When I grew dreadlocks two decades ago, I saw it as a way of expressing my cultural heritage, not to mention saving my scalp from the torture of chemical relaxers.
At that time, many of my peers frowned upon the hairstyle as being extreme and unkempt. But over time, dreadlocks became trendy and I started seeing other black men and women in professional jobs sporting the hairstyle.
In fact, 10 years ago, the typical black man who was growing locks wore a suit and carried a briefcase.
Today, however, a young black male wearing locks is often stereotyped as a “thug.”
“Why do black women allow their little boys to look like thugs with dreads and all?” asked one woman in a question posted on “Yahoo Answers.”
Because dreadlocks is the hairstyle of choice for gangsta rappers like Chief Keef and Lil’ Wayne, and often show up on the heads of young black men in police mug shots, the hairstyle is once again being denigrated.
“The denotation and connotation is negative,” noted Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, a diversity consultant and adjunct professor at Northeastern Illinois University who started growing his locks in 1989.
“Dreadlocks have gone from a culturally grounded perspective, and spiritual base to something that has been ‘gangsterdized’ by our own youth,” he said.
Logan had a middle-class upbringing in Evanston, and spent eight years living overseas where he began to grow locks.
“In the late 90s’ going into the 2000s, I saw a transformation. Now seeing what they have become — a reflection of criminal life and thuggery — it hurts me as an African American male, as a father with two sons, and as an educator. It pains me to see how we lost the value. That’s a reflection of what we lost as a culture,” he said.
Logan, who describes growing locks as a “spiritual journey” and a “quest for identity,” points out that the decent African Americans wearing locks are being stigmatized by the negative images.
While “hair stereotyping” is new territory for black men, it has been a reality that most black women have lived with since childhood.
Even First lady Michelle Obama has not been able to escape the hair trap.
To make this point, a Chicago-based artist collective called Raison d’etre Collective, is distributing “Free Michelle” buttons on its website.
The button features the first lady wearing her hair in an iconic “Angela Davis” afro.
Sarah Nemecek, one of the artists involved in the project, said the group wants to bring attention to the media’s fascination with the first lady’s appearance.
“It is not our place to say how she should wear her hair, but rather the public and media’s fascination with how she wears her hair,” Nemecek said.
“If the first lady decides to wear natural hair that would be an amazing and a progressive thing to do…The point of the button was to bring attention to the fact that she is this intelligent woman and she is being reduced to this superficial role in society,” Nemecek said.
How closely the first lady’s hair has been scrutinized comes as no surprise to black women. Indeed, a natural hairstyle is often interpreted as a political statement even when it is simply a fashion choice.
Obviously, for many young black males, dreadlocks are a passing fad.
But the public perception about who wears locks is another example of the negative stereotypes black men have to fight on a daily basis.
It is certainly sad that so many young men who break the law wear dreadlocks, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that so many others are leading productive lives.