Hands Off: The Afro as an Object
By Pauline Campos
She drew my hair.
I’ve never seen myself in someone else’s drawing before.
She drew MY hair.
She knows what it feels like to have people reach out and touch, yank, pull, pat, and pet, because apparently the fact that this hair defies gravity somehow gives others the idea that they have permission to do so, even if/when the person attached to this hair says no.
I was 8. Dressed up as a clown for a Girl Scouts Halloween party. Instead of a wig, my mother and I decided to puff out my afro and spray paint my hair to look like a wig in yellows, blues, and reds. I spent the entire night insisting that yes, it was real, and no, not a wig, only to be “called on my bluff” by uninvited hands attached to surprised faces when they realized that no amount of pulling was going to prove them wrong.
It wasn’t a large room. Not so big that people wouldn’t have eventually seen someone else pull at my head and maybe realized not to do it themselves. But it kept happening. And because I didn’t want to rock the boat or be seen as a complainer, I laughed it off.
Every single time.
“Ha ha ha! Yep! It’s real!”
I’d left my home and arrived at the party feeling proud of my poof. It made me... me. And I’d been able to turn this part of myself into part of my costume. Something to celebrate.
By the time we got home, I felt only shame. And, although I didn’t know the word or its meaning at the time, violated.
I felt violated.
I had been violated.
My personal space had been trespassed upon.
My words had been dismissed and ignored.
And worse, my hair wasn’t worthy of compliments. That was only reserved for the other girls with the hair I envied simply because it looked like what I had been taught good hair…normal hair…was supposed to look like.
My hair wasn’t my hair, because if it was my very own, every uninvited hand that reached out and pulled it wouldn’t have reached out to begin with. No one ever said it outright, but then again, it didn’t need to be. Even as a child, I understood that the hair on my head meant white hands felt the right to touch it just because they wanted to. And I understood even more fully that the proverbial road did not go both ways.
My truth was not mine to define because the texture of my hair—and its weightlessness—deemed me unworthy of the privilege of self.
Maybe that was the problem, though. My hair didn’t weigh enough to pull its own weight, so maybe this was penance for believing I had the right to keep your hands away from it or your for opinions to not be taken into consideration every morning when my mother decided how to do my hair. Braids and ponytails were acceptable. No one tried to pull at me then. But loose and poof and ‘fro was not, because on those days my hair was not mine, because on those days there was always a hand—or five—handling it as if they owned it. I remember marveling that I had any left on head by the time I got home. On those days, I closed my eyes like I did when I dressed as a clown and the world did not believe my words and just waited for the last hand to fall away in defeat as my hair stood, silent and defiant.
My scalp burned.
And I tense. Waiting for the next hand to reach out, dismissing me entirely, stating ownership over my person, and yet still respectful enough to ask for permission to pet my dog before attempting to do so. Hundreds of years of brown and black people being viewed as less than human, lesser beings to be owned, handled, and ridiculed at will means that, even today, strangers have more respect for my dog’s space than they do my own.
Diana, the artist, drew my hair and memory in all its nappy and kinky glory. She drew my eyes closed against the invading hands crossing the boundaries of personal space afforded to the very people who felt justified to pull the wig I kept saying wasn’t a wig off my head. She drew my exhaustion at having to explain when I shouldn’t have to explain that no one had the right to invade the space of another in this very personal way.
She doesn’t know me. But she drew me. And I thank her for the gift of representation. For the gift of a memory finally processed and properly digested.
She drew my hair.