For most of his life, Bert Ashe appeared to the world as an ordinary, mainstream black guy. Wearing short-cropped hair and button-down shirts on his slender body, he blended in.
And then he got twisted.
He was 39 years old, had recently defended his doctoral dissertation in American Studies at the College of William and Mary, and was teaching at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
He’d been toying with the idea for years, but March 9, 1998, was the day he looked in the mirror and announced to himself, “I’m growing dreadlocks.”
Seventeen years later, still dreadlocked and now an associate professor at the University of Richmond, Ashe has written a book about the hairstyle and his own experience with it. “Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles” will be released June 9 by Agate Publishing.
Ashe is still an ordinary black guy — but his hair says there’s something more to his story. He’s a long-married father of two adult children. He lives in Chesterfield County. He has an office beneath the imposing vaulted ceiling of Richmond Hall. And he likes being a little bit outside the norm.
“When we wear our hair the way we do, when we dress the way we do, we send coded messages to the world ... this is what I am,” Ashe said, his 17 dreadlocks dangling below his shoulders. “What I hoped to do with a combination of hair and clothing was to explore what it meant to push back at American convention.”
The conventional view of dreadlocks may lead people to assume Ashe has some tie to the Rastafarian religious community, to Jamaica, to marijuana or to artistry of some kind — “all of which are untrue, except you could call me creative because I did write the book,” Ashe said.
“These assumptions are baked into the hairstyle. It’s a way for people to think they understand what you’re doing instead of actually understanding.”
The dreadlocks look generated some controversy in February when Disney star Zendaya Coleman wore the style to the Oscars and E! commentator Giuliana Rancic cracked that Coleman probably “smells like patchouli oil ... or weed.” The National Public Radio show “Here and Now” interviewed Ashe as an expert on the subject.
If Ashe’s intellectual identity becomes tied up in his hair, “I’m OK with that,” he said. “I published my first essay on black hair in 1995. I’ve been writing about it and thinking about it in one way or another since then. Hair is a never-ending source of fascination for me.” In true American Studies style, he’s considered it from many angles: social, cultural, political, personal.
“Even if I hadn’t ended up writing about it, I would be the guy who’s constantly watching, paying attention, interested in and asking someone what were they doing with their hair, what’s the process. I have no idea why that’s so fascinating,” he said.
In the book, he listed seven reasons he loves black hair and tried to explain, using italics for emphasis:
“It’s the kinky, truculent roughness of black hair that I love, the aggressiveness of it. Asian hair doesn’t seem as demanding. Nor European hair — black hair laughs at that whole Marcia Brady, brush-a-hundred-strokes-a-night-to-make-it-shine business. I love black hair ... because it’s a window on the soul of black America. Long — or short — may it grow.”
Dreadlocks naturally occur in black hair over time because the hair grows in circles, Ashe said. If allowed to grow without interference of a comb, it will eventually knit itself into locks of some kind. Few people have the patience to wait until that happens. They’ll end up getting help from someone like Anita Hill Moses at B.A.D. — Braids And Dreds on West Marshall Street. She’s been working with dreadlocks since 1989.
Depending on the size of individual dreadlocks, people typically have from 50 to 350 locks on their heads, Moses said. Monthly maintenance is required to wash the hair and twist new growth into the existing dreadlocks. The cost may be $65 to $100 a month based on the length and thickness of the locks.
“It’s a hairstyle that looks easy to acquire and maintain but is the exact opposite,” Ashe said.
“It takes time, commitment, persistence, diligence. You have to attend to it. The word that’s used inside the dreadlock milieu is that one cultivates dreadlocks. If you think about what it takes to tend to a garden and cultivate a crop, you can’t just throw a bunch of seeds out there and hope for the best. You have to water them, weed them.”
When the hair has finally locked, it’s knotted so tight that it won’t release. People who decide to cut off their long locks sometimes save them in case they want to reattach them later, Moses said. She also has created lock extensions for people who want to speed up the process. That could be a $650 job.
Kimberly Studevant of Chesterfield started growing her locks in 2000 and still goes back for monthly maintenance. On a recent visit, she was having her 80-or-so long locks tightly curled around pipe cleaners to create a shorter hairdo for summer.
