Hair doesn’t define a person
I remember being inside a bank in South Africa in 2011 and noting that there were about three young men wearing dreadlocks working as bank tellers. I remember asking myself if this could ever happen in Jamaica.
I think I told myself no. I also remember talking to a nice Christian lady in August Town several years ago who told me she could never respect or vote for the then Prime Minister P. J. Patterson. You want to guess why? Because he wore a beard!
Yeah, so, I've long been aware that we in Jamaica have some really knotty issue around representation, personal appearance and social respectability. And I know that attempting to resolve those issues can be as painfully futile as trying to rake through months-old dreadlocks with a fine tooth comb. That's partly why I've been quiet in the face of the recent uproar after a little boy was asked to leave an upscale prep school because his hair was deemed unkempt.
I have personally experienced the hair thing. Yeah! In fact, I had a great case of bad luck turning into fairly good fortune back in my younger days, where I ended up teaching classes for the School of Drama's 'Children's Theatre Workshop' even while I was still a student of the school. I consider it fairly good fortune because one parent, a lawyer named Lowell Marcus, was quite impressed with my work and always made a point of offering positive reinforcement. Then when he realised that I wasn't actually being paid, he started insisting on giving me a little tip each time he came to collect his daughter after class. Of course, as a bruck-pocket student I happily accepted the generosity.
But hold on, you want to know how I ended up with that gig? Hair's how it started! I was a final year student who needed to have a certain number of hours of teaching practise as part of the requirement for the Drama-in-Education diploma. But in those days I practised a Rastafarian lifestyle which meant that I had a dreadlocked hair style. That was back in 1980 and schools didn't want any 'locks-head' man in their classroom as student teacher.
So, after they sent I and I to three different urban secondary schools for teaching practise and all of them rejected the Ras [even though the unkempt and unruly knotty was neatly tucked under a plain coloured tam] the School of Drama admin decided to exercise some flexibility and assign me the job to teach their own special Saturday programme for children. And ironically, some of those children had locks. Life funny eeh?
And here's a next thing: It's now exactly 20 years since a stoosh caller to one of the popular radio talk shows piously demanded that the station 'take that bumpy head gal off the TV', as my friend Joan Andrea Hutchinson was publicly chastised by high society for appearing as a host on national television with her hair in 'Nubian Knots' or what old time people used to call 'Chiney Bump'. Granted, there was no pervasive social media platforms around then to help magnify and amplify public conversation like nowadays, but the dismissal of Joan's hair and what it represents did not generate anywhere near the kind of righteous indignation created by the Hopefield Prep saga.
I truly believe, as many other commentators have asserted, that Jamaicans spend too much time majoring in the minor. We're so busy focusing on how tight or loose schoolboys' wear their pants or how long the girls wear their skirts that we neglect the more vital need to teach critical thinking. And, instead of ensuring that we have qualified teachers, we are more worried about their tattoos.
I can't help but wonder though, what role does class privilege play in the current debate around the youngster and the prep school? Suppose the little boy at the centre of the dispute was as dark as me? Suppose the mother wasn't an uptown lady who has a foreign sounding name with Dr in front of it? Would the story have taken on such importance?