#FeelNoShame Series : Don’t Touch My Hair
Music lovers went crazy back in 2016 when Solange Knowles debuted her socially conscious and politically charged album, A Seat At The Table. The album offered material that was completely on time as America entered the stage of Black Lives Matter and the 2016 presidential election that rocked the world over.
Each song was amazingly refreshing to the parched ears of many after the rise of Trap music, which left little to be desired for those craving something with a little more substance. The single Cranes In The Sky was a gorgeous piece that won the singer a Grammy award, but the song Don’t Touch My Hair truly spoke to many black women on a personal level around the world.
A simple Google search return for the song will render countless think pieces praising Knowles for honestly capturing the black woman’s story. What exactly made this song so relevant? Is it that black women truly don’t want their hair touched? The answer is much more complex than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
To understand the song, you must first understand black hair history.
Black Hair History
Black Hair Before Slavery
Before slavery, black women were free to style their hair as they pleased. In Africa, hair has always been not only a movement of style, but also identity. Certain styles identified members of the tribe’s age, rank, and social status. In some tribes, the act of hairstyling was ritualistic and many believed their hair connected them to the divine source.
Black Hair During Slavery
Once black people were enslaved, head scarves became a requirement by law in the south. There is a lot of confusion about head scarves, as historians argue many points:
- Some believe that the scarves were issued to slaves to protect their heads from the heat of the beaming sun while working in fields, perspiration, and lice.
- Some believe the scarves were used as a sign of subservience to lower slaves’ social value and identify them as inferior.
- Some think that slaves might have used certain braided hairstyles to create secret maps to locations of freedom. Slave masters tried to cover slaves’ hair to keep them from escaping.
- A few historians even feel that some white women where jealous of all the beautiful African hairstyles they could not achieve, so slaves’ hair was hidden in a fit of jealous rage. *(Source, The Radical History of the Headwrap by Khanya Khondlo Mtshali)
No matter the reason, slaves were taught that their hair was a point of shame and embarrassment. Words such as ‘nappy’ and ‘woolly’ began to rise to popularity among whites in reference to black hair. Without the time or natural resources available for the ritual washing, braiding, and oiling, black hair suffered tremendously.
Black Hair Post-Slavery
After slavery, black women and men experimented with perms, conks, and straightening combs so that their hair would assimilate into white society. African Americans altered the appearance of their hair so that it could adhere to European beauty standards.
By the 1960s, as the Motown era was underway. Black entertainers started wearing hair extensions and wigs for not only versatility, but a more cross-over appeal. However, by the mid-60s, a long awaited resurgence of black pride took place during the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans started wearing their hair in its natural afro-state.
The afro was met with a lot of negativity among whites, because the style was in truth a bold political statement. Many schools and businesses banned people from wearing an afro.
By the 1970s, many white individuals began wearing an afro and the style died down among blacks when it lost its radical edge.
The 90’s, Early 2000’s and Solange
Through the years, black hair continued to evolve and be the conversation of the masses. Usually, that discussion was not a positive one. In the 90’s, ‘freeze styles’ like Finger Waves, French Rolls and Pineapples were viewed as ‘ghetto’ and ridiculed in popular flim . Dreadlocks were often banned in the work place.
By the very late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, many recording artist tried to bring back the natural styles of the 1960’s and 70’s as the Neo Soul Movement was conceived, but the trend did not last long.
The mid- 2000’s found black women sporting perms and weaves and black men in what the famed girl group Destiny’s Child dubbed ,“low-cut Caesar with the deep waves” in their 2004 hit Solider.
Things remained very much the same until 2009 when singer Solange did the unthinkable.
Solange’s Hair Journey
In 2009, Solange ditched the extensions and cut off most of her hair to debut a closely cropped style that caused quite a stir.
I hate to admit that at the time of the incident, I was a kid in college and obsessed with the urban celebrity gossip site MediaTakeOut. I remember returning from class and reading all the comments under the headline about Solange’s new-do.
In the comment section of the gossip blog, some users were angry, some dubbed her hair ‘ugly’, and some loved it and felt it inspired them to ‘go natural’.
It was so much upheaval surrounding the singer’s hair that she had to go through the gamut of daytime talk shows explaining her decision repeatedly.
Even Oprah Winfrey had Solange as a guest on her talk show, because of her haircut. The singer revealed she decided to cut her hair, because she was tried of the cost and energy she had to put into maintaining long strands- simple as that.
Solange became the spokesperson for Carol’s Daughter hair products and many black women decided to ‘go natural’ after Solange’s audacious choice. Everyone’s reception of Solange’s hair proved a momentous point- black hair historically, sparks movements.