Ashe started with regular salon visits but by now has learned to care for his locks himself. It helps that he has only 17 large locks. His son, Garnet, 19, has taken the natural approach to letting his locks form over the past two years. He hasn’t tried to count them.
“I just went to sleep and it did it,” Garnet said.
Ashe’s daughter, Jordan, 24, wears her hair cut close to her head, like her mother.
Ashe said his hair prompted lots of reactions when he first got dreadlocks, but almost none now.
“Had I gotten twisted now rather than in 1998, I don’t know if I could have written this book,” he said. “Dreadlocks have become more normalized in a way that causes them not to be as provocative as they once were.”
On one of those early days of dreadlocks, he remembers a woman in a grocery store who “said something to me with a smile on her face, and sort of a surprised expression: ‘I like your hair.’
“That sort of thing doesn’t happen that much anymore. Those days may well be over. At the time I got twisted, it was still enough of a stylistic oddity that people were reacting to it.”
Now dreadlocks can be part of a sketch about President Barack Obama on “Saturday Night Live” asking what it would take for Obama to lose the support of black Americans. How about if Obama wore dreadlocks, not “neat style” like Larry Fitzgerald, but “three thick, dirty dreadlocks for his entire head,” cast member Kenan Thompson asked.
“Any man over 40 with dreadlocks better have a Ph.D. or his own incense store,” Chris Rock answered, before saying Obama would still get his vote.
Ashe confirmed the reality behind the quip.
“In the American academy (of scholars) it’s kind of accepted attire. Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize winner who taught at Princeton) has worn dreadlocks for 20-some years. As a result of that, I haven’t had many comments at all. For the attire of a black academic in the 21st century, dreadlocks are not outside. Dreadlocks are inside. It’s simply not at all unusual as a stylistic gesture.”
Ashe has traced the history of dreadlocks back thousands of years. The first written evidence of the style is in the Hindu Vedic scriptures of India. Written about 2,500 years ago, the scriptures describe the deity Shiva as wearing twisted locks of hair.
Egyptian mummies with dreadlocks have been discovered, and the Celts were described by ancient Romans as having “hair like snakes,” he said.
The name dreadlocks, Ashe said, was created in Jamaica, where a group of youthful Rastafari elected to wear their hair matted as a sign of rebellion against society and their elders. Some of those men, who had been called warriors or dread-inspiring because of their religious fervor, chose the name dreadlocks for their preferred hairstyle. According to legend, it happened in the late 1950s, about the time Ashe was born.
Ashe grew up in a Los Angeles suburb with two parents who were educators. “I was a good kid, never in any trouble, always more or less doing what was expected,” he said, “except for my radio DJ detour, which was not really expected of me, but a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do.”
His hair was as unremarkable as Obama’s hair, which Ashe describes as “kind of a default setting” for a black guy. “There’s really nothing about his hair that would ordinarily cause anyone to say anything about it.”
When Ashe went to San Jose State University in 1977, a classmate had a poster of Jamaican reggae superstar Bob Marley on her wall in full dreadlocks. She said her brother wore dreadlocks, and to Ashe it became “The Day I Realized Dreadlocks Were An Option for Me,” even if it took more than 20 years for him to do it.
He resisted the urge in Louisiana, where he worked as a radio DJ in 1983, when a Jamaican woman told him it would be a cultural insult to Rastas. When Ashe moved to Richmond to get a master’s in English at Virginia Commonwealth University, he admired the dreadlocks of friends but didn’t want to imitate them.
By the time he got the style, “my thirties were wheezing and gasping and on their last legs; my forties were gestating, ready to be born in almost exactly a month.”
He was surprised to see that he had gray at his temples, something he’d never realized when he wore a short cut. People told him he looked professorial.
Ashe’s professorial side comes out in his book, which applies the techniques of American Studies to his hair.
“I’m taking dreadlocks and I’m running them through a transnational question about Jamaica and its relationship to the United States. I’m running film through it. I’m running literature through it. I’m running autobiography and memoir through it. All of those things exist under the umbrella of this question of American dreadlocks.”
He jokes that his embrace of dreadlocks has been a death blow to the style.
“By being this conventional guy that locks his hair, it drags it so far into conventionality that it’s dead,” he said. “Bob Marley started it. Whoopi Goldberg popularized it. And I destroyed it.”