College. I am walking across campus on a glorious spring day. I’m high, though for once it’s not because I’m on drugs. I’m feeling high because I have finally decided to put my hair in dreadlocks, a decision which makes me full of glee and puts a shit-eating grin on my face. Finally, I’m going to do it. My hair is in that sticking-up-all-over-the-fucking-place awkward stage as it grows out from the shaved head hairstyle I toted a few months ago. It’s three inches long and sticks out at odd angles that are quite distracting. I must do something about this. Dreadlocks become my answer.
At least that’s what I tell people when they ask why I want dreadlocks.
Really, I’m going to put my hair into dreads tomorrow because I like a girl who loves the folk singer Ani Difranco. Ani has dreads. Girl likes Ani. Ergo if I have dreads, then girl will like me. And I believe this is my best plan, ever. This is why I’m high on excitement, practically skipping across campus. I’m going to get dreadlocks! I’m going to get the girl!
The queen of potheads at our college walks up to me and says, “I heard you’re going to dread up.”
“Don’t. They’ll look ugly.”
Four friends sit around me for eight hours. At the end of the day I have short little baby dreads dripping with beeswax. At the end of the month I have a girlfriend. Plan: success.
Within a few months girl and I start having a ton of sex, and I’m still twisting a ton of beeswax into my dreads. The beeswax has in some way become an aphrodisiac to the girl as she associates the sweet waxy smell with having a lot of orgasms. Girl and I go on a vacation together to a mountain town in Colorado. I bring my tub of beeswax, ensuring a week full of sex. My expectations are met. I slather beeswax onto my hair every day. One day during the vacation we take a sex break and I decide to go for a run. While I am out in the middle of nowhere, trying to run up some huge mountain, a faint buzzing sound creeps up behind me. Before I can locate the source of this buzzing, the sound exponentiates and soon there are bees swarming my head. The wax a homing device. I am three miles away from the cabin. Bees keep whacking into my face and hair. All I can do is close my eyes and push my wobbly, exhausted legs up this huge fucking mountain to try and get home before I am stung.
Another nature story: I am outside one afternoon and rock climbing on a squat slab of limestone. Trees and weeds and bushes and plants surround me and the limestone. I finish climbing and hike the mile through the forest back to my truck, whacking my head against low-hanging branches and vines the whole way there. At home, I wash off my hands and take my hair out of its ponytail. I lounge around the house the rest of the day, tired and worn out from the rock climbing. I go to sleep. I wake up. I look in the mirror, and see there is a line of a rash running down my face from forehead to cheekbone to chin. It itches. It is poison ivy. The line is in the exact spot where one of my dreads hits my face. For two weeks I have a perfect, straight line of red open sores streaking down my face. I blame the dreadlock for contracting the poison ivy and then lying on my face and infecting me as I slept peacefully. Asshole.
Race relations #1:
As soon as I put my hair in dreadlocks, black people started to approach me more than when I did not have dreads. I have had my dreads for nine years now, and to this day this is still true. Unless I have to have a direct interaction with a white person, they never randomly come up to me to make any comments, and instead look at me with either a little confusion if they’re bougie, or if they’re hippies then with admiration.
But black people always come up to me, smile, and say “nice dreads.”
With the dreadlocks, I have more interactions with black people than when I did not have dreads. I do not know if this says anything about me or race relations or appropriation or stereotypes or how we all relate to each other in the world. I just know that in the past nine years I have said hi to more black people than I would have if I never had dreadlocks.
Four years after I put my hair in dreadlocks, they are long enough to tap the top of my ass. At this time in my life, my older sister gives birth to her third child. I visit her in the hospital, and keep my hair pulled back in a ginormous bun. I have learned to do this, because one of her other kids who is about three years old loves to yank and grab my hair and play with it like it is yarn. And this is annoying, so I keep them pulled back in a huge bun. In the hospital, my mother takes a picture of me holding the newborn and looking down at her. Evident in this picture is the fact that my hair is bigger than the baby’s head. Big hair. Tiny baby.
Aside from being little-kid toys, my dreadlocks have many functions. They are:
Black youth magnet
Race relations #2:
Re: Black youth magnet.
No, really. I worked at an all-black high school, and for my first two months there, whenever I went into the cafeteria looking for students on their lunch break, swarms of youth circled me, touching and grabbing my hair and asking “Them real dreads?” These youth lived in one of the black neighborhoods in the segregated city of Chicago, and they hadn’t had much face-to-face time with white people (other than their teachers), let alone even seen a white chick with dreadlocks. They were fascinated by me, their curious hands grabbing my dreads and twisting them in their fingers. Personal space be damned, these youth needed to see with their hands to really understand that a white person could have dreadlocks.
When I go dancing, I often whack people in the face with my dreads. They tap me on the shoulder. “Hey. Control your hair.”
I started out with forty-two dreadlocks. I named one of them “Righteous.” Righteous joined forces with the dreads surrounding it. What used to be four dreads is now one thick rope of a dread. Other dreads have done this, too. As of this writing I have thirty-six dreads. I do not know how they integrate themselves with each other. I do not know how it is that they keep knotting, keep growing. The dreads are their own ecosystem, have a life all of their own.
