In my role, I get emails from students about dissertations. One such student contacted me about how she was doing her dissertation on the political implications of Black hair on Black women / girls in education. Meeting this student in early February (I won’t name names), it really got me to think about the role of Black men in how Black women see themselves. Getting that message on Instagram showed me that even as a Black person, a man no less, I don’t have to think about myself in relation to my hair. That within the Black community there is a privilege.
Don’t Touch My Hair by SOAS academic Emma Dabiri had been on my list for a long old time but my meeting with this student showed me I needed to fast track my reading of this text. We talked about Black hair historically, including the famous State of California vs Angela Davis in 1970 where she was on trial for kidnap and murder. Her hair out in true Black Panther fashion; whilst the FBI wanted to put her on trial, she put the FBI on trial.
Black hair is personal to Black people, especially women who I found growing up and even today working at a university with many in the student body, made to feel that it is “a constant source of deep deep shame” as said by Dabiri in her book. Having spoken to a few of Northampton’s Black female students about this, much of the criticism of hair does not come from White people (though they are also culpable), it comes from Black men whose own standards of beauty can often be European. Straight hair and lighter skin over Afro coils and darker skin.
Mixed-Race, though racialised as Black, from a White Trinidadian mother and Black Nigerian father, Emma Dabiri has tightly-coiled hair. Through Don’t Touch My Hair, she takes us on a tour of race and society; history, Black politics and White power and how they all have elements tied up together. It’s in the colouring, incl. oral storytelling, colonialism (and decolonisation), popular culture and cosmology.
Even as a youth, as one who would become a Black man, my own hair was donned “wild” and “unruly” by those who dictated what beauty looked like. I did a degree where we read books that described Black people as savages. Before we get to hair, Black bodies were shunned and hated, in: art, literature, films… going back to works of cinema like Birth of Nation often said to be responsible for resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan.
“To be white is to be human; to be white is universal, I only know because I am not.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge
“Straightened. Stigmatised. Tamed. Celebrated. Erased. Managed. Appropriated. Forever misunderstood. Black hair is never just hair.” For some their hair is part of their identity, and Black hair is ladened with history, culture, and politics. It’s a link between now and then. Dabiri details why Black hair matters in a series of chapters, from pre-colonial Africa to today’s Natural Hair Movement, as well as the Cultural Appropriation Wars.
I grew up around Black women who found solidarity in their hair. Afro hair. Braids. Twists. Dreadlocks. It was a celebration of their blackness, as was choosing to have my own hair long at school, might I add all-White private schools. For me to have my hair then was a political statement. It wasn’t until I came to University where I was introduced to young women who wore weave and wigs. Prior to that I had a childhood surrounded by people who wore it natural in the tint of shea butter and ‘Black people time.’
I ventured with White poets that had braids and dreadlocks. On one hand, I believe how can a hairstyle belong to a people? In the way of the artist, I didn’t challenge it. Why does appropriation exist? Dabiri showed why it’s so important. On the other hand, I recognised that to appropriate something as your own without acknowledgement is to steal history. She shows us that Black hairstyling varies from pop culture and cosmology to prehistoric times, to Afrofuturism (with Noughts and Crosses) and the blackness of the panther, alongside networks leading enslaved Africans to freedom.
Through her relating to the Nigerian ancestry on her father’s side, as well as the histories and stories of Black people in the United States, Britain and Latin America, she explore the history of Black hair and how we have been conditioned to relate to it. Wild. Unruly. High maintenance. Colonialism has done a number on Black people and those racialised as Black, depriving a whole people of any positive beauty standards, including hair history.
Choosing to talk positively about Black hair and changing the often discriminatory language (in itself) could be perceived as an act of decolonising, and if we are serious about decolonisation, we must look at language as well
You can tell this text was written by an academic, and true to form her sources are diverse. It was heartbreaking on my degree to have sources and texts that were whitewashed as much as race, and nearly dominated by men. As far as academia is concerned, I feel seen in Don’t Touch My Hair. That it shows people that look like me writing in their field, tying back to lack of Black representation in higher education, especially Black women.
From oral history to whitewashed British history, she points out the lack of representation and recognition of Black people in history books, regardless of their achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths [STEM]. Today, we are challenging universities to decolonise but Black students are tired of seeing themselves as stereotypes. There are other images we need to see, not just the same old same old. If Black children could see themselves as more than stereotypes, perhaps by the time they reach university they might have more self-identity as Black Britons.
Whilst this text is from the female perspective, I felt that representation. As a Black person who spent five days of every seven as a child around White people who didn’t have a clue about race issues, especially hair… I engaged with this book from beginning to end. English private schools don’t sound too dissimilar to the ignorance and racism Dabiri encountered in Ireland.
As the only Black person at the schools I went to between the ages of eight and fourteen, many would find their hands wondering into my hair without consent. One of my favourite writers is Afua Hirsch. Like Emma Dabiri, Hirsch, also grew up mixed-race and wrote a book called Brit(ish) exploring her own identity, branching off into many subjects, including class.
Dabiri’s commentary on the “desire to conform” to a White “aesthetic which values lights skin and straight hair is the result of a propaganda campaign that last more than 500 years” is one I’m sure Black people everywhere relate to but will struggle to articulate. Coming through Britain’s private system, it’s one I struggled to avoid, as on more than one occasion my hair was compared to “wool” like I was Black in the war years, where they referred to “woolly-headed niggers” on British Army correspondence.
Emma Dabiri arrives at a time when the emerging generation of Black Britons are finding themselves lost in academia, writing dissertations on Black Britishness and seeing the deficit of texts that represent them – Don’t Touch My Hair is part of the revolution, and it defies gravity