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Jah in Packaging

By Wanda Coleman

Children get your culture
and don't stay there and gesture
Oh the battle will be hotter
And you won't get no supper
Natty dread, natty dread now
-Bob Marley

Following my father's death in January 1991, I neglected my hair care for several days, giving in to grief and tears. My already thick ebony hair, worn in an afro, began to tangle, twist, and dread.
Days later, I stood in the mirror and attempted to fork it out. It would not cooperate. It had wadded into large clumps that could not be worked apart. Combing it now meant cutting it first. I would have to go to a barber shop. And I'd have to get a quo vadis, the haircut favored for Black boys when I was in high school and currently sported under do-rags and duck-billed caps by many gangster rappers. The image of myself as nearly bald rankled.

So be it, I thought. I'll let it dread. I'd always wanted to do it. Ever since that time I first met Bob Marley and the Wailers, back in the early seventies. I had always had the nerve. But in those days it was tough enough finding a job when you wore your hair au naturel. Dreadlocks, new at the time, were associated with renegade Jamaicans and evil weed.

But now was the time. At last. Young White ska aficionados had made it briefly trendy for Whites to try and adopt the hairstyle. More than a decade had passed since Bo Derek aroused the ire of Black women by wearing her blonde hair braided in 10, her name momentarily attached to our locks. So I figured the 'do had to be safe, at minimum, if never quite fully sanctioned by the corporate establishment.

And if I tire of it, I can always shave it off, do a Sinead O'Connor, and start growing a fresh thatch.

Besides, I need all this kinky crowning glory to balance my weight. It makes me look slightly more streamlined. A trim of fifty pounds would help put me on the low end of voluptuous. Have to get that excess under control, as my friend Dee keeps not-so-subtly saying. If I ever decide to cut off the dreads, I'd look better as a skinhead if my weight were down. It would certainly make my earrings stand out.

At forty-three, Dee's been skinny for nearly two years. More class, status, and fad conscious than I am, she's hooked into a West L.A. fat doctor who melts the flab off overnight via some mystery concoction. She's offered me his number, anytime I'm ready for the cure.

Dee is many years a vegetarian and has learned that giving up red meat and intermittent exercise are not enough. The steatopygia that characterizes most women of our race is stubbornly diet-resistant. Dee once cut an eye-popping, traffic-stopping figure at size twelve. But, in her case, economic considerations outweighed sexiness, with a mortgage, a college diploma, and an upscale sports car to support. She found her answer in a combination of drug treatments and a yoga class.

"Mama's down to a size seven. My babygirl and I can wear the same clothes-blows her mind."

"I'm selling my words, not my body," I insisted.

"You're not only selling your writing ability, you're selling how young, hip, and Black you are," she argued.

For emphasis, Dee told me her price paid was the loss of some righteous steady dick-whipping. Her twentysomething Black love-interest complained, "Where'd those hips, thighs, and ass go?" He didn't want no bone, as James Brown puts it, and made a fast exit.

And yet, broad as I am, my "catch action" remains strong. Heads still turn, heads still raise. Especially those Black and/or Hispanic. I've never had so many Latinos hit on me in my life. When I say no, nada, no se, no trabaja, their feelings get hurt. "Why?" the young men whine. They even make passes or call out "puta" when I'm with my husband, assuming he's either my trick or my pimp. Should granny get angry or enjoy the compliments while she's still hot?

Short of having to revamp my wardrobe, how would skinny benefit me, since I'm not in the market for male companionship? It might lengthen my planetary staying power. But I'm not anxious to live another thirty years in poverty. Though if I must, why not live it as a dread-head?

And that's a long way
for natty to be from home,
Don't care what the world seh
I and I couldn't never go astray
just like a bright and sunny day
Oh we're gonna have things our way
Natty dread, natty dreadlock
Despite peer pressures, the most immediate effect of going dread is a deep and instantaneous rush of relief and inner well-being. Dee's having none of that.

