I remember when I started ‘big school’ (primary school), my mum said ‘don’t let anyone touch your hair’. There were times when she was unable to canerow my hairs for school so a friend did it. On one occasion, I remember saying ‘thanks’ and I was told that you never say thanks when someone combs/styles your hair. It seemed odd but I never questioned the belief. When Emma Dabiri posted on Instagram that she was working a book entitled Don’t Touch My Hair, I knew it would resonate across the African diaspora for various reasons. Naturally I congratulated her on social media because it was several months before we would meet formally. Don’t Touch My Hair connects the dots for the African diaspora who have lost part of its history and heritage BUT it’s book that everyone should read.
Something about Emma
Although I’ve been following Emma Dabiri on social media for some years, we only meet at a brownbeauty event last year. Prior to that the first time I heard her speak, she was on a panel for Curlvolution 2014. Since then, I’ve tried to catch her programmes on tele. Now I acknowledge I must sound like a groupie and honestly I could listen to her speak all day. However, the point is Emma has put in the time: research, study and presenting scholarly work for years. It shows in the book she’s birthed.
In this powerful book 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.
You probably already know I’m going to say ‘I LOVED IT’! Yes, I am but here’s why, Don’t My Hair has explained so much to me. As part of the Afro Caribbean diaspora, I find that there’s a gaping hole in the reasons behind some of our beliefs and traditions. Now I get it! Many of my childhood memories are linked to hair rituals. Reading the book brought back fond memories.
While there is no doubt the level of scholarly work that was put into Don’t Touch My Hair, Emma has made it accessible. There are no ‘big words’. It’s not clinical. It’s personal. The tone is intimate, just imagine being in conversation with a good friend. It’s a confessional, because she also shares her hairstory with us. You feel the pain for little Emma who experienced racist abuse and celebrate the scholarly woman she has become. You’ll understand why it’s never just hair and why our hair is political based on the cultural and historical facts included.
If you see this book on the self, don’t be put off the command sentence. Know that Don’t Touch My hair is a celebration and thanks giving to Africa and its diaspora. If you want to know, if you want to understand, then read it. It’s a good read for anyone.
Don’t Touch My Hair is available on Amazon.
Many thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy.