Can I Touch Your Hair?
On bein’ black in New Mexico
Now, granted, I am not from ’round here. I was born a poor and upwardly mobile working class “colored” child (says so on my birth certificate!) in August of 1963, in the South, in segregated Portsmouth, Va., in an integrated military hospital that sits to this day along the Elizabeth River. You can see the city of Norfolk on the other side of that river. Until the transcontinental slave trade ended legally in the U.S., Virginia, and Portsmouth in particular, was also an essential part of a triangle of the trade in human misery from West Africa to the Caribbean.
I am from Portsmouth, but I assure you that I never learned these historical facts in any school or from anyone else who lived there anymore than I learned that an early version of the Statue of Liberty, created for the U.S. by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, depicted the lady with broken chains in her left hand and on her feet. As you know, those original plans were altered slightly, giving way to a whitewashed version that avoids any resonance with this nation's unsavory racial past.
My story and this historical example serve as metaphors for my own life as what my partner calls a “generic Southern Negro,” an African-American, black, colored, nappy-haired Negro with an essentially triracial regional heritage: West African, Anglo-European and Southeast North American Indian. Black History Month is often a time to reflect on the erasure of people of African descent from our history books. With each erasure that is remembered, a more complete picture forms of who we are as a national collection of cultures.
I'm hoping that understanding the circumstances of my birth, birthplace, education and association with myriad notions of blackness may help you, oh, gentle reader, to understand the delicious and delicate pickle we’re in being black in New Mexico. The most amazing thing about writing this article is that I have found I am not alone.
I have wondered more than once why people of African descent, who are so multiethnic, and who managed to survive violence and humiliation with creativity and dignity, are so often vilified, exoticized for profit or rendered invisible entirely. I find out daily just how uncomfortable our society is with the legacy of its colonial past—using genocide, chattel slavery and creating arbitrary borders for economic gain. African-Americans, and other nonwhite peoples, remind us how freedom and justice were once denied because, as in the case of Lady Liberty, racism is not about hatred, not really, but instead about the value we have placed on people based on differences. Of course, it's also about economic necessity. Thus, these differences need not be overcome so much as navigated.
In many ways, the experiences of African-descended folks in New Mexico are akin to those we have anywhere in the United States. Some of the problems we experience here, however, are quite different. At the same time, New Mexico offers most African-Americans something that, often, we cannot find easily elsewhere: space to be creative and also a little bit offbeat, not to mention a place where you can live on half a job without starving.
Space to Make Space
Uchenna Romaine, a young, up-and-coming filmmaker, grew up here in New Mexico, the son of parents from the same small town in Nigeria. Growing up, most of his friends were Muslim and hailed from the Middle East and the Asian diaspora. He also spent a great deal of time with Chicanos and Native Americans here and, to a lesser degree, with other people of African descent. He found the same experience of a tight but small group of African-Americans that Rita Powdrell found when she moved here to go to UNM in 1964. As a native New Mexican with his experiences, Uchenna has been able to sift through the propaganda about Muslim and Arab people in the news, and his experience speaks clearly to me about the benefits and the possibilities for people of African descent here--the opportunity to commune with people whose families have been here for hundreds or even thousands of years, as well as more recently arrived groups.
The Southwest has unique critical masses of indigenous and Mexican/Chicano/Hispanic people, as well as refugees who have settled and been largely welcomed, even by the regular folk. Musician and gospel singer Cecilia Webb, the “Train to Glory” gospel show host on KUNM, grew up in Roswell, went to school in Santa Fe and has lived in Albuquerque for 10 years. She feels that New Mexico is a very liberal state culturally. The malleability and magic of this high desert place invites folks from all over.
Afro-Irish-Lumbi Cherokee filmmaker Nancy Holley Hughes is a new arrival to New Mexico and lives outside Santa Fe. She began studying at Georgian Court College in Boston at 16 and began divinity school at Harvard at 19. She is currently making a film about a black woman of the cloth who loses her faith and comes to New Mexico, where she finds it again. Nancy came to New Mexico for the beauty of it and stayed because of the open physical space here that is giving her the space inside herself to be creative.
Then there’s Nandi Hill, of Swedish/African-American heritage, who lives in the South Valley and is a doula studying to be a midwife—one of the few of African descent in the city. She also is a fine vegan chef and dedicated homeschooler of her three brilliant children. For people like Nandi, the relative isolation from a black critical mass like the one she experienced growing up in Chicago has had the added effect of bringing black folks who do find each other here closer together and making many of us capable of a greater intimacy born of true appreciation and common experiences.
