (the one I’m on now, actually), and I felt that I needed to lose baggage, etc. I cut off mine dread.
    I don’t regret having done it, but I still do miss them so.

  20. I am an author researching and seeking interviews about the dread lock hair style. I have only a few questions that I would like you to respond to. I appreciate your help in this endeavor. You can check out interviews I have already acquired on dirt2diamonds.blogspot.com If you decide to participate e-mail your response to: rizerfall@yahoo.com (subject) HAIR.
    Your interview would be a first on a topic I have been having trouble getting people to respond to:Should everyone wear dreads?
    I love your point of view and believe it will add to the thought process regarding the hairstyle. I would be priveledged if you would allow me to include your blog comment about ‘dreads’ in my project.
    Please consider it. I want the book to be as complet as possible from real people speaking freely

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