ĎHow to liberate your inner Gorgoní: Dorothea Smartt
Kevin Le Gendre, The Independent on Sunday
Willie Wee, the Bristolian rapper best known for his work with Massive Attack, once said, with no apparent Samsonian subtext in mind, that his locks represented strength. Battersea poet Dorothea Smartt didnít feel strong enough to keep wearing her crown of dreads. She recently cut her hair for the first time in 18 years.
The sheer weight of the thatch - a couple of pounds when wrapped in a yard or so of cloth - wasnít the only reason she decided on a change. 'It was a spiritual as well as physical thing,' she tells me over cappuccino in a Soho cafe. 'I thought that I was walking round with my past weighing me down. And Iíve always known that people relate to you in a particular way if youíve got dread-locks. They make certain assumptions about you - that youíre a rasta, that you smoke, that you only eat certain things. They look at you horrified if youíve got a brandy in your hand... And there are the really negative connotations. ...Yeah, like youíre not professional.'
Smarttís tonsorial twists and turns become all the more intriguing when you read her accomplished dťbut collection Connecting Medium. One of the highlights is '5 Strands Of Hair', a spare, sober piece that presents some profound socio-cultural observations like bullet points on a flipchart.
Fact: Your hair is an integral part of your skin. Fact: Natural African hair must be processed to make it manageable. Fact: Straightening hair made the first US Black millionairess.
As Lisa Jones, daughter of the poet Amiri Baraka, told the superlative cultural critic Greg Tate: 'Hair is everything.' Itís an emotionally charged subject in the black community. Good (ie straight) 'locks' are, like light skin, a vexed form of Eurocentric desirability. Barbados-descended Smartt, whoís been poet in residence at Brixton market as well as attached artist at the ICA, cleverly meshes truth and half-truth in her unravelling of the politics of hair. Some of her 'facts' arenít strictly factual, but she convincingly conveys the complexities of whatís in the head through the vagaries of whatís on it.
Although Connecting Medium is wide in scope, dealing insightfully with myriad issues around second-generation identity, hair crops up again in several pieces on the theme of Medusa, the terrifying Gorgon of Greek myth whose once beautiful ringlets were turned into snakes by a jealous Athena.
Smartt makes Medusa a dreadlocked African who evolves from the marginal position of 'nappiheaded nastiness' to a redemptive black everywoman: 'Medusa is Nanny/ Assata Shakur/ Cherry Groce/ our motherís mothers.' Where did her relationship with the 'serious dread who cuts both ways' begin?
'When I started locksing up my hair all those years ago, when it was going through its unruly phase - as it must do - I was living next door to a Sikh family and the kids next door started to call me Medusa. I thought they really hit upon something. Iíd always been interested in Greek mythology as a feminist and Iíd read work that talked about the face of the Gorgon as the stressed face of womenís anger.
'I was interested in what people thought they saw when they looked at me. I was getting lots of different reactions - people openly said to me, Ďoh, your hair looks like snakes.í
'I thought, well, what if there was another take on this? Perseus [who slays Medusa] talked about what he saw but what about what she saw and what about what I would see? I might look and see myself in the mirror and see myself with dreads and this bloke freaking out next to me. Basically heís looking at this monster of a woman and Iím like, ĎWhatís he looking at? Is he Looking at me?í Black people, especially guys, get that a lot, youíre walking down the street and people sort of look at you and itís fear or apprehension that flickers across their face. Sometimes with some of the looks that I got from people I seriously would be looking over my shoulder to see what they were looking at to make them look so distressed. Then Iíd realise with a shock that they were looking at me! I think thatís how I began my relationship with Medusa: the business of what you see and what you assume about a person.'
Connecting Medium is Smarttís first collection but sheís been writing for the best part of 20 years. Although she was a voracious reader as a child, joining her local library at an early age, her secondary education didnít give her enough reading material to which she could relate as a black Briton, and she bypassed conventional routes favoured by aspiring scribes. Itís a decision about which she occasionally feels ambivalent to this day.
'I did O-level English but not A-Level because the books I would have had to read - I thought they were boring. I never even read Far From The Madding Crowd for O-level. I just saw the film and read the Brodieís notes. I suppose that I didnít want to read any more dead white men. Sometimes I regret not doing A-Level English when Iím having angst about whether Iím a real writer or a real poet and I end up saying, if only I had an English degree...'
Lack of qualifications - although she later graduated in anthropology from New York University - didnít stop her contributing to the feminist magazine Spare Rib, tuning into the work of Audre Lorde and Paule Marshall and attending Writersí Hotspot workshops in Gambia, whose graceful rivers feature in a lot of her work. Perhaps most significantly, she attended classes at Goldsmiths college in South London run by Grenadian writer Jacob Ross and the Afro-Style school workshops hosted by Jamaicaís dub dynamo of letters Kwame Dawes.
These two mentors, in particular Dawes whoís become an important guiding force for black British writers such as Patience Agbabi, Roger Robinson and Bernardine Evaristo, told Smartt that she wasnít 'a lone voice in the wilderness' but 'part of a chorus of voices coming out of the diaspora'.
Just as the African-American expatriate drummer Marque Gilmore binds Brooklyn, Bamoko and Brixton through rhythm, Dorothea Smartt uses verse to create a new axis between Brixton, Banjul and Barbados. What results is a sharp insight into the infinitely rich, seemingly insoluble culture clash at the heart of the black British experience. 'We are the connecting medium between England and the Caribbean, between past and future generations,' she asserts. 'I feel a responsibility to be a good conduit, to let what needs to come through from the past in a way that will help us to deal with some of the madness out there.'
More importantly, sheís dealing valiantly with life sans locks. Her new 'tiny bumps' look wicked; she can only see good hair days ahead. 'Right now Iím relearning how to maintain my hair. And that really is an experience in itself. Iím bewitched by the nappiness of it, and Iíve discovered that Iíve got like three different hair textures happening. Eventually Iím gonna do a proper Afro. Iím aiming towards a big Macy Gray. I just canít wait.'
This review relates to the book
by Dorothea Smartt