This past Saturday, in a two day interactive public art exhibit called “You Can Touch My Hair,” live models in New York City’s Union Square Park made themselves available for passersby to feel the goods, so to speak.
When I read about the event, my first thought was, OK, they’re trying to demystify the hair, which is great. My second thought was, at least in this scenario those taking part have been given permission to reach out and touch someone.
That is the root of the issue around black hair and its strange witchery for non-fro-havers — permission, or lack thereof. Case in point, the article I read referenced an incident a few years ago when Justin Bieber petted Esperanza Spalding’s afro in front of Associated Press cameras after the Grammys.
Touching someone’s hair, or anybody’s anything — however fascinating you find it — is rude. The last time someone asked to touch my hair, I asked her, “Can I touch your breast?” Shocked, she said, “No, of course not.” I replied, “Then no, you may not touch my hair.” My hair is a part of my body. Therefore, someone who is not a lover, friend or family member touching it is ridiculous and intrusive.
I don’t understand what’s so fascinating. It’s curly hair. Black people — or Jewish people or anyone who has exceptionally curly locks — are not new to the world. It’s not like it’s something no one has ever seen before. To me the fascination goes deeper. It’s about thinking something is different or special and wanting to experience it, which is perfectly understandable, except when you overstep your bounds without permission.
I think another reason behind the fascination with black hair is those who are entranced by its nappiness believe this difference means people who bear the naps are different. They’re not. I’m not. Me having natural hair doesn’t mean I’m any less a woman than a straight-haired redhead or a wavy-haired blonde. My brain works the same, my body works the same, I grow hair the same way as everyone else, one strand at a time, and I am as deserving of dignity and respect as any other human being walking around.
Someone once told me that in the eyes of the world the black body is only good for two things, working and suffering. I disagree. That may have been true in the past, but things have changed and are thankfully still changing. The person who shared that bit of old-school wisdom also said that same black body — in the eyes of the world — is fair game. Meaning, I can touch you if I want to because you are not really a complete person; you are not entitled to the same respect. This too is an antiquated idea, but sadly, some still feel this way. If they didn’t I wouldn’t be writing about my hair.
If you’re 5 years old or younger, you are easily forgiven for reaching out and touching something new without permission. After that, you should know better. For all those who would pat the fro, be warned. In “Foxy Brown,” one of Pam Grier’s greatest blaxploitation hits, she hid razor blades in her curls.