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Under the microscope: Rastafarian dreadlocks

The construction of post-colonial afro-centric identities has faced a great deal of challenges. There is a clear conflict between colonial ideologies and afro-centric identities.

Striving to uphold an African identity has been, and remains, a continuous struggle. Therefore, this write-up seeks to examine the theme of afro-centric identity against colonialism-shaped perceptions with a comprehensive rhetoric analysis of Rastafarian dreadlocks bearing in mind that this hairstyle is a signifier of black people’s consciousness, pride and identity.

In this article, Rastafarian dreadlocks will be addressed as an artefact that stands for African pride.

Dreadlocks are not just a fashion statement; they aim at defying colonial superiority which regards blackness as inferior and consequently categorises dreadlocks as an ‘unpresentable’ hairstyle.

Horace Campbell (1987) notes that dreadlocks are an integral part of Rastafarianism in its affirmative belief of blackness. One of the legendary Rastafarian icons (arhetor in this case), Bob Marley, preached the need for black people to be proud of their racial and cultural identities, pointing out, through lyrics in the track ‘Redemption Song’, that to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’.

It could be argued, therefore, that Rasta dreadlocks are a theme of black pride, liberation and an affirmative identity.

To concur with Campbell, Ennis Edmonds (1998) observes that dreadlocks indicate a rejection of colonialists’ definition of beauty, as it relates to European features and hair quality.

He holds the view that hair straightening and skin bleaching by black people reflect a yearning for whiteness and are, therefore, symptomatic of alienation from a sense of their African beauty. Against this background, dreadlocks signify the reconstitution of a sense of pride in one’s African physical attributes.

Colonial ideology sought to devalue African hairstyles by portraying it as primitive and ugly, hence using capitalistic market forces to sell cosmetics that ‘upgrade’ this African hair and ‘beautify’ it with extensions, perms and imported hair.

African men have, therefore, kept their hair short and ‘presentable’ in conformity with the colonial masters.

According to Lake Obiagele (1998), European values and standards have been dominant in the evaluation of African hair, thus hair is thought to be good if it looks like European hair in straightness or curliness.

The colonial ideology sought to instil an inferiority complex in the minds of the colonised. Frantz Fanon, theoretician of postcolonial theory, writes in his book Black Skin, White Masks that most colonial subjects internalised the values propagated by the colonial masters and that discourses of kinky and inferior black hair and bodies were an integral part of the colonial project that sought to deny the humanity of the colonial subjects and trivialise their values and confidence through Christianity powered ‘civilisation’.

In underscoring this, colonial attitudes to black hair and Rasta dreadlocks could be summed up via the following themes: that natural black hair is ugly and inferior, that artificial hair is better than African hair and that, through Christianity, the colonial masters introduced puritanical notions of decency, especially in systematically downgrading African hairstyles.

Therefore, dreadlocks are a symbol of reality, an identity of African pride and refusal to uphold colonial verdict on black people as inferior.

But the same colonial system demonises Rasta dreadlocks by associating them with insanity or entertainment costume, hence, in the case of Malawi, dreadlocks only started to be publicly displayed after the country attained democratic rule in 1994.

But, still, the implications of growing Rasta dreadlocks stand (mostly for men) and, up to now, one cannot work in government or be admitted to government schools. In fact, one is perceived as a drug dealer or user and unhygienic if he has dreadlocks.

In addition, other religions, apart from the Rastafarian movement, are reluctant to admit them into the congregation and, if they get admitted, then they have to shave off the dreadlocks to ‘get rid of the past and assume a new life’.

From this analysis, it could be concluded that colonial powers use various tactics and systems (rhetors, rhetoricians and rhetorics) to ‘outcast’ the Afro-centric pride, thus Rasta dreadlocks in this case. The colonialists have termed linguistic elements to achieve their goals (e.g. calling African hair ugly or associating dreadlocks with mental illness and disorder).

They have manipulated systems (legally barring people with dreadlocks from accessing to public service employment; undermining their freedom of expression through demonisation of dreadlocked hairstyles) and perceptions to discard African pride (marketing cosmetics or imported western hair extensions to supplement ‘ugly’ African hair, by using persuasive texts (in movies, magazines, billboards etc, to gain the audience to their side and legitimise ‘their hair’).

Surely, physical, social and symbol worlds have mutual influence on human communication.

Nevertheless, in as much we tend to take hair for granted, there’s a deeper meaning in treating hair as an artifact because, as highlighted in this article, hairstyle is one area that underlines conformity to colonial ideals and consequently it is compensated with tolerance within the system through employment, acceptance and decency among other things.

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