Early this morning, I talked with one of my former students, Karina Ozuna, who was deeply disturbed. She is trying to make sense of the current public art exhibit going on in Union Square in New York City called “You Can Touch My Hair.”
As you can probably tell, places like twitter are all abuzz. Like Karina, I understand the desire for a much needed dialogue about black hair but acting like these dialogues can just happen any ol’ where and any ol’ how and outside of discussions of particular sociohistorical experiences and political realities is problematic. Those of us in NYC know that Union Square gets marked as a hip spot given the characters the park attracts, its radical history, the statue of Gandhi, and the close proximity to places like the New School and New York University. However, you gotta also know that the rents in that area run at about $2500.00 per month for a small studio. Yes, I said a studio apartment: one small bathroom, one small closet, and an open space (maybe 15X30 feet) that will include your kitchen. What might it mean to be a black woman, standing in THAT space, holding a sign asking for folk to come feel on you? While folk take pictures. This sounds like the neo-racial (usually misnamed post-racial) version of an auction block during slavery… mixed with the infamously racist exhibits at the 1893 World Fair (which celebrated Colored People’s Day by giving all African Americans a free watermelon)… mixed with the 19th century exhibits of and experiments on Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as Venus Hottentot (as depicted in the drawing above). You really can’t deny the similarities here. Even the designer of the public art exhibit references her inspiration from a white female friend who likened her desire and curiosity to touch black hair with wanting to touch snake skin and rabbit fur. I love Karina’s response to all of this:
I am assuming that she probably wants to start a dialogue on black hair, and it is usually the job of the oppressed or the objectified to educate the oppressor (paraphrasing Audre Lorde), but why should I have to educate people on my hair, or let people touch it at that? Why must my hair be viewed as “the other” or not the norm? Why is it so hard to understand that our hair does not grow straight? It is curly, kinky and nappy. My hair grows up, not down, and that is not weird, odd, or abnormal; it is nature, it is an act of God. This exhibit feels too much like a petting zoo for me, and I’m tired of us getting treated like animals.
I’m with Karina on this one. I’m not interested in honoring white curiosity and I wonder about the black women who are: the all-consuming fascination with and desire for white attention and approval. I am certainly up for the challenge to interrogate white curiosity of my body but I’m not talking about the kind of interrogation where I trick myself out. I think this exhibit might confuse too many folk into thinking they can just run up on black folk and cop a feel because, let me tell you this: if someone touches my hair who isn’t my partner, cousin/family, or sista-hairdresser, their fingers gon be mine! To her credit, I think the creator of the exhibit, Antonia Opiah at unruly.com, is willing to welcome such discussions, despite her totally ahistorical and apolitical dismissal of black people who consider the public spectacle of white people running their fingers through black hair an issue of an assumed ownership of black bodies (her response to that interpretation is that such an interpretation is: “extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”) What inspires me so much about Karina and her peers is that they do not seem to be missing the 200 years of history that situates this new World Fair happening in Union Square.
I am reminded again of Karla Holloway’s work. Holloway keeps warning us that there can be no expectation of privacy for black female bodies in our current moment. We are witnessing an almost automated public spectacle-making of black bodies with media cartels that offer us daily consumption of the likes of Flava Flav, Real Housewives, or Tyler Perry’s newest television shows. It makes me very nervous when black women choose to forego noticing this reality Holloway describes and, instead, work to promote it. To Karina and all of her sisters and brothers in spirit: keep holding up that righteous indignation. I am feelin’ you.