In order to maintain the appearance of being politically correct, Dee has gone as far as having her hair woven and plaited into intricately attractive styles. She has spent as many as forty-eight hours and 500 smackers having her hair braided. But what I respect Dee for most is that she has, thus far, resisted the temptation to go blonde.

There are some sistuhs so fair they're borderline albinos, with naturally flaxen hair or hair which blondes when exposed to sunlight. But only the dark-toned bimbos who've succumbed to self-hatred go ash, platinum, or gold.

At times I get so homesick I have to crawl into a funked-up little bar somewhere and sit among down-home Black folk. Getting my blues fix has become one of the few luxuries I allow myself. It's not the alcohol. It's not the cigarette smoke. It's the flesh that gives me the high. It's the chorus of so many Black voices passing the minutes. It's the darkness inside the darkness. The way nappy brown black hair waves under the pressure of social pomade. It's the sawdust politics that sprout out of the understanding that we are who we are because we've had no choice but to be who we are.

Group belonging is a good feeling. But it's instantly spoiled when an unnatural blondie makes her way through the room. A kind of atmospheric bristling takes place. Sometimes it's a fair-skinned mama in her wig hat. Sometimes it's an ebony queen with a dye job. But the effect is always the same.

Racism has intruded.

"A blonde will always draw," a brutha once informed me as I pouted over why there was almost always a blonde-skinned and/or blonde-haired lady behind the counter in working class Black joints (tony Black places can always find and afford real White women). It made me even angrier that I couldn't successfully argue his point.

"You brown-eyed girls are common," he continued, "and what's common don't make for excitement. Or didn't you see King Kong?"

I had no comeback.

What I tend to want to forget is how deeply self-hate is rooted in the Black psyche; how deeply internalized the racism. So when I'm with my folk, kin and non-kin, it's not long before I'm reminded it's not the ghetto alone that's the problem, it's also the "ghetto mentality."

The record promoter had set it up for me to meet this guy Bob Marley and his group, the Wailers, at the Tropicana Motel used to be up on Sunset. They sent me the Catch A Fire LP. I liked the sound. When I got there Marley was sleeping. I waited outside about twenty minutes before they finally invited me in, nervously clutching my tape recorder.

In those days I enjoyed celebrity interviews. Almost all of the stars I talked to were Black men and women. The usta-wasses, the justabouts, and the wannabes. Among them were Smokey Robinson, Jerry Butler, and Martha Reeves, long without the Vandellas. Most were into blues, soul, or rock. But this Marley guy was something new. He was on his second tour of the U.S. and on the verge of igniting the reggae rage.

A petulant, gorgeous mahogany Peter Tosh (Mackintosh) opened the door when I knocked. He had on cutoffs, a denim shirt open at the chest, and this large yellow, red, green, and black cap. There was an odd electricity in the air, and I immediately suspected an argument had just taken place. The Barrett brothers were standing around. Brown-skinned Bunny "Wailer" Livingstone was sitting in a lounge chair, his massive dreads draped in a partial snood. He rose and went to the bathroom to check on Bob Marley, a big funnel-like thing held in his fingers. He was taking puffs from it. I'd never seen any such dingus before.

"What's that?"

"A spliff," Tosh answered.

"A what?"

"Yonno, mahn. Kinda like a joint. Much bettah."


I got it. But I didn't smoke marijuana on my own and, at that point, had never been high. Peter Tosh was darkly edgy. Bob Marley trailed Bunny Wailer into the room, yawning sleepily. Peter Tosh gestured, and they went off into a corner of the room, the three exchanging words in rapid-fire shanty-town patois, too quickly for me to understand, then Tosh about-faced and hit the door. The Barretts stood silently for a moment, then followed Tosh outside.

Bunny Wailer opened a leather pouch and busied himself rolling another spliff, stuffing it with a rich red-brown weed as tangled as his dreads. Marley sat down on the bed. I looked around for a comfortable squat. One of the Barretts appeared with a chair. I sat the tape recorder on the bed next to Marley, and scooted up to the edge of it so that I was close to the microphone. He was handsome, with small features and honey-colored skin, and radiated magnanimity. His finely braided dreads were slightly flattened in the back where he'd lain in bed. He was bare-chested, modestly buff, in denims and bare feet.

