Straightened. Stigmatised. 'Tamed'. Celebrated. Erased. Managed. Appropriated. Forever misunderstood. Black hair is never 'just hair'.
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.
Where was this book when I was suffering the heat of the hot comb and the sting of the relaxer? As a Nigerian, I thought I knew about afro hair. Then I read this book.
Don't Touch My Hair does what all my favourite non-fiction books do - it takes me on a journey with the most fascinating pitstops. In the process of learning about afro hair and the stigma attached to it as well as the history, culture and knowledge behind it, I was privy to some pretty eye-opening knowledge drops that made me question the things I hold as concrete. Such as the concept of time.
In general, African and black people have a chequered history with the concept of time, hence the term 'black people time'. But a closer look at our relationship with time brings you to question the established subservience to something that ... doesn't exist outside of the human imagination. The world around us operates in cycles, yet we operate in hours and seconds. I could go on, but the title of this book is Don't touch my hair, so I dare not digress too much.
Emma Dabiri weaves her childhood memories and experiences with her research to provide a richly layered tale of a people, their hair and their glorious history. Her writing is informative but never dull, and her laser-sharp analysis cuts through to the heart of the subject matter.
An eye-opening must read for people who think they know and for those who know they don't know.