Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Rent A Negro

Two days ago the Seattle Times ran an article on Portland artist damali ayo and her book, How To Rent A Negro. I was charmed by the article which described the artist and provided excerpts from her book. Her website of the same name has been up for a couple of years, now. Both it and the book are insightful satire aimed at race relations in the U.S. with a particular focus on the way white people interact with minorities. Last night, Ms. ayo appeared at Ellliott Bay Book Company to read from her book, offer insights to origins of certain passages, promote her CD, and, finally to answer questions. In person, she was even more charming than she was during the radio interview on KUOW or in the Seattle Times article on her. damali ayo's work is challenging, funny, and, to some, occasionally uncomfortable. All of which is to say I enjoyed her immensely. The rest of the rather large audience appeared to do so as well (it was a rather large with Orhan Pamuk's reading earlier this year, the employees at Elliott Bay appeared surprised by the number of people who showed up and delayed the beginning of the reading while opening doors and adding chairs to accommodate the audience size).

Several items struck a note with me, but I probably won't give them their proper due here. One thing ayo said was that her Brown Alumni group in Portland used to invite her to all of their functions. If she wore pink to the function, people in the group would say things like, "damali, you're so colorful." It reminded me of my college radio days when the station manager, Jon Moshier, and I would riff on my radio show about upper class suburban white males and I'd say something like, "I like those African Americans. They're such colorful people" and Jon would lose it on the air.

Another thing damali ayo talked about was the way that some people will walk up to black people and just begin touching their hair. This is an odd thing to me. While I don't have the same boundary issues many people have, I find it odd that people feel the right to walk up and rub my bald head without asking. I'm not offended, by any means, but it's an interesting concept as I wonder if these people would react just as casually if I went up and began feeling their hair. No doubt, some wouldn't care, but I'm sure that some would. Anyhow, this is apparently a common issue amongst black people. I found myself shocked to realize this. It then made me think (with humor, mind you) about a t-shirt that I have: it's from the drunknmunky folks and it features a brown skinned kid in a judo outfit with a big afro. One of the cool things about the shirt is that the Afro is textured in that there is a piece of fuzzy material attached to the shirt. Many people over the years have commented that they like the shirt. A few people have asked to touch the 'fro. Some of that few have even reached out and just started stroking it - over counters, bars, at restaurants. It's crazy to have someone just reach out and start petting your chest, only they are really petting the Afro on your t-shirt. After hearing damali ayo speak, I'm wondering - is it just the fabric they are touching or are they really desiring to touch a black person's hair?

Anyhow, if you see the book, then pick it up and take a look at it. If you get a chance to see damali ayo read from the book, then go see her. Los Angeles was the first stop on her tour and Seattle was the second stop. She's in Portland tonight, then she heads for the Midwest and east coast. More details here.


Scott said...

People in Asia and the Middle-East tend to touch or stroke blonde or red hair, because to them it seems so exotic. Most of them I'm sure would be a little put off or frightened if the touch was returned. I saw it once in a while, but most often when I traveled with my ex in the far east.

For some reason, probably because it seems safer and the hair was usually longer, this happens mostly with women with light colored hair.

B.D. said...

Thanks for the insight! It was not my intention to suggest that this was a solely white American phenomenon. Rather, it's just interesting to me that people don't respect other's boundaries as they would have their own respected. Of course, within the white and black American communities this can get entangled with issues involving ownership, property, and slavery.

FWIW, I've updated the post to include a link to the KUOW program that aired the interview with damali ayo. In case the link breaks, she was on The Beat (at the beginning of the show) on July 26, 2005.