Orville Taylor | Knotted issue – locks out but not locked out
In the mid-’70s the police terrorised many innocent poor Afrocentric youths. Although the blatant ‘downpression’ of Rastafari was now more subtle, Ras Karbi’s ‘Long hair freaky people need not apply’ was our background music. My friend Colin ‘Coila’ Gardner, of blessed memory, wore his dreadlocks with pride while working at the Institute of Jamaica and he was one of the humblest persons ever.
To my father’s chagrin, his Christian son was an active member of the African Studies Club at the Pope’s school, St George’s College, and consorted with ace Georgian Rastafarian footballer Devon ‘Roots’ Lewis. I had a front seat when the police, for no other reason than he was a Rasta, beat Coila to a pulp and stuffed him into the hatch of a Ford Pinto. Another incident saw soldiers forcing two Rastaman dem (never men) at gunpoint to ‘kiss’ because one allegedly said ‘fire’. There are countless stories in the annals of Jamaican sociological history since the 1930s, of Rastafari suffering and dying for the right not only to ‘sight up’ His Imperial Majesty but to wear a manifestation of the covenant, natty dreadlocks.
Having seen the struggles at first hand, there is a deep reverence for the lion’s mane and I suppressed my disgust when the pork-eating, Speedo-wearing men started the ‘rent a dread’ phenomenon. For me, it was an insult to the sacrificial blood of Rastafari, because the covenant has the same stature as the Jewish Star of David, the Christian crucifix and other symbols of faith of these older belief systems.
After all, one remembers when Afrocentric braids were appropriated and popularised by a white actress, such that when Grace Jones wore them, she was said to be wearing a ‘Bo Derek’.
OPENED OLD SCARS
That wearing locks in school not being a barrier to education was long settled when I attended Pope Paul’s school more than 40 years ago. Clinton Murray, beloved by all, was our Manning Cup vice-captain, Gary ‘Weedhead’ McPherson and Courtney Taylor (RIP) were all dreadlocked. Indeed, all a student needed to do was to declare to ‘father man’ that he was embracing Rasta and he could discard his comb. However, cosmetic and bathroom dreadlocks who trivialised the covenant were the subject of ‘fire bun’ and could claim no privilege. In other words, you can’t not plant the corn, ‘mock the dread’ and raid the barn.
Nevertheless, in the blink of an eye, a court matter has opened old scars, with some persons, for whatever reason, attempting to make it appear that the authorities are still fighting Rastafari and Afrocentric culture. Parents of a government primary school pupil were told that she faced the ‘possibility’ of being excluded over her hairstyle. Importantly, she never was blocked from school.
Let’s be hygienically honest. If one is patient, dreadlocks can be washed daily. However, straightened hair, braids, weaves, cane rows, and many black people hairstyles go unwashed for days and even weeks. Yet, non-Africans with naturally straight hair wash theirs while bathing and actually wet it at the beach.
INTERPRETING THE LAW
Despite the hysteria and misinformation as well as the criminal call by some extremists to do physical harm to the three judges, from all the comments I have heard, there is nothing improper or inconsistent in law with the ruling. Judges do not make the law; they interpret it. Moreover, they have to act based on what is presented before them. All who have attempted to besmirch the integrity of these justices need to apologise to them. Moreover, it is disingenuous for some of the very same people who laud the competence of local jurists, when advocating a Caribbean Court of Justice, to denigrate them for not making an ‘extra judicial’ populist judgment.
In any event, the school is an outstation of the Ministry of Education. Furthermore, the case was carried by the Government’s lawyer, the attorney general. Parliament and the Cabinet are the sources of our law, and the former can change the Constitution with a two-thirds majority. So guess what? It is the Government that won. My question is, given the delicate nature of this, why couldn’t this have been settled by conciliation?
Still, having taken the decision that the issue is about Afrocentric hairstyles and not about religion, do we draw any line at all? Do dreadlocks, now demystified and trivialised by ‘bald heads’, have a privileged position as part of our ethnicity? What makes dreadlocks more Afrocentric than other hairstyles? So, can male schoolchildren wear plaits, cane rows or ‘chiney bumps’? Can Jamaican Chinese and white children with no known African ancestry claim for equal treatment for adopting the black hairstyles?
We might think that we will resolve the matter by saying, ‘free up the locks!’ but there is a big difference between freedom from discrimination and ethnic privileging.
Selassie I Liveth.
- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.