... The Hairs of Your Head Are All Numbered: Symbolisms of Hair and Dreadlocks in the Boboshanti Order of Rastafari.

AuthorBotchway, De-Valera N. Y. M.
PositionHuman Hair: Intrigues and Complications - Report


Hairstyles can make the human hair a symbol (1) that "speaks" or expresses or becomes certain human and social ideas. The symbolised hair, significant to general conceptual interpretations of the body and symbolism, expresses socio-cultural differentiations, divisions and changes, political orientations and specific individual identities. Studying hairstyles can reveal human conformity or deviation from societal norms and elucidate the link between the physical and social bodies within the contexts of identity and ideology. A fairly extensive literature on the symbolism of hair styling exists; therefore, it is hardly necessary to urge upon scholars the symbolic and ritual importance of human head hair. However, in this paper, I examine the symbolism of hair in an Afrocentric social movement known as the Boboshanti Order, also called Ethiopian African Black International Congress (EABIC) or Salvation Church, which L. Olivier identified "as a rapidly growing and exclusive group, who practise strict Old Testament Mosaic Rituals and Laws" within Rastafari. (2) Rastafari started in Jamaica as an anticolonial Afrocentric spiritual and philosophical movement among the island's underprivileged people of African descent in the 1930s. It has, however, spread globally.

I am not a Bobo--Boboshantis are also known as Bobos or Bobodreads--but I have matted and kinked my scalp hair into rope-like tresses commonly known as dreadlocks, a term which has roots in Rastafari, for eleven years because of my political affiliation with Rastafari. Thus, my personal insights, readings of secondary literature, and information from reggae and dancehall music by Boboshanti artistes shaped this paper about the symbolism of the dreadlocks in the Boboshanti Rastafari group. Much of my research happened in Ghana where there is a growing population of Rastas. (3) Few studies exist on Rastafari in Ghana in general, but none has specifically focused on the Boboshanti hair ideology, symbolism and practices. (4) Bobos in Ghana, comprising Ghanaians and repatriated Jamaicans and other African diasporans, either live communally, for example, in Tafo in the Eastern Region, or privately elsewhere. Thus, I obtained some information for this paper through interactions with some Bobos and members of other known Rastafari "Mansions" (5) (branches) such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel (TTI), Ethiopia World Federation (EWF) and Nyahbinghi Order. I also had conversations with several Rastas at two major Rastafari Council of Ghana conferences held in Accra in 2017 and 2018.

Rastafari, birthed by the long tradition of Black resistance to oppression in the African Diaspora because of the historical uprooting of Blacks from Africa by the Atlantic Slave Trade which was initiated by Europe from the 15th to the 19th centuries, has attracted several studies. They mainly examine Rastafari history, ideology, general rituals and dietary laws, organisational structure, biographies, (6) schism, art and music, internationalisation, linguistic culture, politics, mysticism and gender relations and issues. (7) Others provide overviews of literature on Rastafari. (8) However, the topic of Rastafari hair culture has featured as part of broader discussions about Rastafari. Unlike other Rasta groups, such as TTI and EWF, the Boboshanti, arguably the most conservative wing of Rastafari, unbendingly rule that scalp and facial hairs should not be cut, but kept in dreadlocks. Moreover, scalp hair should be covered. The symbolism of dreadlocks among the Boboshanti, a group that Martin A.M. Gansinger deems "reclusive... [and], organised around strict communal services," (9) whose teachings emphasises "Black supremacy" (10) and royalty of Black skin, hair and culture (11), requires a probing of its own. This paper therefore unearths the inner logic of the conservatism of this hair orthodoxy and symbolism among Bobos.

My examination of dreadlocks as a sacred, mysterious and heavily symbolised motif of Rastafari philosophy, politics, mystery, spirituality and beauty within the context of the Boboshanti group elucidates the significance of symbols and symbolism of the human body and hair in particular. It mines understandings about Afrocentric politics of anti-colonialism embedded in Boboshanti ideology, Black/African nationalism and self-determination symbolised by dreadlocks of the Black body. Through an interpretation--symbology--of the dreadlocks, it offers a discourse about the evolution of some aspects of the history and psychological conditions and aspirations of Rastafari and structuring of radical notions of Black/African identity.

