sarah baartman

No, You Cannot Touch My Hair

I cannot tell you how many times—on the CTA in Chicago, while waiting in line at the Walmart pharmacy, and on the street— I’ve had someone ask to touch my hair. Friends, classmates, church members, and complete strangers always seem so comfortable touching my hair, with our without permission. These interactions often leave me feeling violated, angry, and frustrated. You’re probably wondering what’s so special, so absolutely extraordinary about my hair that magically turns the average pair of mitts into magnets. To be perfectly honest, nothing at all. Just your typical head of Black hair.

Non-black people don’t seem to understand why these social dealings evoke such high emotions for Black women, so I’ll explain why. But first I’ll give you the somewhat complicated history between my hair and I. For as long as I can remember I’ve always hated my hair. Now I know this seems a little counterproductive with me being a proud natural woman, but it’s the honest truth. I hated how thick it is, the curliness, and it’s rebellious and unruly nature. I hated the childish ponytails I sported day in and day out, plaited down to the tips and secured with a barrette. I hated how unpleasant life became every time I got it wet. And attempting to detangle it after a shampoo? Yeah, right! I remember sitting in between my mom’s legs every night before bed while she got me ready for the next day thinking to myself, “You know what? This is some bull!’

Different cultures have their own ceremonies that become a defining moment in a youngster’s life.  Young Jewish boys celebrate their transition into manhood with a Bar Mitzvah, while girls in parts of Latin America mark their journey into womanhood with a Quinceañera. Adolescent Black girls get perms and this is a monumental occasion, a right of passage. For us it means that we finally get to look like what’s been considered “normal”; “normal” meaning having straight hair. At age eleven my entire world changed, and my mom finally allowed me to get one of these coveted perms. I had lost all feeling in my scalp but I’d finally made it to the Promised Land.

My decision to go natural was an organic one, and about a year after I did the movie Good Hair came out and it had Black people, primarily women, in a tizzy. In the Black community the term “good hair” always reserved for biracial kids or the ones who claimed to have “Indian in their family” (growing up, the number of times I heard someone claim to be part Cherokee were too many to count). Their hair was considered “almost white” but it had an edge to it, the edge being the frustratingly perfect curl pattern that I could never seem to achieve. And then there was this myth going around that relaxing your hair made you a sell-out, that it’s a Black woman’s subconscious attempt to adapt her appearance to look like a White girl. That’s unfair. Yes, the standard of beauty has mainly (and some might say solely) highlighted European features for some time, but wanting super straight hair does not mean you inherently want to look or be White, that’s crazy. And that’s not to say looking or being White is somehow evil, but for so long the ideal beauty has always had blonde hair and blue eyes. So my decision to say no to the creamy crack and abandon everything I’ve ever know to be true about my hair was a pretty big deal. And I’ll have to say it was one of the best decisions I ever made, because with that giant leap of faith came an outpouring of self-acceptance.

From that day on my hair struggles became a cakewalk. I was flyer than ever, my life became full of glamorous selfies, and the lack of lye led me to discover unicorn piss actually cures cramps. Okay, not really. Trying to figure out the best products and regime was pretty difficult. I had to do a lot of research in order to figure out what works for me, all naturals are not the same. It took me a while to get my hair to cooperate and do what I wanted it to, so for someone to come up to me and stick their hands in my hair really pissed me off. The things I have to do to finesse my fro—washing it, detangling it, styling it—all take a lot of time; so yeah, the hands of a stranger aren’t welcomed. My journey as a natural has been a beautiful experience, but every time I encounter someone that’s a little too touchy feely I feel like a Pomeranian puppy. Once I was at work and I was discussing hair with a coworker who is also natural, we were exchanging thoughts on different products we use, and another coworker (a Caucasian woman) jumped in. “Do y’all spend a lot of money on your hair?” We both looked at each other like “Girl! Did she just…?” Now I love this girl I really do, she’s very sweet, and I know she didn’t mean anything by it but I just couldn’t believe she said that out loud. I was about to go all the way in on her, but I realized non-Black individuals really don’t know much about Black hair. I said, “Do you spend a lot of money on your hair?” and that question was met with silence. Instead of that snarky remark I should’ve taken that opportunity to explain to her just how different our hair is from everyone else’s.

