mma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian model, broadcaster, TV presenter, academic, and author. Her book ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is as multifaceted as herself and the kind of non-fiction book that feels like a thoroughly researched PhD thesis and a conversation with your best friend at the same time.
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.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is part memoir, part history lesson, part rallying cry and part manifesto for positive change – not just in terms of attitudes of Black people towards their own hair, but also in terms of Black people’s general outlook on all facets of life – which, according to Dabiri, has been deeply affected by Eurocentric views and ideals (to their own detriment).
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is part memoir, part history lesson, part rallying cry and part manifesto.
The book is not ‘just’ about hair, it’s about the fundamental role(s) that hair has played and still plays – in history and in the present. Afro hair, especially that of Black women, has been and still is a battleground for politics, and debates around culture, race, and ownership. It is never just hair, and Dabiri makes this unequivocally clear. She explains how African women’s hair went from being admired by European ‘explorers’, to being used as one of the main weapons against Black women in Europe, its colonies, and beyond. She analyses with razor sharp wit and intelligence, the origins and reasons behind the pejorative vocabulary attached to Afro hair, the prevalence of its chemical and physical mutilation, and the impact of European beauty standards, colonialism, and imperialism on the scalps and strands of Black women and men.
African women’s hair went from being admired by European ‘explorers’, to being used as one of the main weapons against Black women in Europe, its colonies, and beyond.
I deeply appreciated Dabiri’s critical look at the many different aspects of Black history as well as the prominent figures within it – past and present. She brings a refreshingly uncompromising and unrelentingly radical view of the aforementioned history to the foreground, and she does so with just the right level of wit, knowledge, and unapologetic confidence. She critically examines the natural hair movement, for example, never losing focus of the pervasive influence of European beauty standards and ideals on it. She advocates for a restructuring and radical change of our collective view – and that of black people in particular, of beauty, societal and any other standards imposed on the world and its peoples.
It is never just hair, and Dabiri makes this unequivocally clear.
While the book can be a little disheartening at times, not because of anything but the fact that European hegemony has caused so much undeniable harm, it is also hopeful in its attempt to look towards the future. Dabiri demonstrates that, in spite of societal standards, she has found her voice and her ideals. She is no longer willing to let herself be defined by standards that were never meant for people who look like her, and she calls for everyone affected to join her and be part of that change.
In Akaninyene’s words, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is a statement, and as all statements go, it means different things to different people. It’s 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, the Afro will be acknowledged and will not be touched.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is a statement […]. It’s 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, the Afro will be acknowledged and will not be touched.