Symbols, Symbolism and the Communicating Human Body

Symbolic forms have been in the history of the political, social, artistic and religious expressions of humans. (12) Natural and human made objects and even abstract forms, such as numbers and gravity, have symbolic significance. Thus, the whole universe, as Ernst Cassirer puts it, is also

... a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion... weave the symbolic... tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality... as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. (13) The human being brings this symbolisation into existence through thought and perception that create or reify objects of forms into symbols. Humans infuse and characterise them with importance and meaning in the spheres of politics, psychology, emotions, spirituality, education, visual art, religion, medicine, commerce and economics. Thus, symbolisation, which is part of human knowledge in their relation to meaning in both secular existence and religion, promotes beliefs and different behaviours. (14)

Symbols can appresent and/or represent an idea. As G. Sebald puts it, "A symbolic appresentation (appresensation) is a relation between at least two finite provinces of meaning, whereas the appresenting symbol is part of the reality of everyday life." (15) Thus, "one element of a pair refers to another not directly given in experience." (16) A symbol, being given, may "bring back" something, such as an idea or myth that is absent. Accordingly, "symbolic meanings attached to particular vehicles of meaning... are thus memories of experiences outside the everyday sphere... brought back from other states to the normal everyday state." (17) Thus, "[t]hrough symbols, developed within groups, something given within everyday reality appresents a reality belonging to a [sic] entirely different province of meaning, an ultimate transcendence (e.g., the stone where Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven memorializes God, accessible within the religious province of meaning)." (18) This is what objects like the cross and crescent, commonly regarded as religious symbols, do. A scarf or kippur can be reified to symbolise humility before the divine; additionally, of the correct configuration a candle or image of a stream can become symbolic of religious notions such as divine inner peace and personal strength of the sacred life. So is the hair. Hairstyles can either be a secular fashion statement or symbolise and articulate important spiritual and religious notions and principles. For example, members of some Hindu and Buddhist sacerdotal orders shave to generate baldness to symbolise renunciation of materialism. Sikha or Shikha (the tuft of hair) on the shaved head of members of the Hari Krishna movement also symbolises one pointed mindedness on transcendentalism and devotion to a deity and wearer's aspiration to tap into spiritual bliss and enlightenment instead of the illusion of materialism. Conversely, the uncut hair, combed or matted, has religious and spiritual connotations. For example, Guru Gobind Singh approved Kesha, that is, untrimmed beards and unshorn hair on the body and scalp, (19) to symbolise the wearer's membership in the Khalsa (Sikh community). The Sikh's combed and knotted scalp hair (joota), kept under a dastaar or patka (Sikh turbans) as a cultural distinguisher, communicates the "I am a Sikh" message and represents the wearer's acceptance of a simple life, harmonious living with nature and decisive allegiance to God for spiritual maturation.

On the other hand, hairstyles of secular fashion statements about the innermost social and political ideas about the wearers include unshorn hair motivated by trichophilia, and shaved hair inspired by sexual urges of some females to project a homoerotic ultra-masculine image. Additionally, the Afro hair or "the natural" became popular among many Blacks in the African Diaspora in 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement eras as a "Black is Beautiful" symbol. "Both Malcolm X (who once had a Conk--a process of hair straightening)... and Angela Davis... described the immense psychological importance of this change of style." (20)

Touching on the psychological power of symbols in Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors, Frances Cress Welsing (MD) observes that being "highly abstracted, condensed and coded messages developed by the activity of the brain computer of the human organism," (21) symbols "reflect... the total body's internal environmental response to the external environment." (22) Usually related to people's deepest cultural themes, they convey or represent key ontological, existential and self preservation issues about the people and their culture. Significantly, Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, has revealed that broader unconscious aspects of a symbol are never precise because a symbol which may be a "term, a name, or even a picture... may be familiar in daily life;" however, it possesses specific connotations: vague, unknown or hidden (23) and can evoke group or universal responses (24) in terms of how it is thought about, treated and interpreted. "A wheel may lead out...

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