People went on and on about Solange’s hair so much that the singer took to Twitter to vent about the matter:
Look, all I’m saying is. My hair is not very important to me …. So I don’t encourage it to be important to you. I’m very emotional today (involving something else), so I’m letting the momentum of that help me to express the fact that …I don’t want to talk about no damn hair … no mo.
Solange Sis, I Feel You
Many women can relate to Solange’s statement on Twitter from a pure place. Black women and men are tired of being defined by their hair. Historically being black hurts. It hurts to know that you might not be accepted because of the color of your skin. It hurts to know that you or your loved ones might not make it home safely.
Being African American comes with enough struggles; we do not want our hair to be at the forefront of the battle too.
Having worked and attended college in predominately white spaces, I have heard nearly every negative comment about black hair. Here’s a short list:
- White coworker to black co-worker: “I don’t like Oprah Whitney any more, because she said black hair is better than white hair.”
- White coworker to black co-worker: “It makes me sad that you guys have to go buy hair because you can’t grow it. Looks like God should have given everyone hair.”
- White coworker to black co-worker: “How much of your hair is yours?”
- White coworker to me: “What will happen if your hair gets wet in the rain?”
- White coworker to me after people were complimenting my ‘braid out’: “Aww, Look at Kristi with her hair all frizzy.”
- White coworker to me after discussing good places to go for a trim: “Can I go there, because white people can’t go to black places, they don’t know what to do with our hair?”
- White coworkers continuously touching the hair of the sole black student in the building.
- White coworker about student: “His hair cracks me up, it’s just like POOF!”
- White coworker to me: *Grabs my hair by the roots. “What do you but in it? Why is it straight?”
- White coworker to me: What do you do in the morning, is it easy? It looks easy.
- White coworker to me: Do you have a perm in your hair to make it curly, oops I forgot, Y’ALL don’t have curly perms….. Well, do you have YOUR kind or perm in it?
- White Co-Worker to Me: Can I grab your hair or is it glued up and weaved up in there?
- White district manger to black staff at a meeting: “Comb your hair, I mean YOU GUYS can just pull something out of your trunk and put it on the back of your head. I’ve seen it. It looks good. I wish I could do that, but I can’t because I’m …..*trails off.”
Those aren’t even half of the comments I have heard over the years in regards to black hair. Statements so hurtful that I will admit I only wear my hair in a bun to work to keep down on all the drama.
Rude Hair Comments Hurt from a Place Deeper Than Our Literal Roots
When Solange sings Don’t Touch My Hair she is not just talking about physical touching, but the touching of our strands with unwise and hurtful words. Who could forget when political pundit Bill O’Riley said that Maxine Waters was wearing a James Brown wig.
Representative Maxine Waters was seriously trying to discuss how Trump’s antics were potentially harming democracy, a fair and true statement, but Bill O’Riley stated in a playback of the clip, he could not hear what she was saying because he was too distracted by her James Brown style wig.
For years and years many white individuals have tried to talk us into shame over our choices of hairstyles. Black women should have the choice of weaves, wigs, natural, straightened, relaxed, fades, or completely bald tresses without having to endure continued verbal abused about our decisions.
Singer Dolly Parton and Televangelist Jan Crouch have famously worn outrageous wigs for years, but have never been publicly shamed, Cyndi Lauper’s hair is bright pink while Sharon Osbourne’s is unnaturally red. Sinead O’Connor has had a buzz cut since the 80’s. The Karadshians and Paris Hilton sport extensions and braids regularly and face no backlash whatsoever. The color of their skin protects them from ridicule and grants them freedom of expression, while the color of ours makes us subject to shame.
Hair in many cultures is thought of as sensual and holy. The Bible calls it our glory (1 Corinthians 11:15). We don’t want our glory touched by those who have made our hair the subject of dishonor for so many years. Our hair is a part of our bodies and no one should be able to touch it with their sarcastic mouths or their condemning hands, the scars are centuries deep.
Our Hair, Our Choice, No Shame
From being forced to cover our glory during slavery, to the continued public embarrassment today, our follicles feel just as oppressed as we do. Can anyone touch our hair? Yes. Lovers, friends, family, but if you are approaching our hair with the same curiosity as you would when petting a stray dog, then ‘no’ you may not touch.
Our hair is not a point of shame, it is a gift. It is the only natural thing that defies the laws of gravity. Each kink and curl is a love letter from God, a signature of life. We will no longer feel shame about our gift. We will use the talent that God gave us to express whatever creativity our hair will allow- wigs, weaves, braids, natural, relaxed, curly, coily, long, short, bald, wavy, unruly or tame- it is ours, please don’t touch our hair.
Join Sissi Johnson’s #feelnoshamechallenge on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and share your story about overcoming personal shame. Checkout this article for more information about the song and visual that started a ‘shameless’ movement.