fter two or so months of fiction reading, I went back to non-fiction and it felt so good. I don’t know what it is about fiction that doesn’t quite do it for me. Maybe it’s the fact that I prefer stories that actually happened to stories that were made up, and I find fictional works (at least the ones I’ve read) a bit too experimental, escapist, and unreal. With the exception of works by Chigozie Obioma, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and Chinua Achebe, I find it quite hard to relate to fiction, and maybe that speaks for itself because the aforementioned authors are quite good at capturing the reality of the human experience within the societies they write about. I know that many people who read fiction do so because they want to escape from reality – but I digress. This August, I read 5 books – all non-fiction – and here are my thoughts on them.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Emma Dabiri: 4 stars
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ recounts the stories of African hairstyles from the past through the present. It explores the roles they played in pre-colonial African societies, the roles they played in Black liberation struggles (from slavery through the Black power era), and the contexts within which they are being used in the present day. Using a combination of her academic background and her lived experiences as a mixed-race woman, living in western Europe, Emma Dabiri examines how African hairstyles have evolved from the object of European fascination to one of the most complex signifiers that can be used to validate non-Black women, while at the same time, confirming the ‘ghetto’ and supposedly unrefined status of Black women.
This is a book that, in my opinion, was long overdue. It explores the historical, physical, political, and spiritual significance of African hair – especially that of Black women – and the hairstyles that adorn them. It leads with the premise that when it comes to African hair, it is never just hair. Although it relies quite heavily on the Yoruba and Black American experience, it is a good starting point for future researchers to build on in terms of exploring its relevance within other communities of African descent around the world.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is a celebration of a legacy that has been fought but not defeated. A homage to the pre-colonial Africans who created that legacy. A rallying cry of defiance to their descendants – the ones who carry that legacy. A reminder that though loved by some, and hated by others, African hair will be acknowledged and will not be touched.
‘Afropean’ by Johnny Pitts: 3 stars
‘Afropean’ was quite an interesting read. Because of its title, I expected a book about people who had a linear, physical, and cultural connection to both Africa and Europe. In effect, Black people who could relate to being African and European at the same time. What I ended up with, however, was a book that had a lot to do with Europe and very little to do with Africa – with the exception of a few historical figures, immigrants, and ‘corrupt leaders’. In this sense, it was far from what I expected it to be.
What I liked about the book was the fact that it dared to challenge the ideas of Black American exceptionalism, deconstructing, in the process, the myth of a monolithic Black experience and / or identity. If you’re into non-fiction and Black History, you’ll know that the Black American experience is arguably the most-represented narrative. So much so that it is considered by many to be the most authentic form of Black identity. That a book was written about the African diaspora, but not quite based on the Black American experience, is a triumph in its own right. If for nothing else, this makes ‘Afropean’ a book not to be ignored.
Far from a book about Africans living in Europe or one about people of African descent who are also of European descent, ‘Afropean’ is a book about Europeans – some of whom happen to be Black – and their interactions with each other in Europe. From Greek migrants in Stockholm to ANTIFA protests in Berlin. It’s a European-centred narrative with little to no African-centred thought. So, if you’re a person of African descent, who identifies strongly with Europe, this is a book you might want to read.
‘Black, Listed’ by Jeffrey Boakye: 4 stars
‘Black, Listed’ is probably the most comprehensive encyclopaedia of Black British descriptors / identifiers that I have ever read or even heard about. Not sure if that’s what the author intended it to be, but it definitely serves that purpose for me. It is a well written symphony of words that is part memoir and part crash course on Black British culture. In this book, Jeffrey Boakye addresses the labels that have, and in many cases, are still being used to describe Black people (some of whom also use these labels to describe themselves), how they can be weaponised by some to the detriment of others, and how they can be reclaimed and repurposed as a signifier of self-empowerment.
Don’t let the name deceive you. ‘Black, Listed’ is not a Black book. It is a book for everyone. It says the things that need to be said – the things that everyone really should know. Perhaps that is why it is written with so much tact that you don’t need to be Black to get it. Indeed, it explores Black British culture, but as has been demonstrated, there is a tendency for Black culture to creep into the mainstream and become everyone’s culture – in Britain as in America.
Reading ‘Black, Listed’ was a truly delightful experience – one that was full of entertainment, humour, but most importantly, learning outcomes. It is my personal opinion, that it should be read and re-read – by men and women, Black and white, young and old, at home and in schools.
‘Taking Up Space’ by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi: 4 stars
‘Taking Up Space’ is a book that I wish was available when I was a student at university. It draws from the real experiences of Black students, and contains much needed advice on how to prepare mentally for life at university but more importantly, how to navigate these institutions in spite of the roadblocks that may be encountered. Given the shortage of literary resources that focus on the experiences of Black women – especially Black British women – this is a highly recommended resource, especially for those aspiring to study at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.
One thing I love about this book is the fact that it doesn’t conflate the issues that Black people face with those that people of colour (or BME / BAME people) face. Nor does it conflate the issues faced by Black women with those faced by Black men. By and large it is a book that most Black people (and people of colour) who exist in predominantly white spaces should relate to, but it is a book that was written by and for Black women, and I love everything about that.
‘Taking up Space’ is not an entertaining read. If anything, it’s a painful one. With that being said, it’s an important read and I’m definitely happy that I got to read it. If I ever have a child, I’ll make sure they read this, and I’m sure that as a result, they’ll be better prepared for higher education than I was. In the meantime, however, this book stays where it belongs – taking up space – this time, on my shelf.
‘Stolen Girls’ by Wolfgang Bauer: 4 stars
‘Stolen Girls’ is a book that really puts into perspective how big of a country Nigeria is and how porous its borders are. Considering the fact that most of Nigeria’s commercial activities take place in the south of the country, and the fact that most people who visit the country end up in southern cities like Lagos, Calabar, and Port-Harcourt, one can be excused for assuming that Nigeria is a country at peace. Putting the ongoing crisis in the Northeast into context, however, this could not be further from the truth.
Drawing from the accounts of Boko-Haram survivors, Wolfgang Bauer recounts the horrible episode that culminated in over 270 young girls being abducted from the Northeastern town of Chibok, while at school. What’s more? He demonstrates from his own research – backed up by actual survivors – that the Chibok incident was but one piece of a complex multinational agenda that spanned over a decade and still continues to haunt the local population.
Knowing fully well that a lot of his readers may not be privy to the local context within which these attacks play out, Bauer interweaves the first person accounts of the women with well researched socio-political facts about the region and though this style of writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think it does a good job of serving the purpose for which it was used. My only concern about the book is the fact that some things may have been lost in translation, since the details were translated from Kanuri / Hausa to German and then to English, but that aside, this is a book about courage in the face of unrelenting terror and I’m glad I read it.