A thoughtful manifesto on the politics of hair
Memoir: Don't Touch My Hair
Penguin, hardback, 296 pages, €25.20
Emma Dabiri is no stranger to unwanted attention. The child of an Irish mother and Nigerian father, she grew up in Dublin feeling seen as "a poorly cobbled together approximation of an African", to quote from her new book. Nuns with missionary experience singled her out for particular attention, and one without introduction even pulled back her lips to inspect her mouth: "Your people have such beautiful teeth," Dabiri remembers being told.
But most of the scrutiny fell on her hair, which was stared at and touched with uncomfortable frequency. Dabiri rarely met anyone with hair like her own, and she tried everything from weaves and extensions to chemical straightening and curly perms in the hope of hiding its natural texture. Beauty, she realised from a young age, was judged according to a standard that excluded girls like her.
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Then, eventually, came an awakening: Afro-textured hair was not something she necessarily liked, but she realised she could only stay true to her politics by leaving it untreated. "As a grown woman, I did not know my own hair," she reflects. "I was not familiar with its natural appearance nor remotely in tune with its requirements."
In this memoir-cum-history, Dabiri places that lived experience within a story stretching back to the slave trade. Black women's bodies have for centuries been surveilled and controlled, and she sees the regulation of their hair as oppression cloaked only in more palatable terms. Black hair is considered still to be unruly and unprofessional, a notion affirmed as recently as 2016 by the US federal court ruling that employees could be fired for having dreadlocks, as Dabiri reminds us.
"Language that is now culturally unacceptable - the language of the colony or the plantation, the language once employed to describe black people - has not vanished," she writes. "It has simply shifted to head height."
The politics of black hair is by now a familiar discussion in Britain, but Dabiri, a London-based academic and broadcaster, maintains reservations about today's natural hair movement. She aligns herself with the 1960s radicals who steered clear of artificial treatment as a rejection of consumerism instead of product-peddling Instagrammers with brand inclusivity as their end goal. In this cultural moment, she stresses, "it can be easy to confuse representation with liberation. But speaking about pain is not the same as dismantling the power structures that create that pain".
Besides, as she points out, marketing targeted at black women continues to prioritise European beauty standards, promoting long, softly curly hair rather than hair like her own.
Dabiri writes vividly about growing up black in Ireland, remembering with sharp resentment the slights delivered by friends and strangers alike.
Colourfully described as well are her years at SOAS university in London, where her white classmates were of the "tea-drinking, poi-swinging, drum-playing, often dreadlocked variety": Dabiri has not much time for cultural appropriation, as you might guess. Heaps of theory are crammed in between these sort of reminiscences, but there's an uneven tone in some parts as the book shifts between the personal and political, with academic-sounding observations suddenly giving way to sharp, snappy, tweet-like burns.
Where Dabiri moves beyond much of the current conversation on black bodily autonomy is in her thinking about hair as a tool for decolonisation. The afro represents not only a diasporic rebuke of European aesthetic values, she argues, but also a reclamation of the time stolen from black people through colonialism. "The time it takes to do afro hair is, quite frankly, the time that is required to do it," as she puts it. Could African cultural norms provide a blueprint, then, for a better way of life? Thoughtful and deeply researched, Dabiri's manifesto makes a pretty convincing case.