What “Don’t Touch My Hair” Means to Me – by Abadai Zoboi

What "Don't Touch My Hair" Means to Me

For as long as I can remember, I have practiced a bi-monthly Sunday ritual. I sit on a stack of throw pillows while nested between my Mama’s legs. My head rests on her lap as she traces a path through my mass of hair. I would squirm and shimmy in discomfort every time she pulled too tight, or whenever a cramp seized my left side. The air always smelled like the dinner we had every Sunday: A whole roast chicken or a honey-glazed salmon baked in a casserole dish. There were always two bowls of rice, one brown, one white. I personally loved to mix the rice with kale, cooked in garlic, tomatoes, and mushrooms. The scent of food, shea butter, and hair grease captured this sensory memory, one that breathes through every spot of my body and transports me through time. The moment I smell Carol’s Daughter products or baked chicken, I think of Sunday evenings. Hair days. 

Hair days greatly influenced the person I am. By keeping my hair natural and braided, Mama taught me at a young age to love the hair that grew out of my head. I had almost every little Black girl hairstyle imaginable: cornrows, twists, afros, puffs, pigtails, braids, Bantu knots, buns, mohawks. The styles were adorned with beads, bobble hair ties, barrettes, and cowrie shells. My Mama’s magic fingers wrote stories into the crown of my head that the world can see. My hair is an umbilical cord that connects me to my roots. When Mama did my hair, time boiled into a rich stew that left a lingering taste on my tongue. I can close my eyes and still simmer in those sacred moments. 

The popularized Black girl motto “Don’t Touch My Hair” is more than a reclamation of bodily autonomy. Yes, I constantly have to defend my right to secure space as a young Black woman. However, my definition of that space goes beyond the physical. As a society, we are now hyper-aware of physical space in the midst of the pandemic. Terms such as “social distancing” and “six feet apart” are now regularly used in our language. Maintaining space, now more than ever is crucial to our health and wellbeing. At this time, I’ve reflected on my own definition of space. What does it mean to demand space as a young Black woman? 

When Black people are 2.8 times more likely to die from coronavirus

When Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was murdered in her own home, her own space. 

When Black people’s personal and communal spaces have historically been disrespected, brutalized, and violated. 

The reclamation of space is simple, yet radical.

In her song “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange sings, “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. Don’t touch what’s there, when it’s the feelings I wear.” Solange conveys that for many Black women and girls, hair is not just hair. 

Our hair is our strength.

Our hair is our space.

Our hair is our expression of who we are. 

Whenever I style my new starter locs, or help a fellow Black woman do her box braids in my predominately white liberal arts college, I am reminded of space. The space our hair creates is beautiful. It is a space of love, beauty, and magic. Each new hair day always brings me back to the bi-monthly Sundays of girlhood. Sitting between my Mama’s legs, smelling home-cooked food, immersed in sensory memory. My hair reminds me that I am still loved, despite living in a society that constantly declares how much it hates to see me free.

As Solange once said: “this hair is MY shit.” 

All mine. For no one else to touch without my permission or trust. 

Because I deserve space.