Everybody's been talking about black hair lately. There is that viral video on WorldStar where a black girl confronts a white dude with dreads on the grounds that he's "appropriating" her culture. Then, earlier this week, white teeny-bopper-turned-sex-symbol Justin Bieber unveiled his new dreaded emo-swoop to the horror of woke black folks everywhere. Both the aforementioned video and Biebs's new 'do have inspired some righteous think pieces and frustrated tweets over the complete lack of self-awareness that some white folks have when it comes to pretty basic shit regarding race and privilege in this country.
That's not to say that we should be burning Bieber at the stake for rocking dreads. I certainly don't think Biebs's new look should consume more of your righteous indignation than the mass incarceration or voter disenfranchisement of people of color. Black people have very real, tangible enemies in this country—Justin Bieber doesn't even come close to making the top of that list. He's a talented young artist who's trying to develop his own style by borrowing elements from the things he likes. But, to be fair, I understand why so many people were mad. Simply put, we've all seen this movie before.
Basically, any time white folks do something that people of color have been doing forever, they manage to take all the damn credit. I learned this lesson before I learned my timetables. It's an essential fact of American life. In elementary school, my teachers told me that Christopher Columbus had discovered America, regardless of the fact that some of the greatest civilizations that ever existed thrived on this continent long before he arrived. They talked at length about the Capitol Building and the White House, but conveniently forgot to mention that it was enslaved Africans who actually built those shining symbols of democracy. What's crazy is that the same sort of shit happens in culture, too—Elvis was named the King of Rock 'n' Roll, when we all know Chuck Berry really wears the crown; Miley Cyrus became the face of twerking, even though I was getting twerk long before Miley was even Hannah Montana; and business magazines proclaimed that Iggy Azalea ran hip-hop, despite the fact that she can barely recite the rhymes T.I. wrote for her.
Yes, black folks have a problem when we see white people angling to dive into our culture. It's not that we don't wanna share it and embrace the sort of melting pot ethos that makes this country an exciting place to be. We just don't wanna see white people rocking dreads today, because we know that they will be telling us that they invented them tomorrow. This loss of credit isn't just an ego thing. The dissociation of black people from the very real contributions we've made to this country has done incalculable damage to the psyche and socio-economic standings of black Americans. This country was literally built on black bodies. And yet, blacks have very little to show for the sacrifices and suffering endured by our ancestors in making this place the economic and cultural powerhouse it is today.
We must remember that it was a core tenant of slavery to strip enslaved Africans of their heritage. Enslaved men and women were not allowed to worship their own gods, perform their own music, use their own language, or even be called by their own name. Instead, they were told again and again that they had no culture, or that whatever culture they may have had was primitive and subpar. Now we're in this insane situation where we live in a country where our enslaved ancestors' culture—the same culture that this country expended great effort to erase—is something that white people are now desperate to take part in. There's a bittersweet irony to it all.
The truth is, we're also so protective of these hairstyles because we've only recently rediscovered them and begun reclaiming them as our own. The institutionalization of white supremacy has made many of us hate our own hair. This hate manifested itself in everything from the conk of the 1920s to the Jheri curl of the 80s. Although these methods to make our hair look straighter, thinner, and whiter are marvelously inventive, and they're often just salves we use to obscure the pain and indignity of what it means to be black in America. I'm not saying that everyone who wears a weave or has a Jheri curl hates themselves or blackness. But within our community, there is a self-loathing that does manifest itself in the lengths we're willing to go to have "good hair," considering that up until recently, "good hair" was just a another way of saying "white hair."
I know these processes all too well. My dad's been rocking a Jheri curl since Billy Ocean was on the Billboard charts. This means that I spent thousands of hours in black beauty salons as a kid waiting for him to get his hair done. Today, when I smell that sulfuric odor of the chemicals used to straighten out nappy black hair, it kind of makes me nostalgic.
However, when it was time for me to take my place in the salon, I didn't go for a relaxer or a Jheri curl. I wanted braids. But it wasn't out of a desire to connect with my African roots at first. The impetus was really to be more like Allen Iverson, the coolest dude on Earth between 2000 and 2003. But even though I fell into my braids in a fashion not too dissimilar from the way Justin Bieber probably fell into his dreads (he probably wants to look like Future or Young Thug, the current coolest dudes on the planet), I quickly realized that my natural hairstyle wasn't just a style. Whether I liked it or not, it was a political statement.
We just don't wanna see white people rocking dreads today, because we know that they will be telling us that they invented them tomorrow.
People treated me different once I had braids—even black people. Back then, I was a member of a youth group for gifted young black men in the city of Cleveland, but once I had my hair braided, I was promptly asked to either cut it, get it straightened like a white man, or quit the group altogether. I was told again and again by black adults that prominent historically black universities like Hampton's business school had banned all students with dreads and braids from even enrolling. These older brothers and sisters made sure that I knew that natural hairstyles like braids and dreads were not for black men who wanted to be a success in this country. According to them, braids and dreads didn't belong in the boardroom, or the courthouse, or the university… But a Jheri curl did?
It was reckoning with this negrophobia over natural hairstyles from within the black community that I realized how radical braids and dreads still are. The truth is that black men in America didn't start proudly wearing braids and dreads until the late 60s and 70s, thanks to the swag of artists like Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. And even those guys, people who embody the Afrocentric spirit, went through a process where they decided to embrace these aesthetics. You can easily find pictures of a young Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder in traditional suits and conservative haircuts. They made a choice, before it was fashionable, to explore their roots through their hair back. And right now, in a lot if ways, millennials like me are still on that journey, trying to come to terms with our African-ness in a country that has been historically hostile to that identity.
Considering how easily so much has been taken away from black people and the fact that we're still on a journey to define ourselves within this country, I don't think it's surprising at all that we'd be possessive over our culture. When we see an Instagram of Bieber with his new look or catch a goofy dude walking down the street in locks, we feel like we have to make a fuss. If we don't, we wonder what will the magazine articles, and TV broadcast specials, and textbooks say a hundred years from now. Will they read "Justin Bieber Was the King, Emperor, Creator, Discoverer, Lord of Dreadlocks"? I certainly hope not.
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