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.