Title: Don’t Touch My Hair
Author: Emma Dabiri
Pub Date: May 2nd 2019
My Rating: ★★★★☆
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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.
I never thought that hair could be such an interesting topic for a book. And that’s because I’m white and in my culture hair never played an important role. It’s just something that grows on your head, most of us have it, wash it, brush it, style it, but it doesn’t require special maintenance, it never causes public outrage, it is not political, it won’t impact your job prospects or how security looks at you in the airport. The only stereotype regarding hair that is prominent in my culture, is that blonds are dumb.
It was incredibly interesting to read about kinky hair, black hair. How it is different than my hair, and how important role it plays in the lives of black people. Emma Dabiri talks about her experience as a mixed race girl, with kinky hair, growing up in Ireland with a white mother who didn’t know how to care for her daughter’s hair. How she as a teen was traumatized by chemical hair straightening, how she longed to one day magically wake up with the ‘normal’ hair, the white hair. Everyone who was different than their peers will understand this magical thinking.
The author uses her personal experience to showcase the history of black hair. I especially like the chapters about the styles of black hairstyling, how all the styles that are popular now, are not new, they were created decades ago, but they did not age, they still pop and inspire. Dabiri brings also the history of some of the first black female entrepreneurs who became wealthy selling hair products for hair relaxing and straightening. On one hand, it is something to celebrate, but on the other, they made their wealth by promoting the white ideal of hair, they fall under the pressure the society was putting on them. The musings on the internalized pressure for one kind of hair, the one set beauty ideal are worth a read and helped me look at race issues from a different perspective.