RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about an event presented as a public art exhibit that sparked a bit of a controversy. A group of black women gathered in New York City last month with signs that read: You Can Touch My Hair. The women are connected the website un-ruly.com, which is devoted to black hair. A couple of days later, the group came out again. And as NPR's Margot Adler reports, so did others, with a very different message.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: At Union Square on a Saturday afternoon, you could hear vibrant conversation all around. Several African-American women were holding signs: You Can Touch My Hair. One was Joliana Hunter-Ellin.
JOLIANA HUNTER-ELLIN: If someone approaches me very nicely and they're really just curious about my hair - they want to know, they want to touch it - I'm completely fine with that because it's educating someone on something that they don't know. And that's what this is all about.
ADLER: Several other black women held counter-signs like I don't know where your hands have been so, no - and some others with words you can't say on the radio. Jennifer Brown was holding up a sign that says: You can't touch my hair, but you can kiss my - fill in the blank.
JENNIFER BROWN: This is one step away from someone going, you know, let's have a modern-day slave auction. Let's see what that would be like. You know, let's auction off some black people out in Union Square.
ABIGAIL OPIAH: Giving people the opportunity to actually come here and ask questions they may have, satisfy their curiosity was what the goal was.
ADLER: That's Abigail Opiah, one of the organizers.
OPIAH: But, ironically enough, we haven't gotten any non-black people really coming here to engage. We've gotten a lot of responses from black people - black women, especially.
ADLER: There were hardly any white people who came up to touch the hair of the women with the signs saying they could - perhaps shyness, white guilt. Slavery, discrimination. For much of American history, black hair has been considered bad hair. Black women felt pressure to straighten it to look presentable. During the 1960s and '70s, having natural black hair was a political statement. Today, with dreads, braiding, hair extensions, styles are abundant, but black women often find their hair provokes unwanted comments and touching without consent. It's kind of like when people feel they have the right to touch a pregnant woman's belly without even asking. Some women, like Angie Moore, who describes herself as a Brit of Caribbean descent, said it wasn't her job to educate people about black hair.
ANGIE MOORE: I'm not interested in the hair debate, but I'm very concerned about anyone who would - any woman who would invite someone to come into her personal space and touch her. I don't see that as a racial thing. I see it as a gender thing. I see it as a safety issue.
ADLER: Many women who came to protest the event said it reminded them of Saartjie, or Sarah Baartman, a South African black woman who was displayed in France and England in the early 19th century like a circus animal. She was called the Hottentot Venus. I asked Joliana Hunter-Ellin how she felt about the protests of their event.
HUNTER-ELLIN: These women are very adamant about people not touching their hair, which is completely understandable, because I don't want people to touch my hair unless I give them consent.
ADLER: But there were clearly mixed messages. Union Square was filled with groups of black women arguing. Here are Stacey Sargeant, Adepero Oduye and a number of other women laughing.
STACEY SARGEANT: I just know how it made me feel, seeing those images, and I felt a need to come out and express a different opinion because...
ADEPERO ODUYE: ...if someone sees this...
SARGEANT: I'm not going to touch your hair, sis. I'm not going to do that.
ODUYE: But you know if you did it...
SARGEANT: But you know what I mean? What it's starting, it's starting dialogue amongst black women.
ODUYE: I think that if they maybe had signs that said: Why do you want to touch my hair? You're making the same statement, but actually turning it on the person that's wanting to do the touching, the person that has this fascination.
ADLER: On the un-ruly.com website, there's now a new article: "You Can Touch My Hair: What Were We Thinking?" Were our models on display without having a choice, the article asks. Or was there power in the fact that they were extending this invitation on their own terms? From the comments in the square and on the Web, the argument continues. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.