My hair tells a story that often coincides with different phases of my life. I remember tearing up when I sat between the knees of mama or an aunt bent on conquering my course hair and corralling it into pigtails. I bent back ears to save them from getting burned by pressing combs. I even consented to the dreaded jheri curl that promised to loosen my much tighter coils.
After graduating college, I took scissors to my own head. Relaxers had made me feel everything but relaxed. I relinquished the mental and financial burden of straightening my hair and shaved it all off. And I must admit, it felt freeing. At the time I could still hear Audre Lorde’s voice booming in my ear, “Is your hair still political? Tell me when it starts to burn!” And while I didn’t walk the streets with my fist in the air wearing a floor-length dashiki, the act meant something.
This was well before the “transitioning movement” converted sistas to two-strand twists when tracks became too rough. This was before black girls could walk into beauty supply stores and find an entire hair apothecary devoted to kinky, wavy, springy, zigzag hair and every pattern in between. I was–at least I felt I was–a part of an unpopular tribe of sistas fielding questioning looks and personal comments about my closely cropped and later homemade locked hair.
During my many adventures in black hair styles, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked to touch my hair. More than a few have had the audacity to do it without my permission. When I refused one white woman’s request to feel my locks, she asked why, as if she were entitled to invade my personal space.
So I understand the passionate responses to the Un’ruly.com “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit that happened this past weekend in New York’s Union Square. Some have equated the interactive public art display to a petting zoo and the real live “exhibits” to “primitives” or “animals.” The exhibit reminded me of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit …, a series of satirical “cage performances” that conjured the western world’s history of exhibiting its colonized Others. One of the things that made Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s exhibit so powerful is that it collapsed the positions of spectacle and spectator. The audience’s responses to seeing caged humans on display was as important as the performance itself.
Un’ruly’s founder Antonia Opiah stated that the goal of the exhibit was to create dialogue. But I’d be interested in turning the gaze onto those who were eager to touch black hair, whether out of curiosity or admiration. What prompts someone to want to touch a stranger’s hair? What assumptions does that touch confirm or debunk? Granted, some hair-touchers were other black folk. As Michaela Angela Davis explained on HuffPost Live, many black people are curious about each others diverse hair textures. Black folk also tend to let other black people into our intimate space since we take as a given our shared sense of belonging.
Most of the angry reactions to the performance come from black women who feel that we are always on exhibit under the white gaze. Black women have long grown weary of being exploited, exoticized, and Othered.
Plus, what does the act of touching accomplish? In The Erotic Life of Racism, Sharon Patricia Holland discusses the potential of the touch to either overcome or solidify difference. Touch can reinforce the boundary between the “human” and “nonhuman” (thing that is touched) or make legible interracial intimacies that have gone unacknowledged (104). In the time of slavery, blacks and whites lived in close proximity, but seldom did what my friend and colleague Lynn Makau calls “peculiar intimacies” develop into a fuller acknowledgement of shared humanity and belonging between blacks and whites.
Similarly I doubt that granting strangers permission to touch our hair in a so-called “postracial” era will shock people into recognizing black women’s humanity. Perhaps the performance will spark questions about the who gets to look at and touch whom and engender ways of disrupting those power dynamics.