I tried not to stare, said there was no hurry and he could put on a shirt if he wanted. Bunny snorted, went into the closet, came back with a light blue, long-sleeved shirt, and tossed it to Marley. He put the shirt on but left it hanging loosely open.

As I did a brief sound check, I looked over at Bunny Wailer. He had fired up the dingus and was pointing it at me. I looked around. The door was standing wide open, failing to close behind the hasty exit of the two Barrett brothers. Marley reached for the spliff, took a draw, and inhaled deeply. He handed it to me, amused. I looked at it.

Shit-what if I, we, get busted?

The seconds were stretching out, and I figured that if I wanted a good interview I'd better go along with the ritual. I took the spliff and imitated Marley, drawing deeply, inhaling and letting the smoke exhale through my mouth and nose. They watched me closely.

"Youlikedatganja, eh?"


"Ganja. We grow it in Jamaica."

"Oh. Sure. Yeah. It's great," I lied. I was afraid I'd end up too punchy to do a decent interview. But I was so numb with fear I couldn't feel anything except the sweat rising in my scalp.

In those days I wore studded denim slims constantly, black leotards, stacked-heeled boots, and a black leather jacket. I wore my hair in a packed trim little three-inch afro, always accented with monster earrings. I fancied myself a cultural outlaw, but wasn't looking forward to cooling my butt in Sybil Brand for possession. During the Marley interview I kept glancing towards the door. No irate police officers appeared. Later, I learned that motel management discreetly looked the other way, and that the gendarmes tacitly avoided the Tropicana, infamous for housing music business banditos, unless violence occurred.

Swallowing my fear with the smoke, I proceeded with the interview. Marley was laid-back, open, and made a major effort to communicate. It took about twenty minutes for us to get into each other's idiomatic rhythms. Reggae/dub/ska was such a fresh cultural phenomenon I had few linguistic reference points. That night and into the next day, I spent sixteen hours poring over the tapes, doing my best to "translate" our awkward exchange. I was very proud when my Marley interview made the front page of the L.A. Free Press, Art Kunkin's underground counterculture rag of local note, months away from folding. When I read that interview now, I blanch.

As strong an impression as the Wailers' music left on me, their hair left the strongest impression of all. For months afterwards I thought about Marley, the Wailers, and their wonderful Rastaman dreadlocks. I envied them their hair freedom. I fought the temptation to go nappy, reminding myself that I had two children to support. I was experiencing enough hostility towards my afro, from both Blacks and Whites. My now-classic hairdo was still regarded as a sign of political militancy even into the late seventies. Dreading my hair would make me virtually unemployable, to my, and my family's, detriment.

By the end of the eighties, fellow Blacks frequently chided me about the bush I sported. When was I going to get a Jeri-curl or a braid? My 'fro was horribly passe. Once, while I was guest-speaking before her mixed-race class, a Black English teacher pointed to my afro as an example of the old-time hairdo discussed after reading a chapter from The Autobiography of Malcolm X the previous week. She then thanked me for being such a staunch individualist.

Dee informs me that human hair is the best. Italian is the first choice, Chinese is second. Artificial hair is desperation time.

Not all Blacks can dread their hair. Or wear the hair extensions. Dandruff can become manic. Extensions, woven into natural Black hair in order to lengthen it, often cause permanent damage if not removed every few weeks so that the scalp can "breathe." Permanent hair loss can occur.

It takes forever to put in fake hair extensions. But the results can be wonderful. I tried it twice. Not only did it cost a goodly amount of hard-earned cash, but the price included brain-deadening conversation, and having to endure endless boring soap operas and schlock talk shows. The most beneficial aspect of this torture is that the braids, when done correctly, promote rapid growth of one's natural hair. Ideally, over time, one can abandon the extensions and let one's own hair take over, a boon to sistuhs with short or chem-damaged coifs.

