Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri review – a voyage to empowerment

Combs, braids and Bob Marley’s bad-hair days are explored in this richly researched cultural history

When Rita Anderson’s teenage boyfriend Bob was growing up in Jamaica’s Trenchtown ghetto, the fair-skinned future Rasta reggae star was so concerned to demonstrate his black heredity that he would get Rita to rub black shoe polish into his hair – so that, she says, it appeared “blacker, coarser and more African”. But after reading Emma Dabiri’s richly researched book, you wonder which model of African hair Bob Marley had in mind. For Dabiri shows that Africans have always paid close attention to the grooming and careful styling of hair, and in Yoruba the phrase for “dreadlocks” is irun were, which translates as “insane person’s hair-do”.

Like Marley, Dabiri also has black and white parents, and has wrestled with her identity. As a child in Ireland, people volunteered opinions about her hair that made her feel ashamed and “like an abomination”. But her personal story merely serves in the book as a jumping off point for an exploration of many subjects, among them colourism and self-worth.

Dabiri, who is a teaching fellow at SOAS, argues that the “desire to conform” to a European “aesthetic which values light skin and straight hair is the result of a propaganda campaign that has lasted more than 500 years”. European powers saw African culture as an impediment to productivity. “Idle husbands”, fumed one colonial administrator, wasted hours setting their wives the task of “braiding and fettishing out their woolly hair”.

Bob Marley would get Rita to rub black shoe polish into his hair.
Bob Marley would get Rita to rub black shoe polish into his hair. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Dabiri records the external and internal pathologising of black hair. But she would also concur with my mum that some types of hair just need extra love otherwise “the hair run riot”. Many girls have been subjected, almost as a rite of passage, to the repeated straightening of “bad hair” with a copper comb heated to 65 degrees so that it more closely resembles an instrument of torture than a tool for beautification. In her youth Dabiri tried every hair-straightening chemical going, and in a memorable chapter shows how, after centuries of subjugation, the self-loathing that penetrated to the core of the black psyche did not exempt such stalwarts of Black Power as Eldridge Cleaver, who confessed his longing to touch a white woman’s “long, soft, silky hair”. Years later, Beyoncé hinted in her song “Sorry” about a partner’s betrayal with “Becky with the good hair”.

Around the time of the Black Power and Black Is Beautiful movements, the afro emerged as a symbol of resistance, of uncorrupted natural hair. But it was not a return to an African aesthetic, and, save for cynical advertisers’ co-option of Angela Davis as a fashion icon, is not much reflected on here. Dabiri avoids, too, an exploration of the power and peril of dreadlocks (so feared that vengeful police arresting Rastafari in Jamaica have been known to cut off their locks).

Angela Davis followed up her brilliant early academic career by joining the Black Panthers.
Angela Davis followed up her brilliant early academic career by joining the Black Panthers. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She is more focused on the rise of the natural hair movement, which has coincided with renewed interest in traditional African hairstyles “worn by our ancestors” that “still bang in 2018” – evident in Solange’s threaded braids worn in the video for her single “Don’t Touch My Hair”. Braiding never disappeared, not even on slave plantations. Dabiri aligns the cultural importance of hairstyles as carriers of the past with the Yoruba tradition of naming (oriki).

Dabiri often has a winning conversational style (“Whoa”, “win”, “lol”, “boom”), but as the book progresses so her writing heats up, and it reaches boiling point when she recalls how Kim Kardashian, sporting Fulani-inspired braids, credited Bo Derek (who wore cornrows in the 1979 film 10) as the inspiration.

The appropriation of black hairstyles behaves as a microcosm for the continued extraction of resources, both cultural and physical, from African people,” Dabiri laments. “Sometimes it can feel as though black people are not allowed to keep anything (except seasoned food).”

The strongest current running through her book is the charge against the propagandists at the height of Europe’s imperial aggression in Africa who claimed the continent lacked civilisation and “history”. She provides a rebuttal to this myth with a beguiling excavation of African fractals, architectural patterns that have been repeated over centuries not just in the shape of dwellings and the configuration of village huts but also in elaborate hairstyles. In the era of slavery, Dabiri writes, some hairstyles acted as signals and maps whose messages remained hidden from the slaveholders in plain view.

By the book’s end she comes full circle on her voyage to empowerment: she no longer wishes, as she did as a child, to wake up with straight hair. As the inspirational black leader Marcus Garvey said a century ago : “It’s time to take the kinks not out of your hair but out of your head.”

Don’t Touch My Hair is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Colin Grant

The GuardianTramp

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