Race relations #3:
“The guy should have known not to fuck with you because of your dreads.”
This, my sister says to me after I was assaulted one night while walking home. As if my dreads could have protected me, should have deterred the man by proving to him that I am not your average female, not someone you would want to grab. I know, the logic of this doesn’t quite make sense. But I think she was trying to say that my because dreads make me look butch, the assaulter criminal jerkface dude should have known to not fuck with this dread-totin’ butch woman. A year after this experience, I tried to write an essay about street harassment, gedner presentation, and dreadlocks. The editor who accepted the piece kept getting back to me with edits about questioning how I—a white woman—felt about appropriating a black hairstyle.
I had no answers for her. And even after nine years of having dreadlocks, I have no answers now. What I know is that I have no desire to be a Rastafarian. I do not smoke pot (at least not since I put my hair in dreads and got the girl. The girl didn’t smoke weed so I stopped smoking). I do not find my dreadlocks to be spiritual. I do not know what to think about the possible connotations of my hair, and in fact just see my hair as my own style. Perhaps I’m avoiding addressing the issue of appropriating a hairstyle. I have no intentions to do so. I just wanted dreads so a girl would like me. And now I can’t imagine myself without dreads.
So I had no answers for the editor who wanted to bring my essay into the space of race relations and hairstyles, instead of the original purpose of the essay which was about gender expression and violence. But the editor kept pushing me on the topic of appropriation, and I finally said “I don’t fucking know.” She eventually dropped the essay from the anthology, which was fine, because I don’t know how to think about, speak about, or address the fact that this white girl has appropriated a black hairstyle. No, I have no clue how to even think about this. Suggestions?
“Hey. Do you smoke?”
“Girl, you got some weed?”
“Hey. Do you smoke?”
“Wanna come hit this joint with me?”
“Hey. Do you smoke?”
Every day, strangers make these join-me-for-some-drug consumption requests.
Every day someone asks me if I smoke, and I always assume they are asking about pot.
But I do not smoke pot. But people assume my hairstyle says otherwise.
I started a new job a few weeks ago working with sober youth. I have told myself in the past that my hair is a litmus test for potential employers. If they don’t want to hire me because of the way I look, because of my dreads, then I don’t want to work for them. This non-profit hired me a few days ago, which I was wicked excited about because they are rad as hell. I had to take a drug test before I started work. Which makes sense. No druggy employees allowed to work with sober youth. Having not smoked pot for nine years, I easily passed the test.
On my first day of work, my supervisor was showing me around.
And then he stopped what he was doing, turned to me, and asked, “Hey, do you smoke?”
There was a little pause as I tried to figure out what, exactly, he was asking. “What? Like cigarettes or pot?”
“Um,” he said. “You can’t smoke pot here. It’s grounds for termination.”
Awkward moment of silence.
“Oh. Sorry. I know that. People always ask me for weed, like, all the time. Because, you know, the dreads. So no, not pot. But cigarettes, yes, I do smoke cigarettes. Not pot, though. Just cigarettes.”
My supervisor just looked at me, his eyebrows scrunched at my face, suspicion crowding the air around us.
Good job, Chelsey.
Yes, people think I’m a hippie. When I was on a run one morning, I passed by two dudes who were slowly jogging along. After I slipped by them, one of the guys called out to me, “Hippie!”
Really? I just raced past his slow ass and so he decided to call me a hippie?
I do not understand people.
Though this jogger wasn’t as bad as the dude that drove by me one night and yelled out his car window, “I like your hair! I just want to fuck you!”
And while you would think that situation would be the most annoying thing to have happen to me, ever, what was actually the most annoying thing that happened was when I managed a bookstore and four or so times a day a white customer would ask me how I got my hair like that. They wanted instructions. I got sick of telling them how I did it. I worked at that bookstore full-time for five years. That’s 1,300 working days in five years, and at the average of four times a day that a customer would ask me how I got my hair “like that”, that’s 5,200 times in five years I had to explain how I put my hair in dreadlocks.
Race relations #4:
Something I have noticed: black women compliment my hair, while white women ask how I put them in and if I think they can do that, too. I smile and say thank you to the black women when they say “Most white people with dreads look disgusting. But yours look good.” “Well I appreciate that,” I say. And then when white women with stringy straight hair ask me if I think they can have dreads, I tell them, “Try it. Just make sure to take very good care of them.”
But I don’t trust white hippies putting their hair in dreadlocks. I don’t trust that they’ll take care of them, thus keeping up the status quo that most white people dreads look like a disgusting hot mess.
I’ll admit it, I have some sort of better-than-thou attitude when it comes to my dreadlocks. I take care of them. I let them do their thing, but I keep them clean and well-kept. So when white people with really stringy hair ask if I think that they can put their hair in dreadlocks, I grimace, imagining the stringy mess that would surround their face. But I tell them to just try it and to take care of them.
What I want to say to these stringy-haired dread-wanters is,
“Don’t. They’ll look ugly.”
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the assistant nonfiction editor for both Eckleburg and The Dying Goose. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here will be published by Thumbnail Press in Fall 2013. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.