The personal becomes political in this highly charged history of black people’s hair
If you’re expecting cookie-cutter discourse on the nature of black people’s hair, look away now. Don’t Touch My Hair might take its title from one of the most well-known (if still frustratingly common) aspects of being black in a predominantly white society, but it will quickly comb away what you thought you knew about our coils and spread out a whole new way of seeing the world around you.
This is Emma Dabiri’s first book but the academic and TV host doesn’t approach her subject matter like a novice. Black hair is personal and for her, this story begins with an upbringing in Ireland, where her hair was a “constant source of deep, deep shame”.
Mixed race, born to a white Trinidadian mother and black Nigerian father, baby Dabiri did not have the loose curls synonymous with those with a lighter skin tone. Her hair quickly became a battleground until, around seven years ago, she realised that her politics and her presentation didn’t correspond: her chemically straightened hair needed to go. It is through this personal experience, and an understanding that our racialisation as black is as much bound up in our coiled hair as it is in our colouring, that Dabiri begins to take us on an unapologetic and intellectual journey, bursting with new theories and forgotten tales.
She explores black hair history relating to her own Nigerian ancestry as well as in the US, the UK and other parts of Africa and Latin America. The way black people have been conditioned to think about their hair, as a tiresome, time-consuming burden, shifts under her pen. Colonialism has done a lot of damage to those perceived as black; crucially, it has robbed us of our time and of any kind of positive hair heritage. Making the choice to reclaim that time and change the often derogatory language we use when talking about our hair is a tiny, radical step all black women with “type four” hair can take.
She is critical of discussion that ignores wider theory around anti-consumerism, arguing that the natural hair movement espoused by the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 70s was far more radical than ours today. While some “naturalistas” concentrate on twist-outs and slicking down baby hairs – styles that stretch back further than you might imagine and, whether we like it our not, implicitly emulate European hair textures – “picked out ’fros” were far more about the rejection of beauty ideals and, crucially, capitalism.
Her sources are rich, diverse and sometimes heartbreaking – ranging from escaped slave notices to the Black Women Oral History Project of 1976-1981 and the legends of the Orisha. They need to be because, as Dabiri points out, not only is there a lack of exploration into black hair, there is also a lack of recognition of black people in history books. Despite unmistakably grand achievements in the realms of physics, maths, social organising and feats of engineering, we are forced to learn about ourselves from livestock ledgers.
Some books make us feel seen and for me, that is what Don’t Touch My Hairdoes. As a mixed-race person with tightly coiled hair like the author, who grew up in the far reaches of Scotland in an environment that doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Dabiri’s Ireland, I was able to engage with it in a unique way. But I would urge everyone to read Don’t Touch My Hair. You may not agree with everything she writes, but the author is undeniably snappy, bringing out humour and no small amount of sass. The first title of its kind, with fresh ideas and a vivid sense of purpose, Dabiri’s book is groundbreaking.
• Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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