This coming Dec. 3 would have marked the ninth anniversary of the last time I shaved my head. That's almost a decade that I've carried dreads.
Prior to that period, I'd been shaving my head. The look attracted loads of attention. During my high school and college days, people often told me I looked like Michael Jordan. That's back when the "Be Like Mike" campaign was sweeping the nation, and being from North Carolina (like Mike) I was proud of the affiliation.
Later on, in the years immediately following college, new associations arose. The model Tyson loomed over Center City Philly's Avenue of the Arts and I caught more than my share of double takes walking the streets on my way to work.
Yet the impressions that mattered most to me belonged to my close circle of friends, mainly women who were my extended family, my tribe in the center of it all. Many of them shaved their heads, too.
For them, it wasn't fashion. It was akin to anti-fashion. Their clean heads said hair didn't matter, that it wasn't the standard for beauty.
It wasn't about conforming. They were beautiful and competent in their fields of endeavor, more so because they already had to be.
We marched through the city every morning. In the evening, we dined and partook of the kingdom's treasures like royalty. And people took notice.
Then, one by one, the others tried something new. They let their hair grow, naturally, freely, as it deemed fit. It had a mind and spirit of its own. It linked and locked, forming new bonds. And they were bound by this new look.
I took my time adopting the change. I had never truly carried a full head of hair, not since I was a newborn. Well, there was that brief Jheri curl period, but I'd rather not get into that right now.
When I decided to let it grow, I still wasn't committed to dreads. I was simply letting the hair grow out for three months as a test. If I had enough to twist, then I would. If not, I'd shave it back.
I made another type of commitment during that time. I let it come in untamed. No combing or brushing. That was something I'd never done before. The lack of grooming was a challenge, a submission to nature rather than the prevalent notion of nurturing.
I let my boss at the time know of my decision, not in terms of seeking consent but as an acknowledgement that my evolving appearance might draw unwarrented attention in my role as a representative of the organization. I was part of a small social service non-profit where I never had to wear a suit and tie or deal with casual Friday wardrobe issues. Every day was a casual day, because the focus wasn't on what we wore.
So while questions were asked and answered — such as would my hair look like Allen Iverson's (there was always much confusion over dreads and cornrows) and would I be able to wash my hair (as if I wouldn't be growing hair at all but some fiber resistant to shampoo and conditioner) — I continued to carry my weight around the office and the city, nappily ever after.
I find it amusing sometimes to think about our fascination with appearance and the burden we've allowed it to become. We deny personal choice and make affiliation mandatory, thus turning ourselves into pledges to this uniformed fraternal order or that sisterhood of the traveling conformity.
And I did it, too, in my own way, adhering to a sense of solidarity. I convinced myself it was about being able to stand proudly on my own, within my own headspace, knowing who and what I was. These people were my people, my chosen people in the moment who were extensions of my family and the ones who had gone before me.
Yet none of that changed with whatever crowned my head. What we carry about who we are as people isn't manifested in those shorn or dreaded locks.
My grandmother never had dreads, nor her grandfather Solomon, the first freedman in our line, and they were no less who they were. I'm no less a part of them.
That which made us is carried in our souls. The souls of black folks, that phrase says it all. It's not about the locks of black folks, the chains that bind us, but our souls — black, white, brown and all the multi-hued souls.
We are a part or we are apart, but not because of our outward signs, the physical manifestations of our connective crosses borne on our backs and scalps or even embedded in our shaded skins — but something far deeper. In his epic science fiction saga Dune, Frank Herbert suggested we carry our ancestry in our DNA; he foresaw a universe in which humans and other life forms had discovered the means of tapping into the eternal spirits that continue on long after the bodies have returned to the dust.
The souls never die, and maybe we carry them with us. And maybe, just maybe, they're waiting for us to figure out how to allow them to experience life anew with their accumulated wisdom and perspective of the past, present and future.
Maybe that's the way to see the future. But instead we're consumed with what we carry on our heads and on our backs. Why, when there's likely so much more to bring forth?
I have come clean again up top, and people here in Cincinnati, who have never known me without the dreads, ask me if I'm lighter, freer now. I feel the cool breeze, yes, but I'm no lighter or freer than before.
I carry my same weight. Hopefully, someday we'll all be free.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.