One of those common experiences is having our hair “touched” if we have or wear our hair “nappy.” In Albuquerque--and, I hear, in Santa Fe, too--“nappy-headed” people of African descent are confronted regularly with having perfect strangers reach toward us to touch our hair or, worse, that of our young children—often without asking—like we’re dolls or other merchandise to be handled. It's unsettling, objectifying and rude, especially for those of us who, like me, are from the South, where, apparently, white folks are raised a little better. We are often too stunned to stop the behavior or say anything that doesn’t make the innocent-feeling perpetrators turned victims literally terrified for their lives. Touching someone’s head without permission, where I come from, is simply an unspoken taboo—a black critical mass thing, maybe? Not so, here in the Land of Enchantment.
Black Critical Mass
Even if we buy that there is more animosity between blacks and whites in the southern U.S., the simple fact is that the southern region of the country maintains the majority of the U.S. African-American population and, therefore, most U.S. blacks in places of authority--in business, politics, not to mention a host of regular folks teaching, going shopping and just being, well, regular. This phenomenon happened quite naturally, as Booker T. Washington imagined it might, and because of and in spite of segregation.
So white Southerners, ironically, have had the most daily experience of contact with African-Americans of just about any regional group of white folks and not one has ever said to me, “I don’t have a culture” or “I don’t see color,” nor is one of them likely to ask, “Can I touch your hair?”—something I hear regularly from white folks here in New Mexico.
I mention this because the “racial incidents” we experience as folks of African descent in New Mexico are rarely hostile or overt. Instead, the dual legacies of slavery and white supremacy, inextricably bound together, allow us all, as a national collection of cultures--indeed, as stewards of a powerful and invisible dominant culture--to become too comfortable with the white majority’s rule of the airways, notions of beauty (“black don’t crack”), political offices, colleges and corporations that guide and influence our material lives. So I guess it’s no surprise nowadays when folks can turn around and call people of African descent by the name our racist ancestors gave black people to chew on, seemingly without flinching. After all, we’re not looking through the lens of the folks it offends most of the time, anyway.
What’s Up, My N-Word?
My daughter, Ife, has been asked at school if she was “from the ghetto” because “it would be so cool” if she were. She's also been greeted with, “What’s up, my niggah?” Usually these folks are fairly confident in their execution of their social protocol, from listening to their Dead Prez CD or watching BET (Black Entertainment Television). Surely, this is an appropriate public greeting for a young bilingual, African-American dance student who has practiced kung fu since she was 8 years old, can sing “Las Mañanitas” all the way through, and has eaten sugar cane in the Dominican Republic and danced in South Africa. How should my 16-year-old child, who is also an actress and budding director, respond to such a statement from these sheltered white and middle-class children? Should she respond at all?
Anyone who really feels comfy with the N-word should know that this word is directly associated with the humiliation of and violence against people of African descent in this country. Before World War II, anything like a riot in the U.S. was perpetrated by mostly white folks en masse. After the Civil War and the depression that followed, violence against newly freed slaves increased because then there were no plantation owners for whom their lives were valuable as free laborers.
If black people were not always the direct target of riots before the first half of the 20th century, they would become the unsuspecting victims of mass white hysteria in the form of lynchings, burnings, beatings, shootings and general violence in places like New York, Tulsa and Washington, D.C. In other words, historically, when things have gotten rough for the “true citizens” in U.S. democracy, blacks or other local “niggers/ahs” have borne the brunt of the anger of the white, and usually male, violent masses.
The word “nigger/ah” symbolizes, to most black folks, anyway, the legacy of this violence against black people in particular. Sure, people think blackness is cool and want to share in the symbols of blackness ’til it’s time to buy a house or car or get pulled over by APD for no apparent reason. Black entertainers have, in using the word in mixed company, given nonblacks permission to think the word has lost its meaning and is merely cool. When the N-word is used casually and with familiarity amongst black folks, it nearly always refers, for better or worse, to someone else with a shared legacy of potential violence perpetrated from outside our communities.
Most black folks I know do not use it at all, including 17-year-old Demetrius Smith, who says it never sits well with him. The N-word has been internalized, marinated and transformed into something that translates from Ebonics to Standard English, roughly, to “one who, like me, might be violently or subtly disparaged for her or his heritage in common daily experience.” So why do black people get to use the N-word but white people can’t? A new answer: “Look, fool, I don’t get to wear swastikas just because I think they’re a cool new fad in tattooville.”
If the descendants of concentration-camp-surviving Jewish folks start tattooing themselves and calling themselves “kikes” or something as a way of expressing personal solidarity that helps them laugh through their pain, that’s their freakin’ business, like effeminate gay men jokingly calling themselves “faggots,” knowing full well they might be beaten to a bloody pulp on the way home for just acting girly in public. Unless you can speak directly and personally to these legacies, with your own life, how can you begin to reclaim them for someone else?
The history of African descendants in this hemisphere is at least 500 years old, some say it’s even older in Mexico, though more than 350 years were spent in bondage and another 100 in overwhelming legal, social, scientific, spiritual and economic oppression ’til maybe about 40 years ago. Believing that this much history can be made right in such a short time is a fantasy that keeps many of us believing racism has been overcome. It also leads to whites insulting black folks in public with greetings like, “What’s up, my N-word?”