We, Black women, are very sensitive when it comes to our hair; we always seem to find ourselves defending it, even amongst Black men. If you wear your natural texture it’s nappy, if you get a relaxer you’re a sellout, and if you wear wigs or weaves you “want to look/be White”, there’s absolutely no middle ground at all. In many companies, wearing a fro is a dress code violation; I remember my best friend recalling an incident at a former job involving this. She worked at a rather large car washing company, and one day she was secret shopped by the higher ups at corporate. She did pretty well, they said she was very polite and knowledgeable when it came to company policy, but when it came to her appearance they said she looked “unkempt”; she was wearing her fro out that day. I think “unkempt” was a politically correct way to say her hair looked nappy.

Once, in light of my mother’s burning desire to have grand kids, I folded under the pressure and decided to give online dating a try. This really handsome White gentleman sent me a message expressing his interest, and soon we exchanged numbers. Upon texting him I was flooded with a bunch of stereotypical Black girl question. Among “Can you twerk?” and “Is your booty big?” he asked “Is that your real hair?” As if he hadn’t offended me enough. So because my hair is long and curly it automatically has to be weave? This is an everyday struggle for naturals. I can’t tell you exactly what I said to him, but just know it was littered with some very colorful language. Why the anger, you ask? I’ll tell you why, take a trip with me back to the 1800s. I’d like you to meet Saartije “Sarah” Baartman

Sarah was a South African woman who, after being sold into slavery by the Dutch, was trotted around Europe for exhibition. She was fooled into believing that she would find riches and fame, but instead was put on display in both England and France because her large buttocks, big hips, lips and elongated labia were curiosities that Europeans had never seen before. In 1810 she became a freak show attraction, given the name Hottentot Venus. Surely she couldn’t be human because she didn’t look like a White woman, so therefore she was considered inferior and made to dance for the entertainment of White people. She was poked and prodded, absolutely humiliated. After the circus no longer wanted her she became a prostitute and later died from disease in 1815, she’d only been in Europe for five years and was 25 when she died. Even after her death she wasn’t allowed dignity; when she died they cut out her vagina, her brain, and her skeleton, preserved them in jars, and placed them all on display along with a plaster of her actual body. For one hundred and sixty years people could walk into a museum, look at Sarah Baartman’s vagina, brain and skeleton and see what she looked like naked. In 1974 they took down the display, but still kept her remains. It wasn’t until 2002 that they were finally sent back to her home in South Africa and she was given the proper burial.

History records that Sarah was a highly intelligent woman with an excellent memory, she had a particular knack for remembering faces. In addition to her native tongue she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English, and a little French. Aside from her large breasts and buttocks she was described as having graceful shoulders, slender arms, and charming hands and feet. She was also very skilled at playing the Jew’s harp, could dance according to her country’s traditions, and had a lively personality. If reading about Sarah made you uncomfortable it should, and I’m glad it did because that means we’re getting somewhere. Every time you reach out to touch a Black woman’s hair or make an offensive remark about it, whether knowingly or unbeknownst to you, you awaken the hurt and pain that comes with Sarah’s story; we become Sarah Baartman and we have no say so in the matter. Please don’t mistake my desire to want you to know how we feel as an opportunity to point the finger at White or other non-Black people as if to say, “Look at what you did to us!” I just want this to resonate with you.

Curiosity about Black hair isn’t a bad thing, and I’m sure many well-meaning people don’t mean to offend me in these situations. But there is a fine line between interest and treating Black women like urban zoo animals. If you have questions about natural hair or the Black experience that’s great, ask away! You can approach a close Black friend or coworker but tread lightly, remember we’re sensitive creatures. If you don’t have any Black friends you should seriously think about diversifying your circle. But if you feel compelled to reach out and touch, just remember it’s best you keep your hands to yourself.