The way you felt when the chokora
reached for your left breast in the street,
held it, you in your checkered school uniform
and bag, socks and shoes, the breast
barely settled in to it seat on your chest, he
sooty and blue, coated in unknowable filth.
Daylight could not shield you, and time does not,
nor does silence, telling, returning or not returning
to the place.
–Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, “The Way You Felt Remains”
The moment when a feeling enters the body
is political. This touch is political.
A friend tells me that babies who are not touched enough—with love, with care, with compassion—fail to develop the capacities of care and compassion. Another friend discusses being touch-averse, saying, “I wasn’t always this way.” After too-many years of giving away touch—the too-casual hug, the too-casual kiss, the too-casual holding, the meaningless ways bodies meet—I have learned to value touch. To value it as a transmission of feeling.
The histories I know best—and not at all—linger on touch: the body-abrading pressure of coffles, the flesh-stripping journeys across oceans, the human-removing grabbing and groping, burning and branding, whipping and raping. Touch is often casually cruel, lazily unhumaning. Extractive. And even when tender, it is always marked by the arbitrary invasion of property relations: the beloved and much-treasured slave is sold or her children are sold or her friends or her lovers. Touch is always being lost.
The histories I know best—and not at all—attempt to reclaim touch. Gladys May Casely-Hayford sings,
Into my hands she cometh, and the lightning of my desire
Flashes and leaps about her, more subtle than Heaven’s fire;
“The lightning’s in love with you darling; it is loving you so much,
That its warm electricity in you pulses wherever I may touch.
When I kiss your lips and your eyes, and your hands like twin flowers apart,
I know there is lightning, Frangepani, deep in the depths of your heart.”
Touching encounters “lightning,” a vitality that refuses black (un)life. We touch with desire to sustain desire, to produce and sustain possibility, to affirm our life-making abilities. To touch is to encounter life—“lightning.” To luxuriate in the “pulses” where we touch.
In a rare moment of tenderness, Fanon urges,
Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?
Touch might provide a different “explanation,” a different way of “feeling” the other, which is to say, a different way of entering the political. Against the violence of the denuding gaze and the annihilating word, touch, a “simple attempt to touch,” could provide a different bodily vernacular, beyond the “grammar of negation.”
Beyond the “grammar of negation,” the unmaking gaze, and the killing word, Ntozake Shange writes a healing togetherness,
lady in blue
i know bout/ laying on bodies / laying outta man
bringing him alla my fleshly self & some of my pleasure
being taken full eager wet like i get sometimes
i was missing somethin
lady in purple
a laying on of hands
lady in blue
not a man
lady in yellow
lady in purple
not my mama / holdin me tight / sayin
i’m always gonna be her girl
not a layin on of bosom & womb
a layin on of hands
the holiness of myself released
We might linger on these forms of “not” touches, of conventional touches, of ordinary touches that do not release “the holiness of myself,” touches that do not find the “lightning” that “pulses” within. Fanon is tentative: “the quite simple attempt.”
Sharon Holland brings me to Derrida:
For to touch, so one believes, is touching what one touches, to let oneself be touched by the touched, by the touch of the thing, whether objective or not, or by the flesh that one touches and that then becomes touching as well as touched. This is not true for all the other senses: one may, to be sure, let oneself be “touched” as well by what one hears or sees, but not necessarily heard or seen by what one hears and sees, whence the initial privilege of what is called touch.”
Touch transmits—moves from body to body, across bodies, through bodies, even as it moves bodies. We understand such transfers as children, as we play versions of “tag, you’re it,” moving responsibility, accountability, weight, from body to body, playing at and refusing to be “it.”
“Wake work” might ask us to think about our reluctance to be “it,” about the thing-work of “it” that we might not know how to name, but that we feel cannot be occupied. One does not want to be “it.” It-ness is to be discarded. Touch transmits it-ness.
Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but. Both physical and psychic, touch is an act that can embody multiple, conflicting agendas. It can be both a troubled and troublesome component in the relationship between intimates . . . or, alternatively, the touch mediates relations between friends and strangers. In fact, the touch can alter the very idea as well as the actuality of relationships, morphing friends into enemies and strangers into intimates. For touch can encompass empathy as well as violation, passivity as well as active aggression. It can be safely dangerous, or dangerously safe. It also carries a message about the immediate present, the possible future, and the problematic past. Finally, touch crosses boundaries, in fact and imagination.
We understand the boundary-crossing work of touch early on. As children, many of us long for the day when invasive grown-ups will stop pinching our “adorable” cheeks or holding us or even shaking our hands. We long to move past the everyday violations of pinching and slapping teachers, of stronger adults who hold us to delay us, to arrest our being in the world. We long to be liberated from unwanted touching.
We understand, early on, that touch transmits feeling, that it is rooted in power, that it embeds us in power relations. Touch is a trained common-sense. We understand, early on, how important it is to choose who can touch us, how, when, and where. We understand, early on, the violation of unwanted touch, because we learn, early on, how touch makes and unmakes us.
A return home and to the possibilities of world-sharing touch, through Phyllis Muthoni:
Kiss me softly, gently-
only brush my lips.
Touch every part of my being
with your fingertips.
Explore my soul and
take my breath away.
With your tenderness
possess my heart.
Feed me with love.