Remembering Sarah Baartman and the Rented Negro

On June 6th, 3 Black women stood in New York’s Union Square holding signs that read,” You can touch my hair.” The photos were posted across social media and debated in the days to follow. (#youcantouchmyhair)

In 1810, Sarah Baartman stood on display while her buttocks and other parts of her barely covered body, were examined in a sideshow. Europeans flocked to marvel at her exhibition, pointing and staring at her exotic parts.

Sarah Baartman had little to no choice and was persuaded to make a “living” being on display until her death in 1816. She was posthumously on display and dissected in France until her remains were finally sent back to South Africa in 2002.

While it is clear from the articles and discussions in the past week that “Un-ruly’s” exhibition was meant as a social experiment and as a way of examining the “tactile fascination”, as they described it, with black hair – I was still (as many black women were and are), a little bit…disturbed.

Upon seeing the discussion on twitter and then viewing the photos on Instagram, I immediately thought of Sarah Baartman.

Black. Woman. On Display.

Voluntary or involuntary, they were being examined, just as Sarah was. They were being looked at and rented, as Damali Ayo might have put it.

You see, the other place my mind went after learning about this “phenomenon” was the bottom of a dresser drawer, where lay a t-shirt that read, touch your own hair.20130620-055438.jpg

Pretty simple.

I bought this particular shirt during my Afro days, my “say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” days when I needed everyone to know how Black I was. I purchased it from ““, Damali Ayo‘s web-art-performance that allowed people to apply for rental Negroes. The site is now “out of business”, but the shirts are still available, as well as the book version of the site.

In another time (pre-motherhood), I might have stood alongside the women with my t-shirt juxtaposing their signs and behavior.

The best I could do as a response was to post a photo of the shirt.

Looking beyond race, how age appropriate is it for adults to run around touching each others hair. You don’t see 9-5 professionals groping each other at the office, in fact, there are rules against that.

My response to un-ruly might not be congratulatory, but I’m not furious at their exhibition. It did what I believe it was supposed to do. Spark Discussion. Most people might be shy to openly discuss Black hair when asked, so if an exhibit is in a public space and everyone else seems to be doing it. It must be ok…right?

In a time where Kim Khardashian’s baby is at the top of our lists, it was at least refreshing to see a more intellectual debate trying to surface for longer than a week.

Black people throughout the Diaspora are no longer for sale or rent. These days of putting ourselves on display should be coming to an end. I believe discussions of race in this country need to continue and maybe factor in other things, like economic status.

I believe the few non-Blacks that showed interest in touching Black hair were genuinely curious, but …curiosity killed the cat, and if you want to touch my hair, like I said – become a hair stylist.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Sarah Baartman and the Rented Negro

  1. Anon says:

    I have flat, lifeless, frizzy hair. I have found a stand of almost every color naturally in my hair, including gray when I was still in middle school. I was really self-conscious of this ashy, mucky, boring color… and have been lightening it ever since. Everyday when I wake up, my hair is tangled in a giant rats nest. After showering, conditioning, and spending 20-30 mins combing it, it then takes me 1-1.5 hours blow drying and straightening/curling it. Why don’t I just wear it wet and air dry? Because unless I want to look like a meth head, I have to. I have considered cutting it all off and sporting the pixie, but that doesn’t suit my profession. Pony tails and buns are only ok sometimes, and again, doesn’t suit my profession. Very few people have hair they don’t need to spend a lot of time working on.

    There are certain things we all find really attractive, and one of the things I find beautiful is a natural afro. I understand not all girls can pull that kind of thing off, the same way I can’t pull off a lot of looks either, but the idea that a black woman needs to somehow “whiten” her hair doesn’t make any sense. “white” hair is not even white. White hair is usually lifeless, thin, and fragile, and the “good” stuff is shipped and glued from India.

    When someone wants to touch your hair, your first reaction is probably “how childish, how ignorant, how invasive”, but really, it is about curiosity. When a non-black person wants to touch your hair… they’re first thought was probably “beautiful”… otherwise, why would they want to touch it? When you guard yourself up, YOU come off as bitchy, non-approachable, and rude. People have wanted to touch my hair, and some have touched it without asking. People also want to touch my cashmere sweater, my fine leather seats, my fluffy kitty, and my smooth marble counter top. Do you feel like an object now? MY KITTY IS NOT AND YOU ARE NOT AN OBJECT BUT YOUR HAIR IS. Hair is hair, and if I am going to identify myself by my hair, then I must be one insecure girl. If I identified myself with anything on the outside of me, then I must be insecure, because I know that everything that makes me me, is in the inside. I don’t identify myself as “white”, and my children don’t identify themselves as “mixed”.

    Those girls were not “rented”. Those girls wanted to let others touch their hair because they were saying “we are not our hair”. They showed that they didn’t care about what is was people thought about their hair, but that they didn’t mind showing them, or getting close to someone. If anything, we need more of that. We need more community. We need people to stop threading on what makes us different and start talking about what makes us similar. Like how crazy our society’s standards of beauty are… that I spend nearly 2 hours a day to have “good hair”, and how you feel personally invaded when someone asks to touch your hair.

    While cultures are beautiful, and we should all embrace who we are, we should also embrace our similarities. The media shows us how racism still effects this country, and how lives are torn and destroyed by it, but the media also focuses on these stories for a reason. While we are all fighting about stupid stone-age topics, real shit is going down all around the world, that for the most part, this country, is completely blind to. I am DONE talking about our differences. I am not proud to be white, I am not proud to be American. I am not proud to have straight hair, and I am not proud of saying any of those things. I am proud I belong to the human race, with perfectly imperfect beings with crazy hair.

    Your daughter is looking at you as a role model, as mine look to me. If I showed them I was “proud” to be white, how would that make them feel as “non-white”? Don’t let her identify herself by her appearance or her hair. She is so much more than that.

  2. Anon says:

    I am sorry, If my comment comes off as some how ignorant to the racism still in this country. I would never promote ignorance. I just see this as a woman’s issue, and not as a race issue. As a young mother, I don’t want my daughter to grow up to be an independent, confident woman. I don’t want her to feel society’s pressures. Of course, she will, but like my mother, I will never focus my energy on my appearance.

    I get that some people wanting to touch black people’s hair might seem creepy… Would be weird if you were strangers… but if you knew each other, it’s not that weird. When my hair is looking extra good, people want to touch it all the time! They don’t ask, which might be why it’s not as creepy. If the person touching you is someone you know, how is it that creepy?

  3. Anon says:

    That was a big typo! “I don’t want my daughter to grow up to be an independent, confident woman” BIG OOPS! I meant I want my daughter to grow up to be an independent, confident woman.

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