so there I was in St. Louis last weekend. In an attempt to blend and normalize, I was wearing my more classic clothes a long black wool Neiman Marcus winter coat, a dressy dark green chenille sweater, fabulously baggy black linen pants. But here's the rub: I have dreadlocks, long blondish dreadlocks, and the people of St. Louis are not stupid. Maybe they live in what my Jesuit friend calls America's last walled city, but still, they know. They know that a person with dreadlocks, maybe especially a white person with dreadlocks, is someone with perhaps the tiniest little message; and the message is, maybe you don't have as many prejudices against me as you do against black people but you should.
Dreadlocks are unpatriotic: it's unpatriotic not to comb your hair. The tangles are funky, and if you ask me, may harbor bugs and disease: clearly it's a matter of freshness. It's "Microcosmos" meets "Jupiter's Wife" a number of people in St. Louis took one look at me and ran for their cute little lives, pulling out checkbooks as they ran on which to write big donations to right-wing causes. Because dreadlocks indicate confusion of thought and character good children have shiny, combed hair. Bad children, poor children, have bushy, urchin hair.
But by the same token, several people in St. Louis asked me for instructions. You cannot imagine how long I've waited to have people ask me how to get their hair to look like mine. Let's just say a lifetime: I was a towheaded child with bushy, urchin hair. Someone outside of the culture entirely might have thought I was beautiful but to most of the people of Marin County, where I grew up, I looked like a mistake: a white girl who looked half black. When I was young, boys pedaled past me on bicycles and shouted racist slurs: I think of them now as drive-by shoutings.
Industrial-strength mousse came along in my twenties, and I could moussify my hair into submission with this space-age anti-frizz shit that may turn out to have been carcinogenic: I used to worry about this a little, but I'd think, I don't really CARE, as long as they don't take it off the market.
Eleven years ago I first started going to a small black church in Marin City, drunk, but not long after I got sober and stuck around. The thirty or so black women at my church mostly processed their hair, and still do. A few wear short afros, a few wear braided extensions; but mostly they get it straightened or flattened into Marcelle waves. I am the only woman there with dreadlocks, and the other women are little ambivalent about this. I think it makes them a little afraid for me and my son Sam.
Dreadlocks make people think you're doing something rebellious and anarchistic. They make you look a little like Medusa. Dreadlocks writhe, appear to have a life of their own, and that's scary. And these black women at my church love me more than life itself: you can ask them. So they worry. They mention places where someone might help me with my hair.
When I first started coming to this church, I wore my hair like I'd worn it for years, shoulder length and ringletty. Or at any rate, after slathering it with a mousse, it was ringletty in the absence of weather, of wind, rain, or humidity. In the absence of weather, I could get it to fall just right, so that it would not be too frizzy and upsetting. But weather was definitely the enemy. I could leave the house with bangs down to my eyebrows, and, after ten minutes in rain or humidity, I'd look like Marty Allen.
(I think you would be profoundly surprised by how many grown-ups think they thought up the following line: "Gee, you look like you accidentally put your finger in a light socket." And I am not going to mention the gender of most of these grown-ups, because it makes me sound a little angry.)
So. I'd been going to this little church for years, wearing my hair ringletty and devoting most of my prayer life to the desperate hope that there not be any weather. Also, that no one trick me into getting into a convertible and then suddenly insist on taking the top down. Because I tell you, you take a person with fluffy wiry hair like me and you put her in a convertible with the top down, and the person gets out of the car looking like Buckwheat. Or Don King. The only alternative is that you wear a hat, but then when you take it off you have terrible hat-hair, where it looks like a cartoon mouse has been driving a steamroller around your head all day. And you obviously can't wear a scarf or you end up looking like your aunt Bev. So you have to pick Don King, or Bev.
So Don King, right?
Anyway. A few years ago I moved to a new neighborhood north of where we'd been living. The bad news was that there was more weather there. Hotter weather, wetter weather, death-to-good-hair weather. The good news was that this large, beautiful black professor named Marlene lived there too. And she had dreadlocks, lovely playful dreadlocks.