You’re So Articulate!
Whether we like it or not, whether we wear suits or “saggin’” (read this word backwards) pants, most people I spoke with noted that blackness included having people judge all black people through them, individually. Ask Barack Obama how it feels to be called “clean and articulate,” as if that’s some sort of amazing phenomenon. With few black people in the New Mexico media systems or featured in stories of regular folks doing regular things, we tend to be invisible, seen as problematic or, sometimes, during Black History Month, in short articles like this one, as the amazing independent, creative and tough black folks who actually have been part of New Mexico history for at least the 500 years since Estebanico.
There may not be many people of African descent here—just 15,000 or so—but the ones here seem to be, in the words of Rita Powdrell, a Pennsylvania native, both humble and amazing. Stefani Willis, co-founder of Out ch’Yonda Live ArtZ studio and OmniRootz Theatre Company, feels as I do that media coverage of black folks here is interesting because the media does cover events about us. But often black life is rendered invisible or difficult to understand because the lens used to interpret and mediate our lives and art is still largely white and largely misrepresents, misunderstands, misinterprets and mis-navigates.
The fact that this very publication left out all the theater companies and venues populated and attended largely by people of color and other marginalized folks when it printed its original theater guide [Theater News, “Live Without a Net,” Aug. 17-23, 2006; Theater News, “Albuquerque Theater Guide: The Sequel!,” Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2006] is evidence of a lens that renders things outside the “norm,” invisible and other. And we wonder why the black folks are all sitting together at lunch.
Why Are All the Black People Sitting Together at Lunch?
Our relationship to the power structure shapes our identity as much as anything else—class, gender, sexuality. Yet, I didn’t expect so many people I spoke to for this article to speak to the isolation so many of us have felt here around being the “only”—the only black employee, friend, student, person in the room, the store, the bank, the town in New Mexico where you work. It’s harder for people to notice or remark on the fact that often whole art shows, boards of directors, local food co-op meetings, commercials, movies, television shows, news programs, magazines and most of our well-paid offices at our places of business are occupied, quietly and invisibly, by all white people. It’s one thing to have this happen in Vermont or Utah, but in New Mexico? Why don’t we notice this? We should, because this phenomenon usually means that calls for cultural diversity, in this state and elsewhere, tend to be answered by outreach instead of inreach because not enough people who make the decisions within our organizations, especially our arts organizations, are people of color, especially not black people. Whatever is meant by it, to be called to “color up” a meeting at the last minute looks like tokenism of the highest order.
This, I’ve come to realize, is why many black folks in this town seem to eschew being the Only and sit at lunch sometimes with other black folks in full view of the rest of the public. We know full well our presence is mystifying, could mean substandard restaurant service and, of course, might invite staring and the desire for hair touching, etc. We take the risk, though, because it helps those feelings of isolation to subside, if only momentarily, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. And make no mistake, sometimes we don’t want to be disturbed or have our few moments together taken up by folks who come by and try to occupy too much space or look cool for hanging out with us. Is eating together too scary and unacceptable in this Albuquerque brand of white supremacist social order that quietly says “unless it’s tokenism, blackness ain’t mentionable”?
One way to transform our families, communities, organizations and businesses is to support ourselves, and other black folks, by listening, sharing and embracing our own diversity of black experience. We always have to embrace multiculturalism in a town like this. We like it most of the time--I know I do--but we still need other black folks sometimes, too, creating a black critical mass in a place where one rarely exists. This is why Out ch’Yonda Live ArtZ Space, The Elks Club, Powdrell’s Barbeque, local BSUs, African-American Student Services and a new performance company called Repertoire Soul Noir must exist.
Sometimes we’re comfy being the Only and sometimes we go out of our way to work together with other black folks here because, ironically, most of us have never been anywhere where so many black artists and entrepreneurs have gathered together to do their thing. It’s exhilarating and we can finally define ourselves, for ourselves, through our own lens here in New Mexico.
Albuquerque offers a unique location for black folks, and we’ll keep inviting our friends, colleagues and family to live here in the high desert with high recommendations, but this doesn’t mean we’re here to be toyed with. From what folks tell me, this place feels good—that is, unless we have to walk around with our heads perpetually covered with our hands, our language articulate, our clothes fresh or our tastes expansive enough to hang out with groovy white folks. So, if you get the urge to touch black folks’ hair, consider what freedom means to you, to our national culture, and consider how different that might have been if our Lady Liberty were busting her chains in the harbor instead of holding a torch.
2014 JCC Book Fest & Author Series: Gail Sheehy at Jewish Community Center
The writer signs copies of her memoir Daring: My Passages.
Day of The Tread at Albuquerque Convention CenterMore Recommented Events ››