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Braided Together

"There are many ways to explore our attempt to live together. I chose hair. It turned out to be a wild, fascinating ride."

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On the first Monday morning of March in 1998, I decided I wasn't going to cut my hair again for a long, long time. "I'm growing dreadlocks," I said aloud, my mirror image forming the words as the sound broke bathroom silence. With those three words I began a complicated, desperate trek toward getting "locked," a lengthy journey that took me from close-cut conventionality to a place far outside my comfort zone. In the end, I somehow lived to tell the tale. But one of the things I discovered along the way is that our hair, and however we come together to "do" our hair, largely is about community.

"Community" is a key, oft-used buzzword, frequently on the lips and agendas of public officials everywhere, and with good reason: It's what brings us together. But there are ways of building and sustaining community that go beyond sparkling new downtown baseball parks and slave museums, or folk festivals and springtime 10k runs. In the black community, barber shops and beauty shops are examples of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "the great good place" in his book of the same name. The subtitle to his book is instructive: "Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community." Barber shops and beauty shops, two African-American cultural institutions, are "private" public places where the various strata of the black community can wait, congregate and oftentimes relate.

Patrons wait for their hair to be turned into works of art. Consider the beautifully designed braids on a black woman's head: swooping, circular lines that gracefully blend into angles to create the sort of head of hair that persistently attracts compliments. Or sharply cut black male hair that may have designs, logos or even an image carved into it. When a braider of black hair sits down with a head of hair beneath her hands, or a barber stands poised with clippers, they're artists, ready to create. It's just that before them is a head instead of a canvas, and hair instead of paint. This sort of aesthetic expression has been going on for thousands of years, long before we were brought to this continent. Hair shows are great ways to see black hair as art. Or just hang out in downtown Richmond and keep your eyes open.

But sometimes both the public and private community braid together around the practice and contemplation of hair. Artist Sonya Clark conceived of "The Hair Craft Project," a stunning collaboration with artists from Richmond's hairdressing community and Virginia Commonwealth University that recently was on display at 1708 Gallery.

"I provided my body as the site for the artwork of 11 Richmond hairdressers," says Clark, chair of the department of craft and material studies at VCU's School of the Arts. "In addition, each stylist was given a canvas stitched with thread. The resultant hairstyles and braided textiles are testimony to the hairdressers' craft and creativity." Prizes were awarded, and the community was encouraged to cast votes for the people's choice awards during the run of the show. Clark has had more than 30 solo exhibitions all over the world, and her first Richmond solo show, "Same Difference: Sonya Clark," can be seen through April 5 at Reynolds Gallery (see page 23 for more). Clark sees her exhibition, along with the Hair Craft Project, as "my contribution to the celebration of hair as subject matter and medium."

Just wearing and "doing" black hair is, in many ways, a communal gesture. My own hair journey, for instance, wasn't just a trek from near-baldie to shoulder-length hair, it was a cultural and identity-laden trip from the mostly male space of the barber shop to the largely female space of the beauty-shop "locktician." From the familiar slapping of cologne on the back of the neck after a completed haircut at the barber shop, to that same neck being nestled into the crook of a porcelain basin at a beauty shop for a lush, surprising, spine-tingling shampoo, the likes of which I'd never experienced. Along the way, I peered into black hair and dreadlocks for its cultural resonance, for what dreadlocks say to America, and through encounters with strangers, family and friends, as well as literature, film and media, I listened carefully to what "America" said back to me.

And it always seemed, in one way or another, to come down to community — whether it's comfortably collaborative or disquieting factions that upset a larger community. There are many ways to explore our attempt to live together. I chose hair. It turned out to be a wild, fascinating ride.

You, too, can "choose hair." Take a hand, or both hands, and reach up to the top of your head and touch what's there — really touch what's growing out of your skin — and then pay attention to it and listen closely to the world's reaction to it. You might be surprised at what you discover — for yourself, for the community you claim and for whichever community claims you. S

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Bert Ashe is associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond. His book "Twisted: the Dreadlock Chronicles" will be published by Bucknell University Press.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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