I was the Democratic precinct leader for our neighborhood, and so used to pass her house on my precinct rounds. One time I stopped to talk to her and told her how much I loved her hair. "Yours would do it," she said. "And when you are ready, my daughter and I will get you started."
I said, yeah, that sounded great; I'll do that right after I get my eyebrow pierced. I'd think about showing up in dreadlocks and I'd feel scared and disloyal. Dreadlocks were a way of saying I was no longer willing to even try and blend; it was a way of saying I know what kind of hair I have, I know what it looks like and I am going to stop cringing; I am going to celebrate instead. So fuck you. But I was not ready.
It was too scary. I continued to moussify. No one knew the effort, the moussification, it took to make my hair look like it hadn't taken any effort to make it look that way. If the weather held, I had long ringletty bangs, and if it didn't, they'd shrink to half an inch, the sides billowing out like Ronald McDonald. I'd pass Marlene working in her garden and she'd say, "You are so beautiful," she'd say. "I love your hair," she'd say.
Then two things happened. One was that I got obsessed with something my best friend had said right before she died, when she was in a wheelchair, wearing a wig to cover her baldness, weighing almost no pounds, but very serene, very alive. We were at Macy's. I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like. But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, "Annie? You really don't have that kind of time." I just got it. I got it deep in my being. And all of a sudden, two years ago, it began ringing through the chambers of my head again: You don't have that kind of time.
I kept passing Marlene's house. She'd be out watering her crazy clown garden. "Call me," she'd say. "This is about civil rights." One day I said, "I think I'm getting there." She pushed back the sleeve of her blouse, glanced at her watch, and smiled at me with maternal love.
A few weeks later I saw "The Shawshank Redemption," where, at the end, Tim Robbins escapes from prison via the sewers, after serving time for a crime he didn't commit. He emerges from the pipes into a rushing rain-swollen river, and he staggers through the current with his face turned towards the sky, his arms held up to heaven as the rains pour down.
I sat in the movie theater crying until it occurred to me that if I were the prisoner being baptized by torrential rain, half of my mind would be on how short my bangs were going to be after they dried.
I went home and I called Marlene. "Okay, baby," I said. "I'm ready." The next day she and her dreadlocked teenage daughter came over to my house with a little jar of beeswax, to hold the baby dreads into place until they could start tangling together into strands. Marlene sat me down in the kitchen. She and her daughter sectioned off my hair, twisted it into long strands that almost looked braided, and glued it into place with the hair wax. It took a couple of hours. I was scared almost the whole time. We listened to gospel music and reggae for inspiration. I cried a little. I had never let people enter into my hair weirdness with me, had never let anyone help me before, had never believed I could get free. I let them work on me and I thought of animals grooming one another, the sacredness of animals taking care of each other. I felt the simultaneous connection and tenderness; the reciprocal healing of laying on of hands. The two women twisted, daubed, smoothed my hair, practical and tender at the same time. There aren't many opportunities for this left, outside of the sickbed. When they were done, I looked so beautiful royal, shy, groomed. Strange. Mulatto.
Who will love me now, I wondered? Will anyone want to stroke my hair again? I really didn't know the answer, so it was like a vow of chastity, and I didn't care. I just wanted to stroke them myself. I just wanted my life back, my hair back. And I did, I got them both back.
They're so cool: each dreadlock is different, has its own configuration, its own breadth and feel. It's like having very safe multiple personalities.
It's been two years and they are growing past my shoulders. Sometimes I wear them up, sometimes down. I wake up most mornings looking fabulous. I used to look at people with normal white people's hair, and their bangs always stayed long and they got to hide behind the satin curtain, and I was so jealous. But now my bangs are always long, too. I peer out at the world from behind my dreadlocks, as through a beautiful hand-made fence, in every kind of weather and every kind of car. I remember Nora Ephron saying a long time ago that she was one of those women who was gaining her looks, and it turns out that I am one, too. It was a long time coming, and I have to say, it is incredibly sweet.