Solange Knowles’ new song, “Don’t Touch my Hair,” featured on her recently released album A Seat at the Table, has become an anthem for black girls and women everywhere. Debuting at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, the album has gained recognition from around the world.
In the song, she sings, “Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear / Don’t touch my soul/ When it’s the rhythm I know/ Don’t touch my crown/ They see the vision I’ve found/ They don’t understand / What it means to me.” Knowles is speaking of white and non-black curiosity with black hair which is rooted in seeing blacks as “the other.”
Black hair has been an integral feature of the history of black people. From African tribal styles to dreadlocks and the afro, black people have always shown variety in the ways they wear their hair. In early African civilizations, hairstyles could indicate a person’s family background, tribe and social status. Africans have always had a spiritual connection to their coarse hair, which grows upwards. Many believed that hair, given its close location to the skies, was the conduit for spiritual interaction with God, according to journalist Lori Tharps, who co-wrote the book, Hair Story.
It is estimated that 11,640,000 Africans left the continent between the 16th and 20th Centuries due to the transatlantic slave trade. These slaves took many of their African customs with them, including specially-designed combs, which were made of wide teeth, since African hair was (and still is) fragile. Although slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, black people were pressured to fit in with mainstream white society and adjusted their hair by smoothing its coarse texture. Today’s African diaspora is reconnecting with their roots. This is best exemplified by the natural hair movement, which has become popular on social media, with many black online personalities using the #teamnatural hashtag. On YouTube, one can find thousands of black natural hair tutorial videos.
Black women, in particular, now wear their hair in a myriad of styles. Whether donning their natural hair or wearing wigs, weaves, or extensions, black women continue to explore what hairstyles suit them. There is often debate about whether some trends still symbolize a desire to fit in with a mainstream Western look. Black people have to decide what they want their hair to say about them. Wearing natural hair to an interview could say that one is confident about oneself. Wearing a straighter texture- or in the case of black men, cutting one’s hair- could symbolize the willingness to adapt mainstream societal standards, therefore leading to more job offers.
“The problem remains, however, that while we may style our hair to reflect our own individual choices, our hair is still being interpreted by a white mainstream gaze and that interpretation is often wrong as well as racist,” Tharps said. “Too many people still make assumptions that an afro implies some sort of militancy or that wearing dreadlocks means a predilection for smoking pot.”
Many non-black people do not understand the amount of maintenance required for African-type hair. “If somebody says I’m washing my hair tonight, it can be like a three-hour job, it’s an excuse for why you wouldn’t go out,” said Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton, who curated an afro comb exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England in 2013.
The desire to touch a black person’s hair stems from a history of colonization that has historically regarded black people as “exotic.” Saartije Baartman, an African woman who lived during the 17th century, was sold and made into a glorified walking art exhibition, exhibited as a public sideshow for white audiences across Europe. She was commodified because of white desire for her curves and protruding buttocks. Given the stage name “Hottentot Venus,” she endured humiliation and sexual abuse during the process.
Black men and women are still judged whether they choose to wear their hair naturally or opt for a texture different from their own. We are not pets who can be touched because our hair is perceived as “cool” or “different.” To want to touch our hair without understanding the history and complexity of it is a continued violation of our humanity.