REVIEW: Don't Touch My Hair, Emma Dabiri

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Straightened. Stigmatised. 'Tamed'. Celebrated. Erased. Managed. Appropriated. Forever misunderstood. Black hair is never 'just hair'. This book is about why black hair matters. Emma Dabiri takes us from pre-colonial Africa, through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Power and on to today's Natural Hair Movement, the Cultural Appropriation Wars and beyond. We look at everything from hair capitalists like Madam C.J. Walker in the early 1900s to the rise of Shea Moisture today, from women's solidarity and friendship to 'black people time', forgotten African scholars and the dubious provenance of Kim Kardashian's braids. The scope of black hairstyling ranges from pop culture to cosmology, from prehistoric times to the (afro)futuristic. Uncovering sophisticated indigenous mathematical systems in black hairstyles, alongside styles that served as secret intelligence networks leading enslaved Africans to freedom, Don't Touch My Hair proves that far from being only hair, black hairstyling culture can be understood as an allegory for black oppression and, ultimately, liberation.

At first glance, Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair seems like a micro-history. A vitally important one, yes, but a micro-history all the same; one that initially, seems like it is going to focus on a rather small subject area.
What can a person really learn from reading about hair, after-all?
A bloody lot, apparently.
I just can’t explain the lengths to which this book opened my eyes. I learnt so much about things I had never before considered and honestly, I spent much of the time reading it, with my eyebrows in my hairline.
Because, as it is stated in the book’s synopsis, black hair is never ‘just hair’ and throughout this deftly argued, thought-provoking book, Emma Dabiri makes abundantly clear just why that is.
She explores how the representation of something so simple as hair, has changed and been manipulated throughout the years to serve as evidence to varied, and often colonial (supposedly post or otherwise) ideologies; how it has been appropriated, again and again throughout history, to further subjugate different aspects of black identities.
And boy, were those representations everywhere.
In music videos, advertisements, old newspaper articles, supposedly-definitive historical studies. Throughout the book, Emma Dabiri crosses centuries, nations and all of the machinations encompassed in each, to show just how pervasive hegemonic ideas about black hair have been in compounding over-arching attitudes towards race.
That is because, this portrayal of black hair has a part to play in all of it; in the subjugation of slaves, in the limited media representation of black women, in acceptable hairstyles of schools and the army, even in the erasure of pre-colonial African history and culture.
And, by understanding its place in their subjugation, rejecting its negative connotations and refusing to allow Euro-centric Western ideals, black women can feel pride in something that has always been a part of them by raising their voices against the undeserved scorn placed upon it. After-all, as Emma Dabiri herself states, “In the face of a five-century-long campaign about the ugliness and inadequacy of our hair, black women have collectively turned round and said, ‘Nah.’ We have shared our hair stories, our journeys through pain into acceptance and to pride. In doing so, we have built a powerful international community.”

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Head on over to for this book, as well as all of the others featured in my reviews, complete with the added bonuses of free worldwide shipping and bringing a little joy to my life.

No comments :

Post a Comment