I picked this book from my NetGalley pile as being one of the older books there and because I’m committed to reading books by authors of colour around my 20BooksofSummer project. As usual when reading a book on my Kindle, I started to highlight important or pertinent passages … then I realised I was highlighting the whole book! So what I will just say first is go and get and read this book. It’s fascinating, shocking and amusing, and is a very positive book while highlighting massive injustices and systemic abuses of power and cultural appropriation (it also has one of the best explanations of cultural appropriation I’ve read). So read my review, but do go and read the whole of this book, too. It’s important.

Emma Dabiri – “Don’t Touch My Hair”

(1 May 2019, NetGalley)

As a black Irish woman growing up in a monoculture and having to make trips over to England to have various chemical and hot treatments applied to hair that was always being described as ‘difficult’ at best, with some times in Atlanta, Georgia where she actually managed to find some other black girls to hang out with (and be rivals with, about hair), Dabiri grew up feeling an outsider, fair game for comments about her hair and even for people touching it. In this book, which is ostensibly about black women’s hair but which takes in history, culture, politics and mathematics, she explains the power systems that have controlled black women’s hair over the centuries and perceptions and definitions of what is ‘natural’, and celebrates the powerful legacy of the mathematically sophisticated elaborate classical African hair styles which have lasted unchanged for centuries.

Dabiri discusses various periods of black culture in the US, from the Harlem Renaissance through to Black Power, and also the black hair-care industry at length, which makes for fascinating but occasionally wincing reading, explaining the powerful characters who made their fortunes through trying to “help” women have “good hair” (defined throughout three or four centuries as straight or curly, shiny, effectively white people’s hair). She moves to a fascinating history of African hairstyles as arising from complex cultural analyses and messages and a way with mathematics that was celebrated by early explorers then exploited out of slaves until just the odd person became celebrated as some kind of naive genius. Her analysis of why discussions of colourism (the promotion of lighter-skinned people as more “attractive”) misses the definition of (unacceptable) blackness through hair texture is powerful and has made me look at media representations of black women in a new light, especially after being educated about the mixed-heritage women with “good” hair who have been presented to us on the TV as the outputs of two black parents.

She discusses white people’s, black women’s and black men’s attitudes to black women’s hair in separate sections, unpicking peer group and cultural pressure and then the double bind she faces herself that can never fully condone her actions however she presents herself. I found the stream of commentary she has attracted to be shocking, to be honest, and heart-breaking, although it’s refreshing and cheering to read how her own attitudes to her appearance have developed and matured, making her a great role model, I would think, for other women facing the same battles. She’s certainly a very engaging guide to the topics she presents and a great example of how to include the personal and the universal in a readable book that teaches so many lessons.

The book finishes with a call to embrace the fluidity and gentle entrepreneurship of traditional (classical) African culture, while recognising the achievements and sophistication of that culture, which has been lost under the weight of colonialist narratives of the savage they had to tame (much as they had to tame people’s hair). A great and worthwhile read that taught me a lot.

Thank you to Penguin for making this book available for me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

I’m currently reading books 1 and 2 in my 20BooksofSummer, so I’m spending some weeks in the 1950s on Tahiti in, well, “Tahiti” and birdwatching around (mainly) the UK in “Birdwatchingwatching”, both of which are proving highly readable.