twisted

Bertram Ashe writes about life with dreadlocks in ‘Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles. (Photo by Jordan Ashe, Courtesy of Agate Publishing)

One day, not long ago, professor and author Bertram Ashe, who is Black, was coming out of a grocery store. As he made his way out, he noticed an older White woman gesturing toward his hair – which he wears in dreadlocks.

Ashe is a professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond, and the author of the book “Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles (Agate Publishing).” The book is a funny and thoughtful collection of musings about black hair and how it is viewed –  and about his journey toward locking his own hair. He has been traveling all over promoting the book. He visited the University of Baltimore to give a talk about the book earlier this month.

He said he had been wearing earbuds when he noticed the woman looking at him.

“I saw her mouth move ‘are you a musician?’ Your hair.’ I said no, not a musician. It’s the sort of thing that happens literally all the time,” Ashe said.

“It wasn’t in any way offensive. She didn’t mean offense. What I took from it was, if I have short, conventional Martin Luther King hair, I am wearing a kind of urban camouflage…your goal is to blend in so that you can’t be seen.”

By choosing to wear his hair in a way some still consider to be outside of the norm, Ashe said, he attracts attention and questions.

“I find that sort of encounter absolutely fascinating.”

Ashe said that he has always been curious about Black hair. When he began to consider locking it, the curiosity turned to obsession.

“I started writing about it and researching it when I was in graduate school. It’s so necessary. It’s a part of everybody’s persona. How they choose to wear their hair kind of speaks for them — or doesn’t speak for them.”

He said that one thing he’s noticed as he travels promoting the book is that everyone wants to talk to him about their hair – Black or White, male or female.

“The thing that I like most about doing events and readings is that people feel moved to share their hair stories and I love to hear them. I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s encounters with their hair and encounters with people who are interested in, or provoked by, or commenting on their hair.”

In the book, Ashe writes that he had no idea how to care for his own hair once he decided to begin growing it out into dreadlocks. It’s a problem that that many Black people face once confronted with their hair in its natural state – but something that he says is changing. He said many of the young Black women he sees in his classes now have never had their hair permed – or chemically relaxed – in their lives.

Of course, for Black people, hair has never been just hair. In many parts of the world, the way Blacks choose to look is tied up in decades of pain and judgement and culturally-sanctioned hatred.

Ashe said that in writing the book, he wanted to capture his sense of humor – but also wanted to touch on something deeper.

“What I tried to do was honor my own humorous, madcap sensibility and represent that on the page, but also have a subterranean acknowledgement that even though I’m treating these issues in a humorous way they are quite serious indeed.”

“Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles” is available now.