Dreadlocks: A Brief History


You are twenty.

When you mention dreadlocks, people smile thinly. They ask about things, like jobs, like cleanliness, like getting married, and how dreadlocks work in those contexts. “You wouldn’t really want to get married with dreadlocks, would you?” “You would have to shave your head to get rid of them, wouldn’t you?” “Can you have dreadlocks at your job?”

You’re working for a conservative non-profit. You’re the receptionist. You’re the first thing anyone sees when they walk in the door. You’ve already learned enough about expectations to know what set apply to you. You should be pretty. You should be professional. You should be well-kept.

You shouldn’t be rebellious.

So, on your spring break, on the night before St. Patrick’s Day, you and your sister and your dad drive up to Door County. It’s freezing. There is still ice on the Mink River. You bought a flea comb, and sticky, heavy wax. Neither you nor your sister really know what you’re doing, but you do it until five in the morning, and when you wake up, the sun is shining. The day is a little brighter. You have dreadlocks.

You deal with the mess. You twist, and rub, and pick, and wax, and tease. And eventually, after a couple of years, your hair begins to understand. It adapts to its new role. It starts to grow. You cut it several times, and still, it grows.

You see other people start dreads, maintain them, and cut them off. You see women with short, fantastical hair. You wonder if people think less of you because you are not orderly, and you struggle with this wondering. You think about how it would feel to close the scissors over the place where the knots meet your normal hair, and every time, it never feels right. You know you are doing it because you want to be accepted. You want to be easier to contextualize. You want less attention.

A man you know, the guy with the beard who lives in the room above you, passes by your desk when you come back from spring break. He tells you that your hair looks good.

You marry this man.

You marry him in an apple orchard, at the same cabin where all of this started. You marry him on a perfect day, with flowers in your hair, and on the trees, and in your hands.

You fight with him. You share a bed with him. You are shocked to find that some days, you hate him. You talk about leaving him, try on the idea. You decide to stay. Not because of all the work involved in leaving, but because of the work you’ve put into your relationship. You see therapists. You learn how to be honest. And one of the best physical feelings you know of is when he digs his fingers beneath the knots on your scalp and rubs away all the tension. You stay married to this man. You sweat with him, and travel with him, and laugh with him.

One day, you hold a positive pregnancy test in your hand.

You give birth. You have a daughter. She screams. She smiles. She laughs. She rolls over. She crawls. She stands. She holds on to your hand and walks. She talks in her own special language, and once in awhile, she breaks into the bland, universal tongue destined for her, and she calls you Mumma. She chases the pets; the dogchy, the keeety.

You leave one church, and you start another. You make friends. You lose them, and some, you get back. You see friends get married. You see friends divorce. You see friends become parents. You see friends move away.

You move dorm rooms. You move into your first apartment. You move into your first apartment as a married woman. You live in a friend’s house. You live in a duplex. You buy your first house. You paint the walls and till the garden. You meet your neighbors. You get a dog.

You write a novel. You sew your own clothes. You take violin lessons. You learn how to make pottery. You are a receptionist. You are an office manager. You are an executive assistant. You are a church secretary. And finally, you quit. Instead of a job, you go back to school to learn about plants, and you love it.

You see the mountains for the first time. You see the desert. You see the ocean. You leave the country. You camp on the side of a cliff in Hawaii. You wash your dreads in a waterfall. You watch the moon coming through the nylon veil of your tent in the red, ruddy deserts of Utah. You feel the sea breeze in your hair as you look at the green coast of Ireland. You go sledding on a glacier.

You change. You run. You have a baby. Your body rearranges itself. Your cheekbones shift, your weight redistributes. You grow smile lines around your eyes. You pierce your nose. You get your first tattoo.

And then, nearly nine years after that night when you were twenty, you sit there, feeling the pull of your hair, and the itchy, heavy feeling on your scalp, and you think about the scissors again. This time, it feels right. This time, you know. They are too much, now. Too long. Too omnipresent. And though you love them, though you still hold on to the dream of being an old woman with grey dreadlocks, you can finally accept that you are ready for a break.

You sit with the idea. You tell your sister. You tell your husband. You look at short haircuts, and a hot, nervous excitement begins to flare up in your bones.

You schedule an appointment, for after the New Year.

The night before, the man you married loving goes through each loc. He picks out his favorite, and asks if he can cut that one. In the morning, you wake up like you always do, like it’s another day, even though it’s not. You watch your daughter shred a piece of Kleenex and then pile the bits next to you on the bed. You play with her. You look in your closet and wonder what one wears for such an occasion.

You take photos. You look at them, and you can say that you love them, and you will miss them, and whatever will come next will be wonderful.

Your sister is coming to help cut them off. You get nervous. A strange nervous. You can’t figure it out. It’s not regret. It’s not fear. It’s not pure excitement. It’s a sick, shaking nervousness. You drink coffee. You frantically start cleaning. You decide that the Christmas decorations need to be taken down right that minute. You sweep the floors. And finally, you recognize it. It was the same feeling you had when you went back to school. That first day, when you didn’t know how it would be. When you wondered if you would be accepted. And that’s it. You don’t know. You don’t know if you will be beautiful. You don’t know if you will be something other.

Your sister comes. She takes one last photo. You take out the scissor. You cut off the first one, that awkwardly-placed one that always made you a little bit crazy. She cuts one. Her boyfriend cuts one. Your husband cuts off his favorite one. Your daughter plays on the floor with your discarded dreadlocks. And before long, your husband is cutting off the last of them. You are lightheaded. Your balance is off. Your scalp is a mess.

You wash your hair for the first time, it seems. It feels amazing. You put a hat on over the chaos, and go down to the neighborhood you lived in when you were married. You pull the hat off, and laugh, and say, “I just cut my dreadlocks off!” And you get a haircut.

You feel the wind in your hair. The world is cold and bright, and there is nothing in the way of you feeling it just as it is.

You wonder if people know. If, when they look at you, they can tell. They can see the lightness, the empty places where all of the weight used to rest. You try not to look at yourself in windows and mirrors too much.

At the end of the day, you nurse your daughter to sleep, just like you always do.

And you feel beautiful.







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