Don’t Touch Our Hair

Coinciding with Aperture magazine’sVision & Justice” issue, students in Sarah Lewis’s Harvard University class “Vision & Justice: The Art of Citizenship” contributed essays on images of social unrest. Here, Jeneé Osterheldt reflects on the protests of black girls in South Africa, the policing of black women and girls’ hair, and the importance of Solange. 

Carlota Guerrero, Album cover for A Seat at the Table by SolangeCourtesy the artist

Carlota Guerrero, Album cover for A Seat at the Table by Solange
Courtesy the artist

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 say the vision I’ve found
—Solange Knowles

She should have been in class learning the Pythagorean Theorem, but the only right angle Zulaikha Patel was looking at was the one that gave her agency.

At Pretoria High School for Girls, in South Africa, little black girls were being told their hair was a dirty distraction. So Zulaikha and her friends did the math and took a stand in August, protesting patriarchy and white supremacy. An image of Zulaikha, tiny black fists up and fro out, in a powerful stance in the face of security went viral.

The image of this thirteen-year-old girl, naturally shorter than the white men towering above her, signified not just the physical inequality of the situation but also our literal inequity as black women and girls. Her oppositional gaze is not just challenging the man in her way; she’s bucking systemic racism. And her image dominated social media because this was not only a South African song cry: this was the battle cry of black women and girls.

Zulaikha Patel protesting discriminatory hair policies at Pretoria High School for Girls, South Africa, 2016Courtesy Twitter/lennoxbacela

Zulaikha Patel protesting discriminatory hair policies at Pretoria High School for Girls, South Africa, 2016
Courtesy Twitter/lennoxbacela

Women like Chastity Jones of Mobile, Alabama. Jones was told to cut her locs if she wanted to work at Catastrophe Management Solutions. Locs “tend to get messy,” the white HR manager told her. But had she been white, perhaps they would have told her she was chic and refined like the models on Marc Jacobs runway this season. Everyone has the right to black culture except black folks.

People say it’s just hair. But it’s an extension of one’s self and an expression of identity. To police our hair is to deny us agency. If we can’t run our own hair, we certainly have no ownership of ourselves. But America has a tradition of robbing women of their bodies. Add blackness to womanhood and you are marked less than a citizen twice over.

In September, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there was nothing racist about banning Chastity Jones from wearing locs, citing discrimination had to be based on characteristics that didn’t change, and the hairstyle didn’t qualify as “immutable.”

So because we can loc, twist, braid, weave, fry, dye, and lay to the side our hair, we should tame its power to indulge whiteness? Aren’t we a woman and a sister?

Again and again, the laws remind us we are just as commodified as the Greek Slave, our very womanhood to be bought, sold, broken and dictated to by white rules.

Perhaps that’s why we all grabbed a chair in September when Solange Knowles released A Seat at the Table. Her cover image, a direct celebration of #blackgirlmagic with a revolutionary gaze, does not need white validation.

She carved out the space black people have long been denied. She claimed and celebrated our power. When she sings “Don’t Touch My Hair,” she demands our autonomy. She sings a song for Zulaikha, for Chastity, for black women and girls worldwide.

Don’t touch my pride
They say the glory’s all mine
Don’t test my mouth
They say the truth is my sound
—Solange Knowles

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Nieman Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Harvard University.

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