Black women’s hair is a subject that is both personal and political. With the rise of the natural hair movement, how we choose to style our tresses has been a hot topic resulting in never ending passionate debates from both sides. Antonia Opiah, founder of Un-ruly.com, a black hair website, hosted a controversial outdoor exhibit on Saturday, June 8th titled “You Can Touch My Hair.” Two weeks prior, Opiah wrote an article for the Huffington Post “Can I Touch Your Hair” in which she shared her discomfort with White people’s fascination with her natural hair. With the exhibit Opiah hoped to “further explore the tactile fascination with black hair….where strangers from all walks of life will have the welcomed opportunity to touch various textures of black hair.”
Three models with various hair textures gathered in Union Square on a humid and cloudy Saturday afternoon with signs enticing onlookers to touch their hair.
What many imagined would be hordes of White people lining up to run their fingers through some locs and ‘fros, turned out to be a gathering of mostly black women, voicing different opinions when it comes to their hair. Halfway through the exhibit, others came in protest including playwright Radha Blank and actress/dancer Stacey Sargeant expanding the debate with an opposing point of view:
For Blank, the idea of having black women on display in such a manner did not appeal to her at all.
“The zoo-like aspect is what turned me off. I appreciate my sisters for being here but it’s how you broach the conversation. I think questions are a great entry point, but the question is ‘ Why do you want to touch my hair?’ as opposed to ‘You can touch my hair.’ Not every Black woman wants her hair touched so we’re out here trying to save some lives.”
Sargeant added, “This has been done to Black people for centuries and now you’re giving people permission to do it; I just don’t agree with that. I have been around White people all my life and not once have I felt the need to see how their hair feels. To me asking to touch my hair is the same as asking to touch my butt.”
Not surprisingly, Black men who were in attendance were very clear on the etiquette surrounding Black women’s hair — it’s never to be touched!
“My mother was very particular about it and she did not like people touching her hair. She had a weave and I remember having conversations with her about it, where she’d be very upset. Touching the hair is a very personal thing for Black women, it’s like an invasion of space,” said Brad Hutchins.
Another spectator, Femisayo, echoed the sentiment: “The hair is the crown of your glory and Black women put so much into making it look good, that you touching it and messing it up is a no-no.” Femisayo also shared his own dating preferences: “I’ve never dated a woman with weave, I prefer a more natural looking woman, not too much makeup, just being herself.”
Robert, an older black gentleman in his 60’s had some definite opinions on why Black women feel the need to wear their hair straightened. “Back in my day, Black women had to use a hot comb and straighten their hair, but that’s because we weren’t educated. But now that we have more information, I think Black women should go back to being natural because we’ve all been brainwashed. Back in the 1930’s Dr. Kenneth Clark, a psychologist, gave a group of little black boys and girls a White doll and a Black one. They all chose the White doll. We’ve been indoctrinated with the Euro-centric standard of beauty.”
WATCH: THE CLARK DOLL EXPERIMENT
Actress Adepero Oduye, star of the 2011 indie breakout hit “Pariah” and most recently Lifetime’s “Steel Magnolias” remake, also stopped by the event. Oduye knows all too well the pressures of standing apart from this country’s rigid beauty standards.
“I’ve been natural all my life so it’s never been an issue for me,” says Oduye, “but other people have tried to make it a thing. I had one agent tell me ‘You’ll never work in this business with your hair like that.’ People say natural hair isn’t a big deal, but it is because for some reason there’s a specific connotation that it’s not sophisticated, it’s not educated — there’s a black respectability value. But this is how my hair grows out of my head.”
The three men interviewed for this feature are also supportive of Black women who choose to wear their hair in its natural state.
Says Femisayo, “I don’t think the natural hair movement is a fad. A fad is only as strong as the people who push it, and Black women have been persistent and refuse to go back to the way they were. I think the same way hip-hop over time became a beautiful thing, Black women’s hair au naturel will be seen beautiful as well. The world needs to see that and Black men need to see that as well.”