It's not only blonde hair that makes a Black woman sexually preferable, it's long hair of any color. Another remarkable thing I learned from Rastas is that dreaded Black hair may grow as long as any colleen's or geisha's-right down to the toes. Male or female. Something I always suspected but never accepted as probable until seen with my own eyes.

My second personal braid experience resulted in an eight-inch bushy afro once I tore out the extensions. I removed them after a maddening itch-fest, nearly clawing away the top layer of my dermis. Another drawback of the hair extensions is that they make it difficult to get one's scalp squeaky clean.

In order for the dreads to "take" you have to go three to six weeks without washing the hair. It's probably a myth, but when I expressed concern about contracting lice, one girlfriend told me authoritatively that lice did not like hair as kinky as mine. That figured, since, apparently, nobody else liked my hair either. I braved it. Used lots of expensive perfume, and got away lice-free.

Mine are not the neat, acceptable, plaits of artificial or store-bought hair. My twists are straight out of Jungle Jim.

It gets my mother's goat when we're out in public and I get compliments on my dreads. The good words come largely from Whites of all ages but, when at all, from Blacks under fifty. While it is universally within normal limits for women to fret and primp over their hair, Blacks of slave origin have elevated this art to a pathology.

Once a young sistuh leaned over the stall that separated her table from ours to ask my advice on how she should start dreading. My mother stared, hers a rueful little smirk, no doubt wishfully envisioning Chinese bangs and Greek curls.

"Your head makes me itch!" Mom frowned and offered to take me into the kitchen, wash and straight-iron my hair that first time she saw my stubby little nubbins. She hadn't voluntarily touched my head since puberty.

"You'll get used to it."

"No I won't."

And she hasn't.

The incredulous stares I drew at one recent family picnic didn't deter me. Instead, I felt a vague pity for my dyed and fried bloodfolk. They had bought into the White man's lie about self-image. I was liberated from such mental tyranny. I was freed of slavery to the mirror. Of having to stand in it two-to-three hours a day either braiding it up or taking it down, or combing/forking it out. Just like the Rastafarians.

Aunt Enid nearly died right there, on the spot, in front of us when she saw my head. Hooked up to a respirator, she was barely able to breathe. I'd driven nearly a hundred miles to bring mother for that final visit. But Aunt Enid seemed more concerned about my dreads than her own impending death.
It absolutely floored me when she asked her sister what (on Earth!) had happened to my head?

"It's a new style, Aunt Enid. It's called dreadlocks," I spoke softly. She didn't seem to hear me. Shocked, she could only stare. She raised a frail entubated arm and pointed in my direction. I stammered, then fell silent, realizing how useless it would be to attempt to explain what a Rastafarian was to this devout Methodist. In her easy-listening lexicon, reggae and Bob Marley were a foreign tongue.

Obviously I was a distraction, so I left the room and let my elders visit alone.

Ignoring the occasional double take, transfixed stare, or Tracy Chapman joke, I wear my dreads everywhere. They've grown out regally, nearly shoulder-length, and mother has stopped her gripes.
When preparing to go out and pitch my stories, I fashionably cradle my dreadlocks in a bandanna or scarf to match my outfit. I'm acutely aware of just how dreadful they really are to the uninitiated. Especially to colored folk who haven't embraced the Black new age aesthetic. This is the notion that any Blacks who do not have their hair "in coils" when the millennium arrives will face eternal damnation. That's one worry off my chest-er, mind.

The longer my knots become, the wilder. They snake and fork like the Medusa, the name my son christened my 'do when I first revealed that I was "going dread." I knew it embarrassed my kids to see Mom's tresses in such a severe state of kinkiness. But I knew they'd get used to it. They have. And they know that the only possible influence on how I wear my hair is the job market indicator.

Children get your culture
and don't stay there and gesture
Oh the battle will be hotter
and you won't get no supper

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