Herve Despois recently shared a link that caught my eye on the Society for Caribbean Studies’s Facebook page. The full title of this 2018 article is “The Difference between Dreadlocks and Locs: Because You Want to Know (please, stop saying rastas).” The Afrocks team writes that, in the not so remote past, “Wearing dreadlocks was risking your life to defend your Panafrican ideology.” Read the full article at Afrocks blog.
“Dreadlocks? There is nothing dreadful about my hair!” I have heard this expression and read some interesting posts on Tumblr about the use of the word “dreadlocks” to describe the ropelike matted hairstyle popularised by Bob Marley in the 70’s. Because I was born and raised in the Caribbean in the 90’s I could understand the very valid point made by these locticians and afrocentric activists about using language to elevate and not denigrate ourselves, but the country girl in me had some reservations and if you have time I’ll tell you why you will never have dreadlocks and if you do, why it is, on the contrary, a wonderful and powerful ting.
I have referred to my age and Caribbean roots because in the 90’s Rastafari was still very present in Caribbean culture at large. In rural Martinique, if you were not Rastafarian, you did not have locs, period. The hairstyle was demonised and anyone wearing dreadlocks was suspicious, a potential thief, definitely a drug addict whose mother was fervently praying for his deliverance. I use masculine pronouns because for a long time, in Martinique, Rastafari was mostly a male affair. They had spouses and partners but the Rastawoman was rare. These men had dreadlocks and had to suffer the prejudice of the population on a daily basis. They were said to be dirty, rural legends placed countless millipedes on their heads and even my ever sceptic grandmother was persuaded that they used good old kanekalon hair to obtain the waist length locs or bongos. Within this context of ignorance, dreadlocks equated dreadful lifestyle… But as French and Creole speakers we could not tell the difference could we? Locs/dreadlocks meant that you were a rasta and brought shame to your family as you would be unable to integrate polite society. The following is the historical point that most of us at the time failed to understand.
“You don’t haffi dread to be rasta” TRUE! The very first man to call himself a Rastaman, Leonard Howell, did not have dreadlocks, he had a beard. The late Professor Chevannes, Sociologist and authority on Rastafari at the University of West Indies, tells us that in order to signify his departure from the spiritual and social paradigms of colonial Jamaica, he decided to wear a beard like H.I.M. Haile Selassie on the cover of the Time magazine of November 1930. [. . .] With the adoption of matted hair, called dreadlocks, in addition to the already existing beard, they were visually breaking with the Jamaican middle class idea of respectability and appropriateness, erasing all ambiguities about their spiritual and ideological allegiance. The hairstyle was designed to shock, to inspire awe, to represent the “havenots”.
The dreadlocks were the representation of their spiritual powers to be used against the colonial authorities and institution oppressing them: Babylon. At that time, you did not wear dreadlocks to be cute or have long hair… You wore dreadlocks because you were defiant, you believed that HIM Haile Selassie was God, you believed that all Afrodescendants should be repatriated to an African country with reparations. Your hair encapsulated this power granted by this new system of beliefs and you were a force to be reckoned with, you inspire dread to babylon. You had dreadlocks, you were dangerous and in danger. [. . .]
To recap, if you are not a Rastafarian, there is nothing dreadful about your locs, no matter the neatness or lack thereof. You have locs and that is fine. This indicates that having natural afro hair is no longer radical and this is progress. However, “dreadlocks” should be regarded as a powerful word. It has been and still is a symbol of empowerment and “wokeness” before the term “woke” was ever trending. To honour all of these women and men who lost their lives or were persecuted by the police just because they denounced colonial injustice and oppression, I think that we should put some respect in the term. This was a succinct post that I’ve tried to focus on hair, which does not do justice to the depth of the Rastafari movement. I recommend that you speak to an elder or/and consult the mini bibliography below. Remember: friends don’t let friends say “rastas” to refer to the hairstyle… stay woke!
[Photo credit: David McFadden, Associated Press.]