Thursday, June 6, 2019

Book & Event Review | Don't Touch My Hair



One evening last month, I was sat in the basement of  Waterstones in London's Gower Street, having been invited to hear Emma Dabiri speak about her debut book, Don't Touch My Hair. I knew I was in for a treat having previously attended an event at the same venue (for the launch of Michelle Obama's Becoming).

On the evening of the event, a flustered me practically fell through the doors almost twenty minutes late.  But my fraught nerves were quickly soothed by a friendly host. The atmosphere was calm yet engaging. I was offered a glass of wine as I found a seat to settle in. 

I finally took my seat at the back of a packed out room and focused on two women sat on a makeshift stage right at the front; one was Ayishat Akanbi, who was hosting the discussion, and whose laidback yet quirky demeanour stood out to me. The second, Emma Dabiri looked regal and poised. One of the first things I noticed was her elaborate hairstyle - an intricate arrangement of cane rows and twists; her crowning glory. 



Like two girlfiends having a catch up, Ayishat and Emma were having a free flowing conversation about Don't Touch My Hair in front of an audience of maninly black women. (Yes, contrary to what y'all think, black women do support each other!) 

Emma opened up about the struggle of dealing with thick afro hair in a majority white community, instead of bouncy curly tresses like most girls of half black, half white heritage. She spoke about having a white Irish mother, who wasn't well versed in managing her type of hair; she recounted a childhood experience which opened her up to the revelation that her hair was a 'disappointment' . 


"My hair has been dissapointing people since birth."

The evening transitioned easily into a Q&A session which saw Emma speak on a succession of other topics which ranged from the way she chooses to educate her son about hair identity to how moving from Dublin to Atlanta transformd and moulded her perception about herself. What I was amazed by was Emma’s ease with expressing herself, breaking down highly emtiove sunjects with finesse. 
By the time the event was over, I just knew I had to read the book.



A month on, I'm yet to finish reading Don't Touch My Hair but yet I feel equipped to write this review. Several times this book has given me pause for thought. Its author, half Irish half Yoruba Emma Dabiri has already well explained how the passive hostility often deployed when describing afro textured hair impacts (or is impacted by) the way society sees our curly and coily tresses.  Have you ever thought about why black people's hair is often referred to as "wild", or "unprofessional", whilst its Caucasian counterpart is attributed to adjectives such as "long", "shiny" and "soft"?

The basis of this essay; where the book starts is with Emma's childhood experiences. From her skin down to her teeth, she was an anomaly in an all white society. Her features drew both positive and negative (mainly negative) attention. Emma was different. 
I think this is what solidifies much of Emma's research and her message; that central to the book is a very human story of a girl turned woman on winding journey to discover and reclaim her identity through self acceptance. We travel with her as she recounts experiences both in Atlanta, USA and London.

Despite the personal element, Emma is clearly an academic. Having studied and now teaching at SOAS, she has written Don't Touch My Hair very much like a thesis. My honest opinion is that you will have to like academic writing in order to keep up with her. The fun thing is that she throws in a bit of sass here and there as if to remind the reader of what's really up! 

The book is divided into chapters and further into sub headings to make it digestable. Her additional touch of personal and archived photos helps Emma with her explanations.

"The world around us fuels a powerful narrative about femininity. From fairy tales to advertisements, movies and music videos, our icons tend to be lusciouslylocked. For girls and women, femininity is intricately bound up in hair" 

I can't begin to tell you the breadth of new knowledge I have acquired from Don't Touch My Hair.  Emma's research is extensive. From the history of African hair styling to the probelmatic advertising of Shea Moisture, Emma covers all. She brings new theories to the fore, presenting ideologies such as hair being a signofcant marker of one's race, more than skin colour even. 

Don't Touch My Hair is a fascinating walk through Emma's life and her evolving relationship with her hair. It's a great defence of African spirituality, its history and culture. It's a rally cry, a call to action for all black women to love who they are!

Let's have a conversation. What is your relationship like with your hair?

Buy Don't Touch My Hair here. 
(Many thanks to Penguin and Gower Street Waterstones)

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6 comments

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  2. I would really love to read this book. I find the debate around hair quite interesting and it'll be great to see how far the research goes. Generally, I don't feel so strongly about it - probably because I live in Nigeria. I don't mean to shamelessly plug an article, but I did write to some extent about my feelings about hair and the debate around it. Here it is, when you have some time - http://www.travelwithapen.com/can-i-touch-your-hair/

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