Don’t Touch My Hair, by Emma Dabiri Allen Lane, 256 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241308349
“Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” began as a blog entry posted by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. She wrote it out of frustration with the failure of white people to “accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms” – the result of “living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it”. Between the publication of the blog and her multi-award-winning book of the same name in 2017, there has, she says, “been a renaissance of black critical thought and culture”. Recent discourse has opened up a broader understanding of structural racism and intersectional feminism, but Ireland – with its relatively recent experience of immigration – has a lot to catch up on; this makes Don’t Touch My Hair a timely and important read.
Emma Dabiri, born in the US of Irish and Nigerian parentage, was brought up in Dublin – one of very few black people visible in the country at that time. Her new book sets out to educate a readership coming late to multiracialism. African hair provides the spine of her wide-ranging study, which sweeps from pre-colonial Africa to the Harlem Renaissance and Black Power; from concepts of time to theories of mathematics; and delves into the problematic issues of cultural appropriation and black hair capitalism.
Everything you have been taught about Africa is a lie, a story designed to justify the continent’s exploitation. African classical sophistication is not acknowledged. African culture and its descendants are not lauded – rather they are dismissed as barbaric at worst, or ghetto at best. Meanwhile, we are taught that certain European art forms, often far less ancient yet far more dated, are what constitute the canon. Traditional African hairstyles are subject to this treatment.
The title of the book is taken from a hit-single on Solange Knowles’s Number 1 album A Seat at the Table, which is indicative of how hot a topic hair is in popular culture. Indeed hair – rather than skin colour – as the principal signifier of race has the power to confer classification as black or not, and is therefore highly politically charged.
Don’t Touch My Hair melds sociological and historical research with personal testimony; vernacular interjection sometimes creates an uneven narrative tone, but reminds the reader that they aren’t dealing with an academic text. Empathy is a persuasive rhetorical tool, and Dabiri’s uncharacteristically low-key reaction at reading “escaped slave notices” is sobering:
The realization that, regardless of any of my talents, abilities, personal hopes, dreams or ambitions, had I been born a mere century earlier, I might have been the property of another human being – well, that feeling has never really left me.
Stigmatised throughout her childhood by her hair texture as well as her skin tone, it was 2016 before Dabiri saw a realistic representation of her daily hair routine “performed on international television as though it were the most normal thing in the world. As though we were normal.” For those who were brought up in the predominantly monocultural Ireland of the late twentieth century it may come as a surprise to realise how thoroughly we take for granted strongly westernised notions of aesthetic respectability. “Default” hair is straight, or wavy at most, and the hairstyles we are accustomed to seeing on professional black women in the media are the result of labour-intensive treatments designed to reach this westernised level of acceptability. In Western Africa, hair is usually worn braided or moulded, styles which are frequently banned in schools and institutions in the West. The Afro itself, embraced by the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, is still regarded as a symbol of diasporic resistance.
The story of how “treatments” for taming black hair were developed by black entrepreneurs is a depressingly familiar capitalist narrative, and many of the issues raised in Don’t Touch My Hair are intersectional. Dabiri doesn’t go into much detail on men’s hairstyles, and the pressures on black women are seen as one facet of a potent and insidious neoliberal agenda which has hijacked and absorbed both the Black Power movement and the women’s movement. “Revolutionary symbolism emptied of all its revolutionary meaning is appropriated by companies whose social practice is about wealth accumulation,” she fumes, but her greatest ire is reserved for pop culture entrepreneurs: “The twisted power dynamics from which the products of black genius emerge simultaneously marginalize black life and create a commodity that Madonna, with the privilege of her racial position, is able to whitewash and capitalize on. Win!”
In Black and British: A Forgotten History, popular historian David Olusoga exposes lacunae in Britain’s version of its past, exploring how the vast industrial expansion of the nineteenth century was powered by American slavery. Dabiri emphasises “the true horror that America has been built upon”, and points out that though Ireland, as a colonised country, is not implicated in sugar plantations or slavery, its record as regards the treatment of black people is far from exemplary: slavery was not formally ended in the US until 1865; in 1863 Irish immigrants to the US “reacted against being drafted into the Civil War by attacking and lynching black people throughout the city [New York]”. In a globalised world there is no hiding from our collective past: “The fact remains that there is no other people on earth whose cultural production has the mass appeal of black culture yet is simultaneously derided while repackaged and claimed by everybody else.”
Don’t Touch My Hair provides much-needed context for current discussions around both race and gender. It is a hybrid creature, part memoir, part academic study, drawing on a diverse range of sources; while there are endnotes, it would be helpful if the publisher considered adding an index and bibliography to future editions.
Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie