To the surprise of Jamaicans at home and abroad, the island nation’s supreme court recently ruled in favor of a school whose dreadlock ban jeopardized a young girl’s admission. In its decision, the court said the unwritten policy didn’t infringe on the now-7-year-old student’s constitutional rights because it helped promote student hygiene.
Many who heard the news said such developments, especially at a time then dreadlocks have achieved a new level of mainstream popularity, reminded them of the persecution that dreadlock-sporting Rastas faced in the decades after Jamaica’s independence from the British Empire.
Dr. A.G. Hamilton-Taylor, a computer scientist who grew up in the Rastafarian faith in an independent Jamaica, recounted experiences as a preteen during the 1970s when Black high school administrators, influenced by Eurocentric colonial standards, often tried to publicly embarrass him in front of the other students.
On the first day of school, they placed him in an isolation room, handed him a comb, and tried to coerce him to detangle his curly dreadlocks. Hamilton-Taylor also said they even sent letters to his parents with language he likened to what the Supreme Court of Jamaica used in its decision.
While he expressed doubt that the recent ruling would survive in the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, the highest court in the Jamaican constitution and where the young girl’s family said they plan to file an appeal, Hamilton-Taylor suggested that the time has finally come for national legislation protecting Afrocentric dreadlocks.
“We’ve heard this sort of thing repeatedly over the last 50 years. It is a shock to many Jamaicans that we still have this sort of thinking after independence from the British, but it’s a wake-up call for this society,” said Hamilton-Taylor, lecturer and founder of the Web, Animation, Visualization, and E-learning (WAVE) research lab at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.
“People can really see that this sort of thinking is still happening, and we can actually deal with it once and for all,” he added. “Jamaican governments since independence have skirted around the matter over the years. I’ve experienced it myself. The judgment is extremely backwards in terms of the thinking. It’s unbelievable.”
Signs of a Not-So-Distant Past
On Aug. 6, a few days after the court ruling, Jamaica celebrated its 58th independence day, a milestone propelled by the Black nationalism of the Garvey and Rastafari movements. Despite nominal freedom from the British, friction continued to persist between the Eurocentric elements of mainstream Jamaican society and its rebellious, marginalized Afrocentric counterparts.
It had gotten to the point where a 2016 op-ed in the Jamaica Observer demanded that Jamaica’s Ministry of Education create a framework that doesn’t ostracize Afrocentric hairstyles and presentations.
In the two years since the young girl’s father filed a suit against Kensington Primary School, the principal resigned and a new school board head was appointed. In its decision, however, the Supreme Court of Jamaica embraced the principal’s verbal ban and accompanying explanation. The family’s appeal on cultural and religious grounds, on the other hand, didn’t compel judges who disregarded the family’s beliefs and desire to express themselves.
Dreadlocks Enjoy Ubiquity
Since Bob Marley, and the reggae music industry, brought dreadlocks some mainstream popularity, variations of the hairstyle have increasingly found its place in academic and corporate settings. Hair models, locticians and other members of a vibrant natural hair industry have been able to carve out their niche on social media platforms where they document their hair journey and provide pointers on loc maintenance.
Sheba Morgan, a former D.C.-area resident of Jamaican descent who wears sisterlocks down to her shoulders, has spent the last few years guiding four young women along in their decision to grow locs. She said, due to the level of commitment required of someone sporting locs, discussions often take place for three years.
Despite her father’s strong encouragement, Morgan, one of seven siblings in a Rasta family, didn’t start growing her locs until her early 20s. Doing so, she said, further opened her eyes to the trials and tribulations that Black people endure when they wear their natural hair.
It also made much clearer the looks and comments her parents often encountered, from family members and throughout Jamaican society.
“Jamaica always had strict grooming rules for school children and workers. It’s ingrained in the colonizer’s beauty standards,” Morgan said. “Rastas have gone against these standards for self-love. Without knowing who you are, you can’t prosper. That’s why it’s bad that so many of Jamaica’s policies are based on the colonizer’s perspective of beauty. It’s the opposite of ours as Black people.”