Deep Focus

Touch/Don’t Touch

April 19, 2017

Gabrielle Civil during a performance. Photo: Michael J. Seidlinger. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m on my knees, a plump, Black woman in black from head to toe, my blue-black lipstick almost kissing the microphone. My thick, black, curly, natural hair is bobby-pinned flat on both sides, leaving my hair Afro-fabulous in the front and back. I stick my hair in the face of a smiling, bearded white man in glasses, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Y’all have heard Solange’s “A Place at the Table,” right?  Yeah! The crowd screams. Y’all have heard “Don’t Touch My Hair”? Yeah! Well, TOUCH MY HAIR. Gasp. The crowd shifts: What?! C’mon. Come on. Touch my hair. I’m bending over and crawling. I’m leaning and entering the white man’s space.

Go ahead.

Touch it.

Nervous laughter.

Touch it. Touch it. Touch it.

I’m hissing into the microphone.

I’m pressing my body flush against his chest.

You know you want to . . .

He’s laughing and squirming. His eyes are closed.

I can almost see the tears forming on the other side of his eyelids.

Just doooooo it. Just dooooooooo it.

I’m crooning. My head is almost in his lap.

His body almost vibrates from my presence.

His hands haven’t moved.

Nothing else can happen until you touch it. Do it right now.

Finally, the poor guy taps my enticing, fuzzy crown.


I scramble away from him and rise to my feet.


The crowd roars.


He mumbles something about white privilege.

You better go back and listen to some Solange.

The performance continues.

* * * * *

Bossing, demanding, cajoling, changing my mind, blurring the space between humor and threat, us and them, felt delicious and life-preserving

When I took the stage that night at the Black Squirrel bar in Washington, D.C., an impish frisson of delight tickled through me. Ostensibly a literary reading, with my help, it became something else. I moved the crowd around, pressed my pelvis against the wall in a display of “fat Black performance art.” Hissing, crawling, and confronting the audience felt illicit, mischievous, and wonderful. Bossing, demanding, cajoling, changing my mind, blurring the space between humor and threat, us and them, felt delicious and life-preserving. Who gets to run the space? Who gets to be surprising? Who gets to be bad?

In my early days as a performance artist, I was plagued by the question of who got to do what. As a nice girl, a first-generation-middle-class Black poet, what space did I have for risk, surprise, or perversity? My job was to be smart and well mannered, and most especially good, which is to say, follow whatever the rules of blackness said was right. It is this goodness that got me. Performance art liberated me from all that, the scripts that predetermined exactly what was happening or was supposed to happen, exactly what I was supposed to think, say, and do, and how both powerless and angry I would feel about it.

This moment illustrates one of my favorite aspects of being a Black feminist performance artist: the opportunity to shift the balance between what is expected of me—as a plump, dark-skinned, natural-haired, Black woman—and what I will actually do.

* * * * *

In his essay, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer,” Saeed Jones brings up this hair anecdote at a toxic, highbrow literary party: “‘You’ve grown out your hair,’ the poet said, the ice in his cocktail catching light. ‘Now I’m going to do that racist thing where I touch your hair,’ he said as he reached for my afro. His fingers tested the texture of my hair, the way you might squeeze a bath sponge.”1 Yes, still this, in 2017. Interesting too, the poet knows that he’s not supposed to touch the black man’s hair and does it anyway.  Where does such license come from?

My entire life as a Black woman, I have been entangled in hair discourse, trying to retwist the locks. How white enslavers categorized Black hair grades on charts to claim Negroid inhumanity. How debates raged in the 1960s, pitting righteous, natural Black women against “bougie,” hot-combed ones. How braids and weaves incorporated the synthetic into both Afrocentric and corporate looks: corn row, conk, press and curl, Jheri curl, French twist, high-top fade. This is not an exhaustive list.

To touch a Black person’s hair without permission—and even to ask to touch it—is sloppy and gauche. This has been true for decades. So, when Phoebe Robinson’s book, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, came out, I groaned: Really in 2017? Really, Solange? We’re still talking about this? As long as racist micro-aggressions and cluelessness persist along with endemic state violence and systemic oppression, yes, I guess we still have to.

* * * * *

At a performance art workshop in Mexico, a beautiful Afro-Latina college student asked me how I dealt with some of our classmates touching my hair. I asked her if people were touching her hair without her consent, and let her know I thought that wasn’t cool. She said she agreed and had been letting them know. But on a personal level, she wanted to know how I felt about it.

My entire life as a Black woman, I have been entangled in hair discourse, trying to retwist the locks

It was my turn to take a minute and shift. In this workshop, folks had been gazing into each other’s eyes, speaking in different languages, getting naked. What did it mean that I had barely noticed people touching my hair? Had I let my guard down, being outside of the United States? Or had I just taken it as par for the course, a small price to pay for border crossing? Had I felt a special level of trust in that context?  Maybe all of the above? Her question sparked guilt at my lack of vigilance. Had I been letting my people down, letting the adversary in? Letting them touch me without penalty? What kind of role model was I being for this young woman? I too had been subjected to blithe, unthinking white people asking to touch my hair, and I had felt objectified and angry, thrust into the pernicious choice between being a mammy or a killjoy. Do I really think that’s okay? Of course not. But in that workshop, I felt such great pleasure at being seen and touched, especially because so often in the United States I feel bereft and undesirable.

* * * * *

And yet. The perverse craving. Let’s change it up. Surprise. Maybe I’m neither the mammy nor the killjoy. Maybe I’m both: a queen and a thot, a poet and a PhD. Maybe I can be strong, make you laugh, make you uncomfortable, make you feel ashamed, make you acknowledge your desire. Maybe I am histrionic, enraged, the angry Black woman. Maybe I’m a temptress, a succubus. Maybe I contain multitudes. Maybe I’m your next girlfriend. Maybe I’m just messing with you because I can. Maybe sometimes I do want it. Maybe I do want your hands on my body, but I want to control it. Maybe I don’t want to be scripted. Maybe I don’t want anyone to tell me what the hell to do or how to feel. Maybe, under white supremacy, I can’t take that too far. Maybe it still bounces back, my armor, an aura of power and protection. Maybe this is breaking the frame. Or trying to break it. Maybe this is an experiment in joy. Maybe this is the balance of Black, feminist performance, tipping the scales of identity, history, and art.

1. Saeed Jones, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer,” Buzzfeed, April 3, 2015.